Todd Margolis

ATLAS in silico

Role: Co-creator

ATLAS in silico, a physically interactive virtual reality installation, fuses dynamic media, art, emerging technologies in 3D computer graphics, computer vision and spatialized multichannel interactive audio with pioneering science. It reflects on one of the elemental scientific and cultural challenges of our time: the shift from an organism-centric to a sequence-centric view of nature made possible by metagenomics and it's ensuing impact on our understanding of the nature, origins and unity of life.

The installation provides an aesthetic encounter with metagenomics data (and contextual metadata) from the Global Ocean Sampling (GOS) Expedition - a recent pioneering voyage of discovery circumnavigating the Earth's oceans, the results of which give us a new picture of life on Earth with potentially far-reaching implications for biological energy production, bioremediation, and for creating solutions for management of greenhouse gas levels in our biosphere.

In parallel to challenges that Darwin's work on natural selection posed to 19th Century representations of nature associated with concepts of species fixity, the new view of nature provided by vast and abstract metagenomics data, such as the Global Ocean Survey, poses a fundamental challenge for our ability in the 21st Century to represent and intuitively comprehend nature. Within ATLAS in silico, this challenge becomes a visceral, sensate experience of the abstraction of nature in to vast databases ? a practice that reaches back in to the history of expeditionary science of the 19th Century and which culminates in 21st Century expeditions like the GOS.

Participants experience a dream-like, highly abstract, and data-driven virtual world that combines the aesthetics of fine-lined copper engraving, lithography and grid-like layouts of 19th Century scientific representation with 21st Century digital aesthetics including 3D wireframes, particle systems, interactive 3D graphics and multi-channel spatialized audio. To highlight the historical and ongoing interplay between scientific discovery and culture, the installation contextualizes GOS sequence data within global environmental and social data from the regions in which the ocean samples were taken,and combines this data to construct the visual and auditory elements of the virtual world. By interacting with luminous and colorful 3D graphics and a responsive data-driven sonic microworld participants explore relationships within data that spans from the molecular (nano scale of protein molecules) to the global (geo-referenced sampling site, socio-economic and environmental data). The experience takes place within an immersive virtual environment constructed from contextual metadata. This invisible context animates the virtual world as a driving force, much like natural ocean currents, revealing internal structure within the data and metadata -- bridging out from the nano scale to the global and back again creating a multi-scale, multi-modal multi-resolution experience.

The installation utilizes a combination of infrared motion tracking, custom computer vision, multi-channel (10.1) spatialized interactive audio, 3D graphics, data sonification/audio design, networking, and immersive display technologies.

Through this collaboration we explore the possibilities for achieving works with multiple entry points that can exist concurrently as aesthetic experiences, artistic practice, and as the basis for scientific tools. The title refers to in silico (computational as opposed to in vivo or in vitro) biology and the abilities that emerging technologies offer us in atlasing the features of our world in ever-increasing detail.

ATLAS in silico is the culmination of a vibrant collaboration between artists and scientists spanning new media, computer science, metagenomics, biology, and engineering. My lead role in this collaboration of 18 team members and additional consultants focused on the following research areas:

  • 3D display systems (passive stereo projection and autostereoscopic tiled display)
  • Physical interface design (motion capture, markerless tracking, electro-magnetic head/hand tracking)
  • User interface design and development
  • Information architecture and database management
  • Programming design and implementation
  • Design aesthetics
  • Exhibition design and installation
  • Grant funding development
  • Project management


Linked Media


ATLAS in silico video v1


Out of the Box, SPIE Electronic Imaging, San Francisco, CA

FILE 2009, FIESP - Sao Paulo, Brazil

SIGGRAPH 2009, New Orleans, LA

Scalable Relations, UCSB, Santa Barbara, CA

Ingenuity Festival, Cleveland, OH

Digital Eyes, Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery - Los Angeles, CA

SIGGRAPH 2007, San Diego, CA

Animation: from the Avant-Garde to Popular Culture, Calit2 - San Diego, CA