How does dust from central Africa end up in the Amazon, or in air filters in Maryland? The scientists at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center know. Their Scientific Visualization Studio recently worked with Bluecadet on “Data Lens,” an interactive experience that helps visitors understand Earth’s complex and interconnected systems.
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., is an important hub for space—and Earth scientists, technologists and engineers—in addition to being the operational home for more than 50 satellites and spacecraft, which relay data back to the center. As with all of NASA’s offices, Goddard is also home to a visitor center, open to the public, that functions as a bridge between the institution and the public, explaining the exciting work done onsite that focuses on Earth science, astrophysics, heliophysics, planetary science, engineering, communications and technology.
In the spring of 2016, Goddard engaged exhibit design firm RGI Creative to work on reinventing the Earth science portion of its visitor center. NASA wanted a “wow moment,” but wasn’t exactly sure what that could be. After discussing the project's scope with Kristin Metropoulos, project manager of the NASA Goddard visitor center, RGI reached out to Bluecadet to help create a digital experience for visitors.
Bluecadet’s charge was to tie the whole exhibit together with a show-stopping interactive experience. Bluecadet applied eight personnel in coordination with RGI and NASA staff, including a science writer, a public science liaison and Video and Multimedia Producer Matthew Radcliff.
Radcliff helped curate a group of visualizations created by NASA’s dedicated Scientific Visualization Studio at Goddard, which “works closely with scientists in the creation of visualizations, animations and images in order to promote a greater understanding of Earth and Space Science research activities at NASA and within the academic research community supported by NASA,” according to its mission statement.
The media studio works on information collected by satellites over the course of months, synthesizing it with data from other sources and consulting with NASA scientists to create a visualization communicating the findings and their relevance in a manner that a layperson can understand. Many of the visualizations are featured in web videos—some with voiceover, some with illustrations or animations to help with interpretation.
Since their goal was to help the average visitor (read: non-scientist) understand how the different natural systems NASA studies are all connected and how these systems impact their everyday lives, the NASA and RGI teams dubbed the concept for the exhibition “Neighborhood Earth.”
The process was collaborative between the three teams, as they distilled Neighborhood Earth into air, water and life—or the atmosphere, the hydrosphere and the biosphere—and determined the roles of each in the exhibit.
Bluecadet worked directly with the NASA group by collectively sketching and prototyping during the strategic discovery phase. The collective team worked through several iterations before they arrived at the “Data Lens” concept. They concluded that this combination of several earlier ideas would work within exhibit guidelines, budget, timeline and most importantly could provide a “wow moment.”
Weekly calls were a staple of the 11-month-long collaborative process between the three teams, which often focused on determining the narrative and the accompanying content. Due to the massive amount of data available, they needed to develop a framework and rules for the content for Data Lens. The framework was based on a main story for air, water and life, consisting of three main plot points for each, with additional smaller—yet related—points along the way and opportunities for crossover.
For example, in the air story, Africa is the starting point: Dust is picked up in landlocked Chad, where huge dust storms lift particles into the atmosphere, where they are then carried across the Atlantic Ocean and dropped into the Amazon rainforest. The nutrient-rich chemical makeup of the dust happens to be the perfect sustenance to plant life in the Amazon, supporting the entire food chain there. “Life in the Amazon is also dependent on heavy rain, so already you can see the connections and interactions happening between the lenses,” explains Peter Hall, a senior producer at Bluecadet.
The Saharan dust has also been found in the air vents at Goddard. “The realization that dust from a far away land could be in your backyard is so cool—and that is a key part of the Data Lens experience,” says Hall.
Unsure of exactly how Data Lens would function, the client asked—and Bluecadet presented—diagrams and motion studies that made the image of the final product clear. However, the mountain of content wasn’t as straightforward and required more refining.
Logging and editing were critical to the effort, as the Bluecadet team sifted through fascinating factoids and gorgeous visuals, some of which simply didn’t fit the narrative framework. “The NASA team was really wonderful through the daily back-and-forth,” reports Hall. “We ended up using a lot of spreadsheets.”
One of the references the Bluecadet team returned to was a tour of the Goddard facility that included spending time in the “hyperwall room,” a room with floor-to-ceiling screens, where they were shown data models, animations and videos, with running commentary by a NASA scientist.
“It was fascinating to view these visuals with their significance as explained by NASA staff,” recalls Hall. “We kept going back to that experience because our solution needed to function as the scientist—explaining and helping people understand the imagery and the context.”
The Bluecadet team created the user interface both through sketching and explorations in code, all while performing user testing throughout the process. Data Lens runs on custom software, which the team was simultaneously testing and designing, continually prototyping and probing the limitations of the hardware.
The Bluecadet team brought groups of children and adults into their studio, both facilitating the experience and allowing free-form exploration with the goal of users being able to implicitly and explicitly learn from the experience. Hall says performing extensive user testing accounts for variations and complications that occur with the shared activity of multi-user interactives, like groups of school children all slapping the screen at once.
The process was crucial to the project, proving the team’s assumptions both right and wrong, and paving the way for greater clarity in the design of features. Sometimes, the solution was as simple as adding arrows to alert users to further content, says Hall.
The project came with inherent challenges—the most intimidating being finding the proper vehicle for presenting the data, while making it accessible, fun and interesting to the average person, yet true to the science. The approach required a dual focus on storytelling and technological deployment.
A cohesive look for the data models was important as well. The Bluecadet team often made requests of Radcliff for filters, overlays and other tweaks to the visuals to make them fit with the interface. The team members worked with RGI, NASA science writer Kate Ramsayer and scientists to guide their perceptions of what the public would find interesting.
The combined collaboration was critical in reaching an understanding between scientific and non-scientific ways of thinking about the data—and Hall says it was fun, too. The team took certain aspects of the project very seriously, though. They took special care to ensure that entire experience went above and beyond ADA compliance for wheelchair users and vision-impaired guests.
Data Lens is a key element of the exhibition within the visitor center, housed within a single 86-inch Planar IR touchscreen. Built using Cinder, Data Lens runs off of a very robust custom PC with a graphics card suited to handle playing multiple 4K videos in combination with animations and registering touches. Through layering of multiple data-feeds and 4K video, the interactive takes what might otherwise be daunting scientific data and extracts a compelling story showcasing the interconnections between Earth’s systems.
The multi-user experience presents the three main narratives using virtual lenses that look much like magnifying lenses of sorts over a large map. Users can drag their lens over content hotspots to discover facts and uncover visualizations and combine their lens with another user’s for an expanded view.
For example, combining air and water lenses would give facts on the connections between the two systems. The collaborative aspect advances the dynamism of Data Lens as an educational tool that conveys the magnitude of NASA’s work. The experience is designed for one to 10-minutes of use, allowing visitors to take a brief overview or deep dive into the content.
Goddard staff report very positive responses to Data Lens. Metropoulos even referred to it as the “star” of the exhibit. Visitors and NASA staff alike have been enjoying the interaction.
The project was the first of its kind for Goddard and has been significant for Bluecadet as well, as they reported learning a tremendous amount about how the public interprets and engages with data visualization from the process. They were also excited to collaborate with NASA. “I’m proud to have worked on this project,” remarks Hall. “We created a system that makes incredibly complicated data beautiful and understandable, empowering non-scientific users to see the world in a new way.”
Project Name: Data Lens
Client: NASA Goddard Flight Center
Location: Greenbelt, Md.
Open Date: June, 2017
Project Area: 625 sq ft
Fabrication: RGI, Inc.
Exhibition Design: RGI Creative
Interactive Experience Design: Bluecadet
Collaborators: NASA's Scientific Visualization Studio