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Center for Advanced Modeling and Simulation Intern

To escape the holiday chaos, many folks found refuge in caves – dark places with sticky floors, lumpy seating and Jeff Bridges playing scenes against a computer-enhanced younger version of himself . . . at least if they saw the new Tron movie released last month.

Yet researchers at Idaho National Laboratory (INL) and the Center for Advanced Energy Studies spent time in a cave even cooler than one occupied by the two Jeff Bridges. Specifically, they set up a new 3-D Computer-Assisted Virtual Environment – yes, a “CAVE” – which allows them to literally walk into their data and look at it from multiple perspectives.

As described previously in an Energy Blog Geek-Up, the CAVE itself consists of three white walls and a white floor. Projectors, mounted behind the walls and on the ceiling, are then manipulated by researchers using 3-D goggles and a handheld controller. Immersed within that CAVE, they’re able to study everything from the rugged features of Idaho’s Malad Gorge (using data from the “laser radar” known as LiDAR) in enough detail to virtually rappel down its cliffs to the inside of INL’s Advanced Test Reactor, which supports basic and applied nuclear research and development, to the active sites of proteins.

This might not seem as cool as a killer disk or a light cycle, but the applications may be a bit more useful. For instance, knowing the detailed topography of the Malad Gorge gives clues to the nature of below-ground terrain in the area -- the kind of insights into subterraneous landscapes sought by scientists investigating the potential for possible underground storage of carbon dioxide emitted by fossil fuels. Seeing exactly how pipes fit (or don’t fit) together in an un-built building may save scraped knuckles and serious dollars from rerouting or rebuilding. And understanding the exact architecture of proteins may assist scientists in seeing how the structures work or why they don’t, providing the clues to disease that might one day produce cures.

Admittedly, as Jeff Bridges’ Kevin Flynn said in the original Tron, “On the other side of the screen, it all looks so easy.” And even advanced images are not real-world results. But stepping back – or virtually into – problems and taking them on from a variety of perspectives and angles can offer new ideas and new solutions.

As Patrick O’Leary, the director of INL’s Center for Advanced Modeling and Simulation noted of CAVE, “Researchers can see their data. They can touch and feel it. It allows them to use more of their senses. It’s a much more natural way of analyzing data and information.”

It might also be a much more natural way to watch an NFL playoff game . . . or watch a movie (say Tron) . . . but for that you’d need a pretty advanced human cave.

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