#165: Using VR for distributed pattern recognition for exoplanet discovery

Rob-SwattonAt the time of this interview, Rob Swatton was the Research & Development Manager at Earth & Sky Ltd, which is an New Zealand-based astronomy organization. They do public outreach and education at Earth & Sky as well as scientific research into discovering exoplanets through a technique called microlensing.

In his R&D role, Rob was brainstorming different ways that virtual reality could be used in helping the visitors get a better understanding of our universe, but also potentially help with the process of discovering new exoplanets through distributed pattern recognition like SETI@home, but with people’s brains.

He sees that VR could help us visualization processes that happen on a grand time scale that span billions of years. There are visualizations of scale, distance, and time that transcend our metaphors and abilities to describe to people. Most of these visualizations are either really esoteric or rely upon complex mathematical models that are difficult for the public to fully comprehend. Rob speculates that perhaps VR could help show the process of a galaxy forming, how a nebula creates new stars, or what a black hole would look like. It’d be like a timelapse visualization that spans over billions of years.

Rob also imagines that some of the VR experiences would benefit from having an interactive guide to help explain difficult concepts. A visitor would be able to see a concept within VR, but also have an expert on hand to be able to ask questions about it as the experience unfolded.

One of the more speculative ideas that Rob had was thinking about how VR could make the process of exoplanet discovery more interactive with crowd-sourced pattern recognition tasks that people could do at home. He would imagine something along the lines of what SETI@home is doing with distributed cloud computing, but doing it with people’s brains.

They would likely have to do some type of filtering or symbolic translation of the raw data to be able to have the public understand the concepts and what they’re looking for. So it’d be a balance between making it accessible to more people to understand conceptually versus maintaining the integrity of the data.

There’s a lot of unanswered questions for how something like this would actually play out and be implemented in practice, but it’s an interesting idea to be able to crowd-source pattern recognition in order to help with different scientific research endeavors. One example of where this is already happening is with the Fold It game, which has been able to gamify the process of protein folding while at the same time allow people to contribute to scientific research.

Rob says that you wouldn’t necessarily need VR in order to search for the data analysis and number crunching within the raw data of how gravitational effects bends light in this microlensing process for exoplanet discovery. But it’s something where VR could just make the process more compelling to participate in.

Learn more about some of the ideas for how VR could be applied for education and scientific research by listening to this interview with Rob.

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