Two neurosurgeons from different sides of the country meet to consult on an MRI scan of a brain. One holds the brain up to the other and then expands it to examine a specific section, slicing out a specific area. The other takes the slice and shrinks it to its original size and offers an opinion. Maybe, just for kicks, the entire interaction takes place in outer space.
Such a scenario is not far in the offing as a result of a new Santa Fe startup, SciVista, which is developing a collaborative virtual reality platform for data visualization.
OK, no one at SciVista actually suggested placing the neurosurgeons in outer space for the consult—that's my own particular spin. I did have the chance to see the three-dimensional brain and hold it (and then promptly drop it) on a recent visit to SciVista's office at the Santa Fe Business Incubator. But the outer-space motif was for another visualization the company let me demo, which involved a more complicated fusion reactor, if memory serves—I still haven't mastered taking notes while wearing a VR headset, I'm afraid.
SciVista is a spinoff from Woodruff Scientific, a 13-year-old research and development company that specializes in pulsed power, plasma physics and fusion energy sciences. SciVista President Simon Woodruff, who relocated his company to Santa Fe from Seattle last year, says that while SciVista is one of a few spinoffs from Woodruff Scientific, it's the one developing the most rapidly. It has received both a federal Small Business Innovation Research grant, as well as a New Mexico Small Business Innovation research grant, and has significant interest from a variety of parties.
SciVista is currently working with a host of universities and public laboratories as alpha testers, including Los Alamos, Oak Ridge and Lawrence Livermore Berkeley laboratories, where Woodruff—a physicist—did his post-doc.
The project began to address the challenge of distance collaboration for complex data sets using traditional means such as Skype or Zoom. Thomas Meyer, the company's VR developer, brought in an Oculus Rift headset and imported some data sets into a virtual setting.
"So not only could you go into that environment but you could get other people there with you," Woodruff says. "You're in a three-dimensional space with a three-dimensional data set, you could pick it up, move it around, go up to the person next to you and actually point at the features you're interested in. As a means for really opening the communication and ability to share the intuition you're deriving from the dataset and the meaning you're deriving from the data set—this really captured our imaginations."
It captured data scientists' imaginations as well, along with the heads of the visualization technology company Kitware. Since the awarding of the SDRI grant last spring, the work on SciVista has proceeded at a clip with six employees and an expectation of hiring more in the new year.
In the world of data, many folks are thinking about how to work in virtual and augmented reality spaces. SciVista's focus is on the scientific applications. The program is built with the game engine Unity, and primarily has been using the Oculus Rift and Vive, though Woodruff says the company "is looking at other technologies in the near future with more than double the resolution, so when you're immersed in this environment, it feels real and has a wider field of view."
SciVista's primary tool, though, is Cori, the 12th-fastest super computer on the planet, based at Lawrence Berkeley, from which the company gets "these enormous data sets that we process, post-process and visualize."
As SciVista has the potential to make distance collaborations more effective, it potentially could mitigate travel costs, which Woodruff says is a concern for government entities. But the ability to bring two-dimensional visualizations into a three-dimensional environment also makes for a better presentation of the data, not just for scientists, but for "decision makers who may not have a sense of scale or really understand what the data is in a 2-D plot, but if they see it in context they'll understand it better," Woodruff says.
SciVista would be useful for scientists across technical fields, he says. "Principally anyone running these big codes who wants to visualize their enormous data sets."
For his part, Woodruff has found his new home of Santa Fe a good fit for his combination of scientific prowess and entrepreneurial spirit. “The incubator has been a complete blessing,” he says. “The startup and the small business community is incredibly supportive. I see many people trying to do similar things in Northern new Mexico, and there is a collaborative environment.”