What is the VCC?
The VCC will be an interdisciplinary research centre that focuses on animal collective behaviour and its underlying mechanisms. Due for completion in 2021, the recently granted research building will provide world-class infrastructure on 8 floors with over 3000 square meters of research facilities. With a budget of 30 Mio. Euros, the VCC will house cutting-edge facilities for the collection, exploration, and subsequent analysis of collective behaviour data. The interdisciplinary building will accommodate 12 research groups and 5 junior groups with a total of 120 employees from both biology and computer science. Furthermore, it provides room for 7 special laboratories, which together form a unique integrated body for comprehensive collective behaviour research.
How will it work?
The VCC provides a unique combination of laboratories and infrastructure to ensure the best possible research conditions for its personnel: The Imaging Hangar, the Fish Labs and the Virtual Reality Lab provide the experimental data that will be visualized for collaborative exploration in the Data Theatre. In addition, a large observation deck on the rooftop makes it possible to conduct exterior experiments with Imaging Hangar both lab and wild animals. While the Computer Graphics Lab provides the technical solutions necessary to expose animals to and track them in virtual reality environments, research in the Network Analytics Lab and the Control Room Lab enables optimal data handling and tailored solutions on the software and interaction side. Together, the labs and the building itself form an integrated body brilliantly prepared to research collective behaviour.
At the heart of the VCC building is the Imaging Hangar. In this 225 square meters hall with 8m height, animals will be placed in a fully reactive, virtual 3D environment. Pioneering the technology on this scale, the Imaging Hangar will allow the study of swarming birds and locusts in controlled environments. Further, their reactions to virtual influences, such as projected predators, will be tracked in real-time and with unprecedented detail. Enabled by current and future technological advances in the areas of sensor-, processing-, and projection technology, for the first time it will be possible to conduct quantitative behaviour analyses: camera and 3D-lightfield sensors allow a real-time capturing of all individuals with high spatio-temporal resolution. Efficient digital signal processing algorithms will compute the visual field of the animals, which will be fed to state-of-the-art terrain simulations producing the virtual environment for the animals with ultra-high-resolution 3D projection systems.
Similar experiments on a smaller scale can be conducted in the Fish Labs, where different aquatic species can be observed in full detail while being exposed to crafted virtual reality environments under precisely controlled conditions. Until the Imaging Hangar is operational, a preparatory environment has been assembled at the MPI for Ornithology in Radolfzell where first experiments are already underway.
Computer Graphics Labs
Since no state-of-the-art technology for reactive virtual 3D environments is currently available, solutions will be researched and tested in the Computer Graphics lab. This comprises testing of high-resolution projection technology and real-time tracking devices as well as data processing needs for the real-time interplay of these components. Also, development and optimization of the virtual terrain simulations will be conducted here.
Network Analytics Lab
Tracking the animals in the Imaging Hangar and fish labs in the anticipated high level of detail will generate massive amounts of data. External data sources such as tracked wild animals for example from the ICARUS project add to that amount. Thus, efficient data storage and subsequent computational processing are crucial for the scientific prowess of the VCC. These challenges will be worked on in the Network Analytics Lab, where also formal representations of the interaction networks derived from the data collected will be researched.
Virtual Reality Lab
A big step in collective behaviour research is the transfer of knowledge derived from animal behaviour to the human domain or human-controlled networks such as logistics or traffic. Testing hypotheses gained from the observation of animals on humans requires the ability to expose testees to an equally controlled setting as the animals. The Virtual Reality Lab will provide this capability using different technologies enabling a fully controlled virtual 3D environment for probands. A setup of multiple Virtual Reality headsets such as the Oculus Rift for fixed-position experiments or the HTC Vive for full freedom of movement will allow experiments with several probands simultaneously in a shared virtual environment. In addition, mixed reality technologies such as the Microsoft Hololens will allow the augmentation of real and tangible experimental setups with virtual effects to confront a test person with new situations and stimuli. Compared to real-world experiments, conducting virtual and, respectively, mixed reality experiments allows for a much more controlled environment with far greater possibilities to track the actions of probands, as all actions can be recorded directly with minimal sensor uncertainty.
Control Room and Analytics Lab
In addition to creating reactive virtual environments with real-time steering and data collection, the third major task is the exploration and knowledge generation from the collected data. The majority of the datasets consists of tracked movements of collectives. Due to the complexity of the data and tasks, a combination of computational and visual analysis methods is required for an effective exploration of the data. Novel tools, visualizations, and specifically designed hardware setups will be put to test in the Control Room and Analytics Lab, where a flexible environment is provided to create and compare different solutions. Amongst others, multi-display setups, flat and wall-mounted high-resolution touchscreen assemblies, and novel interaction technologies, such as eye and motion tracking, will be available to the users.
If the Imaging Hangar forms the heart of the VCC, the Data Theatre can be seen as its brain. The 160 square meters sized room is designed to bring together scientists from all involved disciplines to collaboratively explore and analyse collective behaviour data on a 7m x 3m sized ultra-high resolution projection system. Due to its exceptionally high pixel density, this exceptional setup will provide the possibility to interactively explore very large amounts of data. At the same time, the physical size of the Data Theatre display allows to coincidentally review the big picture and very small details, making it ideal for joint analyses of multiple experts or individual presentations to an audience of up to 130 people.