Rhys Taylor's home page
Science, Art and Data Visualisation

Virtual Reality

I love virtual reality ! Actually stepping inside a simulated reality, seeing it all around and in three dimensions, is just so much greater an experience than seeing stuff on a 2D screen. True, you don't need everything to be in VR, and it's no substitute for the real thing. But I'm definitely one of those who finds it hard to go back to regular gaming.

And for data visualisation and outreach alike, VR has obvious uses. I've demoed a few things at the annual Astronomical Institute open days and everyone, young or old, seems to enjoy it. But while it's now easy to step inside a basic scene in VR in Blender, Blender's realtime engine is not the best. I've done a few pre-rendered videos, and while the 3 degrees of freedom is quite nice, it doesn't compare with the experience of 6 degrees of freedom (where you can walk around inside a scene). For the latter, I use Blender directly for some basic scenes, but I've also used Steam VR Environments. Exporting from Blender to Steam isn't trivial but it is doable. Writing some sort of guide should probably be on my to-do list...


This early experiment is a pre-rendered video of data from the SOFIA flying telescope, made as part of a press release. You can read more about this in much more detail, as well as its resemblance to a dragon, on my blog. It's rendered in exactly the same way as the regular FITS files I use from radio astronomy, just as rather high frequencies. A similar test using HI data of M33 can be seen here.

The Virgo Cluster

This is the same data set as described on the dedicated Virgo page, but here rendered in 360 VR. But while pre-rendered video like this is good for sharing, the 6 degrees of freedom version is much more fun. For this I use the original Blender file exported to Blender 2.91, which comes with a built-in VR viewer. It doesn't have anything interactive, but still, just being able to walk around in a room-sized Virgo cluster is pretty neat.


Yes, I mentioned this one already on the extragalactic cartography page, but this thing was so feckin' difficult to make, it's getting another mention here. While Virgo renders in Blender's realtime view without problems, this 30,000+ object monster does not. Possibly this might be feasible in Steam, but this remains a mere ambition for now.


This one is both a video and a Steam VR Environment. The above video shows a complete walkthrough of the entire experience possible in Steam, for those who don't have a headset. For those that do, if you can access Steam VR you should be able to load the environment here. Walk around the Arecibo telescope and chuck giant medieval helmets off the top ! WHY WOULD YOU NOT WANT TO DO THIS ? Alternatively, if you've got a headset but can't run Steam, you can still see a 360 VR video (though at crappy resolution, I'm afraid) here. The modelling and rendering process is described here, but doesn't include anything about the conversion to Steam.

At the latest Open Day I was hoping to have at least a limited form of the ALMA telescope for people to explore, but there just wasn't time. In the end I compromised and added a single ALMA antenna in the Arecibo environment, floating above the dish. Hopefully for next November I'll manage the full array... we'll see.