The Virtual Reality Universe Project (VIRUP): Swiss Researchers Release New Software to Explore the Universe in VR, Using a Massive Astronomy Dataset

Explore the universe in a new software program! (photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash)

There’s a new way to explore the universe in VR! A news report from the Phys.org website today, by Jamey Keaton, states:

Researchers at one of Switzerland’s top universities are releasing open-source beta software on Tuesday that allows for virtual visits through the cosmos including up to the International Space Station, past the Moon, Saturn or exoplanets, over galaxies and well beyond.

The program—called Virtual Reality Universe Project, or VIRUP—pulls together what the researchers call the largest data set of the universe to create three-dimensional, panoramic visualizations of space.

Software engineers, astrophysicists and experimental museology experts at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne, or EPFL, have come together to concoct the virtual map that can be viewed through individual VR gear, immersion systems like panoramic cinema with 3D glasses, planetarium-like dome screens, or just on a PC for two-dimensional viewing.

“The novelty of this project was putting all the data set available into one framework, when you can see the universe at different scales—nearby us, around the Earth, around the solar system, at the Milky Way level, to see through the universe and time up to the beginning—what we call the Big Bang,” said Jean-Paul Kneib, director of EPFL’s astrophysics lab.

According to the official website for the VIRUP project:

Science communication is key for sharing research discoveries to a wide audience. The goal of this project is to provide the most modern dynamical view of our Universe through one of the most modern communication techniques : Virtual Reality (VR).

For this purpose, we are developing a new multi-platform VR environment called VIRUP which allows users to travel through space and time, ranging from the solar system and the outer confines of the Universe, to the nearby stars, the Milky Way disk and the Local Group…

VIRUP is specifically designed to display outputs of cosmological simulations with up to several billion particles, while ensuring a high frame rate per second, essential for a comfortable VR experience.

In addition to standard VR systems, VIRUP is also compatible with specific immersion systems like the ones provided by the Experimental Museology Laboratory (EM+):  the panorama, the half-cave or the dome.

VIRUP is a C++/OpenGL/Qt flexible Free Software built on top of a custom-designed graphics engine. The code can be downloaded directly from GitLab.

What seems to set this project apart from previous attempts (and apps) to explore the universe in virtual reality is the size and scope of the data involved. Jamey Keaton says:

Downloading the software and content might seem onerous for the least-skilled computer users, and space—on a computer—will count. The broader-public version of the content is a reduced-size version that can be quantified in gigabytes, a sort of best-of highlights. Astronomy buffs with more PC memory might choose to download more.

The project assembles information from eight databases that count at least 4,500 known exoplanets, tens of millions of galaxies, hundreds of millions of space objects in all, and more than 1.5 billion light sources from the Milky Way alone…

To be sure, VR games and representations already exist: Cosmos-gazing apps on tablets allow for mapping of the night sky, with zoom-in close-ups of heavenly bodies; software like SpaceEngine from Russia offers universe visuals; NASA has done some smaller VR scopes of space.

But the EPFL team says VIRUP goes much farther and wider: Data pulled from sources like the Sloan Digital Sky Survey in the United States, and European Space Agency’s Gaia mission to map the Milky Way and its Planck mission to observe the first light of the universe, all brought together in a one-stop-shop for the most extensive data sets yet around.

So, if you’re geekily inclined, you might want to start here to learn more about the VIRUP software, and how to get started. The GitLab for the software is here.

The Andromeda galaxy (photo by Guillermo Ferla on Unsplash)
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