Most virtual worlds show us the terrestrial view of things, but a recent collaboration between the University of British Columbia (UBC) Fisheries Centre and a team of students from the Masters of Digital Media (MDM) Program of Great Northern Way Campus in Vancouver created a virtual underwater view of the Gulf of Mexico.
It's the first phase in a project to create 3D models of marine ecosystems all over the world and use them in a series of Ocean Summits; real time, player controlled scenarios that will show the impact of policy decisions on the world's fisheries.
The project is also developing new ways of visualizing scientific information, using the Blender game engine to display scientific data.
It's all part of an effort to provide a new computer-based awareness tool for fisheries stakeholders who will meet in the UBC Fisheries Centre Scenario Lab, a specially designed room and testing ground for finding sustainable solutions in a cooperative game environment.
For the MDM students, this project provided a unique opportunity to collaborate with experts at the Fisheries Centre, using professional tools in project management, 3D modeling, and programming. The expectations were at a professional level, as well -- deliverables, scope, communication, and of course, on time, on budget, performance.
State of the Oceans
It's no secret in scientific circles that the world's oceans and what's left of the fish in them, are in crisis.
A daunting list of problems -- over-harvesting, habitat destruction (much of which is from bottom trawling), invasive species, pollution, and climate change -- is most affecting the 10 to 15 percent of the oceans where today's most important fishing grounds are concentrated. Add in the current spike in fuel costs and it's easy to see why intelligent policy decisions will make all the difference to a sustainable future for our ocean resources.
Collaborative Data Visualization
Good decisions rely on having a clear picture of what's actually happening in the world's oceans, and the scientists at the Fisheries Centre realized that the ways they communicate with each other -- in the form of complex graphs and statistical tables -- didn't always translate into information that public officials or managerial people found pertinent. The challenge was to visualize their data, collected over the last 50 years, in a way that non-scientists could understand and use to determine marine resource policies.
The solution is data visualization. After many iterations, a team of students in the Masters of Digital Media Program at Great Northern Way Campus has built a proof of concept prototype which will allow the Fisheries Centre to display eight species of fish native to the Gulf of Mexico, with the numbers of fish on screen responding to the output of the EcoPath software. This data drives a dynamic 3D environment, which can instantaneously represent impacts on fish populations based on "what if" scenarios. Instead of committing decisions which may not result in the desired outcomes, policymakers can test different approaches to fisheries management and actually see the results first hand.
The Centre believes that, backed by the best available science, this kind of interactive process can be powerful and effective in creating more than a merely analytical response and will encourage Ocean Summits participants to adopt new options for fisheries management.
EcoPath with EcoSim (EwE)
The visualization layer we created receives output from EcoPath with EcoSim (EwE) software that has revolutionized scientists' ability worldwide to understand complex marine ecosystems. Primarily developed at the Fisheries Centre over the past 20 years, it is used by more than 6,000 scientists and researchers in 155 countries and provides important information to governments, commercial fisheries, coastal communities, NGOs and consumers. EcoPath incorporates foraging arena theory, and using global databases on fish stocks to directly parameterize the model, can reproduce the known history of many marine ecosystems.
The Scenario Lab
The Scenario Lab at the Fisheries Centre on the UBC campus, is a unique facility, designed to encourage communication and collaboration. Five huge plasma screens line the walls surrounding a custom-made table in the shape of a super ellipse. A mathematically determined compromise between a circle and a rectangle, it's a shape that encourages cooperation, not an "us and them" approach. The table is equipped with 10 built-in workstations that can display data and visualizations in any number of configurations, controlled by the participants.
Plugging into the Ocean
The data visualization, which the MDM student team developed, uses video game technology as a basis for the platform; we believe we are among the first team to implement a scientific data visualization which relies on a video game engine for its backbone. Discussions with the Fisheries Centre led us to adopting Blender as the engine we used, because it is both open source and free.