Visualizing the Internet

28 Apr, 2017

Visualizing the Internet

Last year, BCNM was proud to support four amazing projects in our first faculty research seed grant awards, adjudicated by our alumni. Read about how Greg Niemeyer and his team have leveraged this funding to build a VR rendering of Earth.

Initially, the team proposed to show a history of the internet, from the first three Arpanet nodes in 1969 to 10 billion networked devices in 2017. It quickly became obvious that traditional network diagrams don't work well in a VR environment, because the network remains an object to be looked at from the outside. VR offers the possibility of an immersive perspective, but immersive perspectives are often disorienting. Berkeley undergraduate researcher Christine Zheng (CS, 2018) and Greg Niemeyer settled on a VR rendering of a networked Earth with an inverse image map of the globe mapped on the inside of a globe, not the typical outside. The globe offers a familiar framework, even though it is radically reimagined to show the world from the inside out.

This perspective was inspired by research Niemeyer conducted among the Iñupiat Native Americans in Barrow AK. In an interview, Anthony Edwardsen proposed a perspective of seeing the globe from the inside out in order to better understand the interrelatedness of all natural resources. Although the mapping is the inverse of what the globe would look like from the inside, everything is where one would expect it to be. Because of the Iñupiat inspiration, the team named the novel projection the "Etok projection" after tribal leader and UC Berkeley Instructor Charles Etok Edwardsen.

Any global data can be mapped within the globe while keeping spatial relations intact. So, instead of showing the Internet as a heap of connections on top of the surface of the earth, they can be shown as lines going trough the Earth, as if dug through the planet. This network-centric view may better convey the feeling of being a part of the network, rather than looking at it from the outside, as an object. The network becomes a living set of relations of which the viewer is a part. The view also meshes well with the immersive qualities of diverse VR platforms. Sample data in the video demo shows how the projection works, and in the next few weeks, the team will integrate fiber-optic core and cyber-attack data into this mapping. The video is a screen capture from the Samsung Gear VR device.

Check out the video:

The demo was developed in Unity for Gear VR, but can be compiled for any VR environment.

The seed grant enabled the research team to apply for collaboration grants with Google Day Dream. These grants, if awarded, would support the production of a "Day Dream for Good" experience made for broad distribution, especially in the education sector. The team is very grateful for the BCNM grant, which fostered undergraduate research and directly led to new grant opportunities.