Spatial Recognition

SFCC’s new installation visualizes the data and stories of the evolving world

As a child, I assumed when I grew up I would have daily access to a Holodeck so I could visit any place I imagined, a replicator to manifest endless desserts and a friendly android to do my bidding (yes, I watched too much Star Trek).

Somewhere between the cyborg Republican assassin in The Terminator circa 1984, the enslaving artificial intelligence in The Matrix circa 1999 and the Russian automation election bots circa right now, my unbridled enthusiasm for future technologies became tinged with what I like to call my Still Excited but Also Reasonably Cautious Post-Humanism Outlook (rolls off the tongue, right?).

Which is why the Oct. 24 event at Santa Fe Community College's Trades and Advanced Technology Center was a welcome respite from the dystopian ambiance permeating these final Demodog-days of 2017. The event unveiled SFCC's new Science on a Sphere installation. SOS is an educational tool developed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In short, it allows for the projection of visualized data onto a six-foot sphere, creating a three-dimensional viewing experience combined with human narration of the stories behind the numbers and images. SFCC is the only New Mexico institution with SOS; there are more than 140 others housed at museums, schools and other institutions around the world.

SFCC paired its SOS reveal with a farewell tribute to the college's outgoing president, Randy Grissom, who led the charge to establish the Trades and Advanced Technology Center. The building itself emits a sense of future optimism: Posters promoting careers in sustainable careers line the walls and, during my visit, all-electric vehicles from Austin Electric were parked outside—the vehicles will be on campus for a month through a partnership with the company.

After attendees checked out the electric vehicles (in some cases, posing for photos with them) and Grissom was feted, small groups followed guides into a darkened auditorium for a series of SOS presentations.

I hustled into the first one, led by Chief Information Officer Jeremy Lovato. Lovato demonstrated several examples of how SOS can be used, showing my group images ranging from X-ray images of the sun to drone footage of the disaster Hurricane Maria wrought in Puerto Rico. Every Monday, Lovato explained, new data from various organizations automatically uploads to the SOS server.

The school has ambitious plans for SOS, according to Leonard Gannes, chairman of SFCC's Science Department. "It's a great tool," he says, "and anything we can do to make the subjects we're talking about real and connected with students' lives is really important."

Use of SOS, Gannes says, won't be limited to the SFCC students, or even to the science curriculum. Anyone can browse the online data and create "playlists they can use with their students." For example, a nursing faculty member will be using it for global health instruction. The sphere also doesn't require data-driven visualizations, but can wrap any image for a more holographic interactive experience—SFCC's film department is already at work on an animation for the sphere.

On the evening of the unveiling, Gannes points out, each presenter tailored his presentation toward particular interests: Technologist Lovato's included a dataset showing worldwide Facebook use; Ed Barker, who chaired the SOS advisory, has a background with NASA "and the datasets he's most excited about are the ones that involve other planets and programs he was involved with." Biologist Gannes is "the most excited about the biological datasets."

The future challenge will be—wait for it—money. The SFCC Community Foundation led the fundraising for the approximate $200,000 needed to secure the installation. Currently, SFCC lacks the budget to hire a coordinator—student workers are handling visit and use requests (call 428-1331). Moreover, Gannes says, some schools lack funding for field trips. SFCC also hasn't had the resources to make its planetarium open for public presentations for several years, but Gannes envisions combining the planetarium and Science on a Sphere for combined field trips.

"We don't have the bodies to do that, and we don't have the things yet we need to make that happen, but these are things we're thinking of in the future. … We have a lot of big hopes and a lot of big plans," Gannes says. "It's hard to explain what it is; people really need to come see it. Once they do, there's a real wow factor."

I agree. Also: Educational field trips for students shouldn't be a pipe dream. Here's hoping the project receives the funding and support it deserves.

View hundreds of online datasets for Science on a Sphere from a variety of government, educational and other institutions at (URL is case-sensitive).

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