When Typhoon Haiyan approached the Philippines in November, meteorologists at the National Weather Service were able to display satellite images of the super storm on a 68-inch sphere showing the world's current weather conditions.
"It is almost like you are an astronaut looking down on the Earth," said Louisa Koch, director of education at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
NOAA, home of the National Weather Service, developed the 3D Science on a Sphere to enable researchers, meteorologists, and educators to display near-real-time and historical environmental data in an accurate format, without the distortion produced by a flat, 2D display. Conceived in 1994, created in 2002, and patented in 2005, there are now 100 of the networked and computer-directed display systems installed in NOAA facilities and in schools, museums, and zoos in 15 countries, 27 US states, the District of Columbia, and American Samoa.
The networked systems can draw from an online catalogue of hundreds of sets of terrestrial, lunar, and other planetary data rendered for spherical display, as well as feeds of radar and satellite data being used by NWS forecasters.
"The data is almost live," Koch told us. "NOAA is the home of real-time data, and it is available to any Science on a Sphere anywhere in the world," as well as to other consumers of climate and weather data.
Science on a Sphere is the brainchild of Alexander "Sandy" MacDonald, director of NOAA's Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colo., who wanted a way to more accurately display data. He created a prototype using a beach ball and two projectors in his garage, and turned over the job of developing software to a graphics team at NOAA's Forecast Systems Laboratory.
The original program, written in C++, was just 100,000 lines of code and has been updated over the years to include advances in computing power and projection technology. The latest version uses an iPad tablet with a WiFi connection as a remote controller in place of a Nintendo Wii controller with Bluetooth.
In addition to the custom, 68-inch, white carbon-fiber sphere, recommended hardware includes two Dell T3600 workstations -- one operational and one as backup -- to handle image processing and control the projectors, along with two additional Nvidia GeForce GTX 650 Ti video cards with 1G of RAM for each computer. The code will support any number of projectors, but the recommended configuration is four high-quality, bright, long-duty-cycle digital projectors.
Total estimated cost of the off-the-shelf hardware is about $45,000, and the custom sphere, software, and installation can add another $100,000 or more, as every installation is unique. NOAA does the setup and provides three years of support.
The projectors are synchronized and positioned to produce a 72-dot-per-inch resolution on the sphere, and the workstation formats the projected image for display on the spherical surface without distortion.
"It's very easy to render global datasets for the sphere," Koch said, letting schools, museums, and research institutions contribute their own content.
Image credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.