Scientists often become immersed in their data, and sometimes even lost. The AlloSphere, a unique virtual reality environment at the University of California, Santa Barbara, makes this easier by turning large data sets into immersive experiences of sight and sound. Inside its three-story metal sphere researchers can interpret and interact with their data in new and intriguing ways, including watching electrons spin from inside an atom or "flying" through an MRI scan of a patient's brain as blood density levels play as music.

Housed in a 5,760-square-meter space in the California NanoSystems Institute building, the AlloSphere is essentially a house-size digital microscope powered by a supercomputer. Its outer chamber is a cube covered with sound-absorbing material, making it one of the largest near-anechoic (nonechoing) spaces in the world. Inside are two joined hemispheres of perforated aluminum that contain a suspended bridge.

More than 500 audio elements—woofers, tweeters and the like—are suspended in rings just outside the hemispheres. High-resolution video projectors can project images across the entire inner surface. The result is something far beyond other virtual reality systems such as a Cave Automatic Virtual Environment (CAVE) or a planetarium: 360 degrees of sounds and images in a chamber large enough to hold 30 or more researchers at once.

"It's a place where you can use all of your senses" to find new patterns in data, says JoAnn Kuchera-Morin, the AlloSphere's director. "You can almost say researchers are shrunk down to the size of their data, immersed at a perceptual level." Trained as an orchestral composer and director of the school's Center for Research in Electronic Art Technology (CREATE), she designed the AlloSphere to straddle the line between art and science. Still, she emphasizes that it is a real research instrument, not a virtual-reality environment for entertainment.

The bridge is often crowded with physicists, engineers, computer scientists and artists working on projects for weeks or months at a time. Researchers interact with their data, which can be streamed live, using 3-D glasses, special wireless controllers, and sensors embedded in the bridge's railings. (Gesture control and voice recognition are in the works.)

Chris Van de Walle, a professor in U.C. Santa Barbara's Materials Department, has been studying conductivity in a class of materials called transparent conductors, used in solar cells to let in as much light as possible. Inside the AlloSphere, researchers such as Van de Walle use a joystick to maneuver through three-dimensional constellations of the oxygen, hydrogen and zinc atoms (linked by a complex lattice of chemical bonds) that make up these conductors.

"You really feel like you're standing inside a crystal of zinc oxide," Van de Walle says. "You see a hydrogen atom, you see the electron clouds around it. It feels very real."

August saw the start of a project to visualize measurements of the background radiation of the universe made by the European Space Agency's Planck satellite, launched in May. Viewers can see the microwave residue from the big bang "painted" across the sphere of the sky, and—after the data are translated for human ears—hear a version of what the early universe may have sounded like.

Another ongoing project is attempting to model the time-dependent Schrödinger equation, which describes the electron's changing quantum states. Luca Peliti, a professor of statistical mathematics at of Italy's University of Naples–Frederico II, says that visualizing electron orbitals in the AlloSphere far outstrips regular 2-D projections. "Every time we come up with an idea and try it, the result is unexpected," he says. "I think we are just scratching the surface of what can be done with the AlloSphere—not because the instrument is lacking, but because we lack the ideas to exploit all its possibilities."

Although the instrument has been operating since 2007, its systems are continually being developed and upgraded. In a year the school plans to have it operating at levels approaching the limits of our perception of actual reality: a visual resolution of 24 million pixels [on the entire surface] and a full 512-channel sound system that will make it seem "like a bird is flying around your head," Kuchera-Morin says. "All of the scientists we are working with believe that representing their data [with the AlloSphere] will lead to the possibility of new discoveries."

In a way, the AlloSphere's main value may be as a communications device, Van de Walle says. "Being able to demonstrate to scientists as well as nonscientists what we are actually working on instead of just talking about it—being able to actually show somebody what it looks like—makes a big impression," he says. "Sometimes I feel a little like Carl Sagan."