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Science on a Sphere offers new way to visualize data on a global scale

Suspended above the lobby of the CIB, IU's Science on a Sphere visualization tool displays data on a global scale.

Science on a Sphere (SOS) can show you global drought conditions and dengue fever risk, and what earth looks like at night from space. It can plot Facebook friendships on a world map, or become the Star Wars Death Star just for fun. SOS’s visualization uses are limited only by imagination – and by its shape.

Suspended above the lobby of the Cyberinfrastructure Building (CIB) at IU Bloomington since April, SOS gives researchers a new tool to visualize data on a global scale. IU is the fourth university in the world to have the display system, one of exactly 100 such spheres in the world.

Made of ordinary materials (carbon fiber and white house paint), the six-foot diameter sphere is an extraordinary visualization device that runs with an iPad, four projectors, a Linux workstation and specialized software. Researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) developed SOS to enhance educational programs in science centers, universities and museums across the country. SOS can display just about anything – so long as it can be projected onto a sphere or within the sphere’s picture-in-a-picture display, which can show both pictures and movies.

"Given the interconnectedness of the world today (socially and environmentally) and the new IU School of Global and International Studies, Science on a Sphere is a timely acquisition," said Craig Stewart, associate dean of Research Technologies and executive director of the Pervasive Technology Institute. "Science on a Sphere is a perfect vehicle for understanding any sort of data that can be projected on a globe, helping us understand global phenomena in a highly intuitive way."

IU’s relationship with NOAA led to the purchase of SOS. IU is home to the Global Research Network Operations Center (GlobalNOC), which provides network operations and support for more than 20 projects – among them N-Wave, NOAA’s science network dedicated to connecting researchers with data and resources for advancing environmental science.

At IU, SOS can display diverse datasets in interactive ways that show the global impact of IU’s research – but research is not its only use. SOS can also benefit the humanities as a new and distinctive place to display artwork. IU content can be shared with other spheres around the world, and IU can, in turn, display content from other locations.

"SOS provides yet another exciting format to complement our high-resolution walls, immersive theatres and interactive touch tables," said Eric Wernert, IU director of visualization and analytics. "It brings a new dimension to the range of display categories that IU has for research, education, creative activity and outreach."

To use Science on a Sphere or view a demonstration, contact