When studying tornados, researchers, of course, cannot physically stand inside of them to observe what happens during a storm, so they rely on radar data to tell them what’s happening within a tornado funnel. This data is robust—including thousands of three-dimensional data points about that storm—that can be visualized using a computer, creating a visual representation of a weather event. This data could only be viewed on flat screen monitors as static 3-D representations.
Virginia Tech faculty members teamed up with students from meteorology, geography, and computer science to create an immersive tornado—one you can actually walk through—in the Moss Arts Center Cube, a $15 million, four-story experimental space and data exploration facility shared between the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology and the Center for the Arts at Virginia Tech. With the capabilities of the Cube, a tornado can now be viewed from all angles and directions.
The team re-created a tornado that happened in Moore, Oklahoma in 2013—a weather event that killed 24 people—using the data from the storm. Using the audio and visual capabilities of the Cube, researchers can penetrate the storm’s outside layers of rain, walking through to see what is happening at the center of the tornado. With this comprehensive view, researchers can better understand how tornadoes develop, allowing them to develop more accurate storm predictions and improve warning systems. The ultimate goal is to visualize weather events in real time, which would provide invaluable emergency management information.
With motion capture cameras throughout the facility, the Cube tracks people as they move through the space. Armed with head-mounted displays or tablets, users are transported to virtual worlds, interacting with an environment in real-time, just as they would if they were actually there. Not only can you see everything as you travel through these environments, but you can hear everything, as well. With one of the most advanced sound systems in the world, the Cube features 148 speakers and four subwoofers suspended from all four levels, including several floor-standing speakers, offering 360-degree audio capabilities to deliver a true and complete immersive experience.
The Weather Channel meteorologists Jim Cantore and Greg Forbes recently visited the Cube on the Virginia Tech campus to show viewers what it’s like to walk into a virtual tornado.