Surveying VR Data Visualization Software for Research: Hacking the Yurt

Course Summary

In a collaborative group effort, this course will search out, install, test, and critically evaluate VR software that supports data visualization for researchers. We will target several specific types of data, including volumetric data, and remote sensing data. The testing will include collaborative work with researchers who wish to better understand their data. We will primarily investigate the capabilities of big-metal displays like Brown's yurt. Software evaluation will include web research, hands-on case studies, and surveying. A substantial portion of the class will involve building and porting software to the yurt, importing collaborator data into that software, and documenting the value of the software for research. Results will be documented in a courses wiki.

After this course students will be able to:

  1. articulate VR visualization software tool goals, requirements, and capabilities;

  2. construct meaningful evaluation strategies for software libraries, frameworks, and applications; strategies include surveys, interviews, comparative use, case studies, and web research;

  3. execute tool evaluation strategies;

  4. build and port visualization software packages;

  5. visualize some scientific data in the Yurt;

  6. comparatively analyze software tools based on evaluation;

  7. be familiar with a number of VR software tools.

We will begin the semester by taking stock of candidates for software, and datasets. Understanding and codifying claimed capabilities will guide the choice of a subset for closer study. Each student will pick from the subset to get operational in the Yurt and design a tutorial that others in the class will subsequently work through. Students will get necessary elements of the software working in the yurt sufficiently for the class to do the tutorial. Through both the design, construction, and execution of the tutorials, we will gather deeper knowledge of the benefits and costs of the tools. Each tutorial will incorporate data and a scientific problem from a specific collaborator, illustrating the needs of the collaborator and realizing them as far as possible with the software we will evaluate.

At each stage we will document our findings and analysis in a wiki. One goal for the wiki is to help VR developers to choose wisely in creating their virtual realities. A second is to identify gaps in available software and thus to nudge the development of future software to fill those gaps. At some point the wiki will go live, possibly after submission as a research paper, if appropriate.


Evaluation in the class will be as follows:

  • 15% class attendance and participation

  • 10% initial search contributions to wiki

  • 15% survey design, creation, collection, and analysis contributions

  • 20% collaborative tutorial quality

  • 10% collaborative tutorial results analysis

  • 15% weekly journal of activities and findings

  • 15% overall final wiki contributions

Time Commitment

Over 14 weeks students will spend 3 hour per week in class (42 hours total) plus an average of 10 hours per week on homework, as described

above (140 hours).


While there are no formal prerequisites listed for this class, CS background at the level of 320 or 330 will be very helpful. Students should be familiar with downloading, building, and installing open-source software from the internet. Some experience with modifying open-source software will be helpful, but not essential. Familiarity with graphics libraries will also be helpful.

Academic Support

Brown University is committed to full inclusion of all students. Please inform me early in the term if you have a disability or other conditions that might require accommodations or modification of any of these course procedures. You may speak with me after class or during office hours. For more information, please contact Student and Employee Accessibility Services at 401-863-9588 or Students in need of short-term academic advice or support can contact one of the deans in the Dean of the College office.