UC Merced's WAVE technology gives researchers a new view at Yosemite National Park

MERCED, Calif. (KFSN) -- Unique technology at UC Merced is giving researchers and faculty a special look at Yosemite National Park and the changes that have happened over the course of decades.

The Wide Area Visualization Environment, or WAVE, is a 20-screen 4K display inside a building at the UC Merced campus.

"This is not so much a revolution as an evolution of how we analyze scientific data," said Jeffrey Weekley, director of Research Computing and Science Infrastructure at UC Merced. Weekley has built "thirteen or fourteen" similar visualization tools in his career, but this one is special.

"When we built this in 2016, it was the largest walk-in virtual reality facility... it's I think second now. When you come in here, you're actually seeing more pixels than just about anyone else in the world."

The screens are used by faculty to assist in their research. Weekley stressed the importance of data visualization when talking about the importance of the WAVE.

"We don't do teaching and learning in here, it's all about the research. The reason the WAVE exists is because the data researchers are presented with are ever-more complex," Weekley said. "In order for you to fully understand your data, you need to see it at scale."

The system includes motion-tracking cameras on each end of the half-pipe display, allowing the operator to use a 3D wand to seamlessly move the image across all 16 screens and create an immersive experience. The technology has recently been used in a special project that examines Yosemite National Park.

"Repeat photography lets us take a landscape level view of how the environment has changed," said Jeffrey Jenkins, assistant professor of Public Lands and Protected Areas. Jenkins has been using the WAVE for research on the Lester Moe Project.

The project was born after a visit to the Yosemite archives revealed about a dozen panoramic photos of the park taken by photographer Lester Moe in the 1930s. The team then used an omnidirectional camera to capture photos of the same areas and compare the pictures that were taken eight decades apart. The WAVE allows them to overlay the photos and compare them at scale.

"Just shows the dynamacy of the forest system," Jenkins said.

The team is planning to publish findings from the Lester Moe Project soon. They also hope to eventually create a mini-WAVE display that would accessible to students on campus.
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