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By Madeleine Clarke 13 January 2023 3 min read

Our world’s oceans are teeming with life and data. It's easy for scientists who study the ocean to become lost in a sea of endless numbers and graphs. It's harder to find meaningful connections and patterns while drowning in data.

This is because the ocean is an infinitely complex, gigantic and multidimensional volume with length, width, and depth. It's also important to consider that the ocean's properties change by the second. Therefore, we now add an extra dimension into the mix: time.

Currently, properties of these four dimensions like temperature, salinity, velocity and sea level are largely mapped on flat two dimensional (2D) plots. Because of this, studying them requires a lot of mental gymnastics. As a result, our gymnasts (scientists) translate pages upon pages of graphs into dynamic, multidimensional meanings in their heads.

We think there's a better way.

Meet Ocean Explorer

Design Thinking expert Viveka Weiley with an early version of the Ocean Explorer prototype.

Through a program called Reinvent Science, we’re prototyping tools to allow our scientists to dive with ease into multidimensional data.

Our Senior Software Engineer Emma Krantz[Link will open in a new window] and her colleagues are working on two versions of a tool called Ocean Explorer.

This tool aims to bring a greater resolution to the study of dynamic ocean variables, which will help to reduce the barriers between scientists and their data.

“What we’re trying to do is move from data visualisations, which are the equivalent of 2D CT scans, to something like an MRI of the ocean," Emma said.

Ocean Explorer will work across two main versions. First, an immersive experience where researchers zoom, rotate, colour-code, and slice-and-dice an ocean volume. They will do this by wearing a virtual reality (VR) headset with augmented reality. With the headset on, users can submerge themselves beneath the ocean surface, exploring currents and other wonders in 4D.

Second: a web-based Ocean Explorer. This version allows researchers to manipulate high-quality data visualisations from a desktop computer.

By visualising ocean variables in augmented reality, we hope to bring our researchers closer to their data and closer to discovery.

Our science steering the ship

Physical oceanographer Ming Feng[Link will open in a new window] is the Science Lead for Ocean Explorer. He works to translate the science to the development team and ensure the tools will be useful and usable.

"Data in oceanography is often a bit opaque. To be able to quickly scan through ocean model data or observational data in 3D or 4D views would allow us to easily detect hidden signals," Ming said.

"As many oceanography questions are multi-disciplinary, this tool could also help us to formulate a working hypothesis and eventually, with further development, evaluate model performances to address these questions.

"The tool will also be useful in communicating complex science with stakeholders and the general public."

Floating ideas and grounding them in reality

Senior Engineer Emma Krantz and Design Thinking expert Viveka Weiley workshop an early version of the Ocean Explorer prototype.

The vision that inspired Ocean Explorer came from our researchers Beth Fulton and Peter Dobrohotoff. They imagined a world where they could feel their data and interact with it using more of their primary senses.

Our software engineers, designers, scientific computing experts, and product managers are currently working backwards from a transformative dream like this and taking realistic steps towards it. The aim: To get future technologies into the hands of our scientists today.

The current version of the tool is designed to visualise the BRAN2020 dataset, a key output of the Bluelink partnership[Link will open in a new window] between the Australian Department of Defence, Bureau of Meteorology and us. It provides realistic estimates of whole ocean attributes, based on a scientific model.

Recently, Ocean Explorer was demonstrated at SIGGRAPH Asia 2022 alongside global pioneers of computer graphics and emerging technology.

Program lead Viveka Weiley[Link will open in a new window] said the team is exploring how the tool could benefit other scientific domains.

"We’re beginning to see a path to solutions that can open up scientific fields to more people and create more opportunities to cross disciplinary boundaries," Viveka said.

"And as we look into scaling Ocean Explorer beyond the current prototype, there’s potential for applications in other fields from atmospheric physics to geological exploration."

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