Simulating Life Through Visualizations | “Habitat Earth” Film Helps Us See the Unseeable

simulating food webs

Over the weekend I had the opportunity to visit the California Academy of Sciences where I watched “Habitat Earth” inside the amazing Morrison Planetarium. I felt like this was an important film to share as the visualization of data can help us better understand concepts through a simulated perspective of reality. The film was able to show the cellular and cosmic relationships of our planet’s food web in a way that excel sheets cannot really do justice.

The Morrison Planetarium is an amazing full dome 75′ screen which mimicks the tilt of planet Earth. The frame composed of 100 percent recycled steel—supports a NanoSeam projection screen that seems to disappear when lit, creating a true-to-life recreation of luminous, faraway space and skies.

morrison planetarium

About Habitat Earth:

Plunge below the ocean’s surface to explore the dynamic relationships found in deep ocean ecosystems; dig beneath the forest floor to see how Earth’s tallest trees rely on tiny fungi to survive; and soar to new heights to witness the intricate intersection between human and ecological networks.

Narrated by Frances McDormand, our latest original planetarium show features stunning visualizations of both biological and human-built networks (and of how they intersect), taking show-goers on an incredible, immersive journey through the interconnectedness of life on Earth.

Visualizing Data to Provide Simulated Experience:


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“Shauna Lacoste is the production coordinator for the Visualization Studio here at the Academy, which means she manages deadlines, schedules meetings, gathers assets, and much, much more for each Morrison Planetarium production.

The much, much more is generally research. She works with the scientific advisors for the shows to understand how to convey content accurately—both in terms of ideas and visuals. Then she gets to dive even deeper.

For the current show, Habitat Earth, that meant diving into the kelp forest and the San Francisco Bay to understand the food webs at each location—identifying the producers and consumers and determining how the organisms interact.

For some topics, it was simply a matter of finding the right data and putting it into a manageable format for the artists. Finding the kelp forest food web data, for example, meant looking through photo libraries to translate the information on organisms to something a bit more visual—their look, color and relative size, for example. When it came to the San Francisco Bay food web, Academy scientist Peter Roopnarine had published data on fish and invertebrates in the bay, but Lacoste had to conduct further research on the birds and mammals connected to those organisms. “I felt like a scientist, too,” she says, “making observations and gathering data.”

Important Message:

“One of the messages of this show is that the living world is a very busy, highly interactive network and economy and it’s under stress right now. Those natural economies have a direct impact on human beings, and we have to understand how they work and how well they can withstand the pressure we’re putting them under. It’s important not just for the health of the planet, but the health of human well-being, too.”

How else could we as simulationists incorporate data visualization, animation, and good old fashion film-making to better portray the learning opportunities, training shortfalls, or awareness campaigns?

If you are ever in San Francisco make sure the Cal Academy of Sciences is on the list.

Click here to learn more about Habitat Earth.


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