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 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)

Space Colony Island-4: Explore an 8 Kilometre-by-32 Kilometre O’Neill Cylinder in VRChat, with Curve Gravity!

The O’Neill cylinder (also called an O’Neill colony) is a space settlement concept proposed by American physicist Gerard K. O’Neill in his 1976 book The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space… An O’Neill cylinder would consist of two counter-rotating cylinders. The cylinders would rotate in opposite directions in order to cancel out any gyroscopic effects that would otherwise make it difficult to keep them aimed toward the Sun. Each would be 5 miles (8.0 km) in diameter and 20 miles (32 km) long, connected at each end by a rod via a bearing system. Their rotation would provide artificial gravity.

“O’Neill cylinder”, Wikipedia article

There’s a new world in VRChat which is attracting a lot of attention! It’s straight out of a science fiction novel: an O’Neill cylinder that is 8 kilometres in diameter and 32 kilometres long, and it features curve gravity, where you can actually run around in a full circle to land up where you started!

(VRChat is not the first social VR platform to feature such a build; I have visited an similar O’Neill cylinder with curve gravity in NeosVR, writing about it here.)

Here’s the original announcement by its creator on Twitter, with the English translation below it, courtesy of the DeepL translator:

The world “Space Colony “Island-4” has been released! It is an enclosed space colony with a diameter of 8km x length of 32km. Please enjoy the huge scale of this cylindrical world!

Space Colony Island-4 is currently one of the most popular worlds in VRChat, so it’s on the VRChat home screen. Here’s a link to the webpage for the world (this page requires a VRChat account to sign in).

By the way, did you know that VRChat has just updated its Quick Menu user interface? Here’s a two-minute video with the highlights of the new design:

Thank you to Rainwolf for the heads-up!

UPDATED! Studying Supernova Explosions Using Collaborative Virtual Reality at Purdue University

Dr. Danny Milisavljevic has been using VR headsets to immerse his Purdue University students in the study of supernovas. (image source)

The only experience better than the act of discovery, is the experience of sharing that experience with someone.

— Danny Milisavljevic (source)

Danny Milisavljevic, a Purdue University astrophysics professor, is using an innovative, collaborative VR platform to help students explore models of star explosions in 3D. In a May 3rd, 2021 article published on the Edscoop website, titled Purdue students are using VR to explore the cosmos, remotely:

Over the last year, Milisavljevic — an astrophysicist at Purdue University who was formerly a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University — has taught the study of exploding stars with the aid of virtual reality. Exploding stars leave trails of fragments and other clues around them, much like the debris patterns of explosives. But rather than looking at photos or through a telescope, students in his class can walk around a virtual classroom and examine 3D models of supernovas from every direction by strapping on a VR headset. Milisavljevic said his students act like an astronomy-focused “bomb squad,” reviewing how different stars exploded and citing their previous astronomical classifications.

The 3D models and the VR simulations were a perfect match, and Milisavljevic quickly realized there are two primary benefits of examining the models using virtual reality. One is the ability to study them with another researcher or student in the same room, who was also wearing a headset. The second is that a VR environment can host multiple models on the same program. Because students can walk back and forth between models, he said, it prompted more insightful questions and a more effective understanding of the complex detective work he was asking his students to perform.

According to a recent press release from Purdue about the project:

The first technology of its kind to allow connection by students in different locations — rather than on the same Wi-Fi network — the headsets are also based on lightweight, relatively inexpensive and commercially available hardware. The technology was used for the first time last month in his Intermediate Astronomy II class.

The virtual reality environment allows students to fly through and around astronomical objects including stars and supernovae, and manipulate them to observe how they have changed over time, something that is possible thanks to enormous quantities of rich 3D modeling information and analyses. The system emphasizes scientific fidelity, giving a clear and accurate depiction of datasets. 

A photo collage showing the students interacting with each other while exploring various 3D models of supernovae (a screen capture from the above YouTube video)

It took a significant amount of work to build this platform, according to the professor teaching the course, but it was judged to be worth the labour. Edscoop reports:

Danny Milisavljevic, an assistant professor of physics and astronomy at Purdue University, told EdScoop that creating content in virtual reality can take years, but that it’s often worth the effort.

“I see this as a vital, complimentary way to teach,” Milisavljevic said. “There’s just some topics that cannot be conveyed properly with the traditional lecture format, and this platform provides a way to be able to share those experiences.”

Milisavljevic used VR over the past year to teach his students about supernovas, working with Purdue’s Envision Center, a simulation and computer graphics-focused lab on campus, to create a platform to display his 3D models of exploded stars. It took two years, even with graduate students assisting, he said.

A shot of the avatars (shown wearing different coloured astronaut helmets and hands) standing in front of several supernova models (a screen capture from the above YouTube video)

As the Purdue press release notes, “Similar systems eventually could allow students to study other topics including looking at microscopic or cellular data, anatomy, geospatial terrains, historical locations or even complex animated machinery.”

UPDATE August 11th, 2021: I exchanged emails with Danny, and he told me a bit more about his platform:

Yes, I plan to continue using our Collaborative Astronomy VR platform in future classes. Presently we are developing a new version that can eventually scale up to ~100 users. One of the limitations of the current version is that we can only support approximately 10-12 users simultaneously before hitting performance issues.

We built our own infrastructure because existing VR infrastructures are either 1) too focused on social interaction for large audiences and lack options to appropriately visualize and explore scientific data in a scalable format, or 2) lack multiuser connectivity and instead focus on specialized individual experiences for use on high-end devices.

Thanks, Danny!