Visualization Award Secrets

As part of the recent "Scientific Discovery through Advanced Computing" (SciDAC) conference, an evening was devoted to choosing the top 10 scientific visualizations of the year. This year Wired ran an article on the most recent award winners, which raised the awards' profile to the visualization world's equivalent of the Oscars. So what does it take to win visualization awards? Read on for my 'simple' 5-step plan.

Step 1: Data

You need something to visualize - data, you'll need lots of data. How better to generate lots of raw data than to use Computer-Aided Engineering (CAE) analysis tools, such as Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD)? It's no coincidence that many of the SciDAC award winners relate to numerical studies of fluid flow of one sort or another - yes, supernova explosions are a form of fluid flow.

Every element (or cell) in a mesh used during a CFD simulation contains a collection of state variables, such as velocity and pressure. Elements in a mesh can number millions, even billions. If you also have a time-dependent (transient) simulation (as many award winners did), then for each time step (which could number thousands) you have a unique set of state variables scattered over the mesh, so there are your data - lots of data!

Step 2: 3D Visualization Techniques

Mountains of raw numbers are difficult to interpret and hence there is a need to reduce the data to a relatively concise visual representation, leading us to 3D visualization. The primary 3D visualization techniques are:


Contours are colored regions representing ranges of scalar (single valued) variables (e.g., pressure, velocity magnitude), also known as iso-lines/surfaces.

Velocity Magnitude Iso-SurfacesVelocity Magnitude Iso-Surfaces


Vectors are symbols representing the direction and magnitude of vectors at points in a vector field, such as the velocity field in a fluid flow simulation.

Velocity Vectors ExampleVelocity Vectors


Streamlines are instantaneous imaginary particle tracks driven by a velocity field.


Step 3: Rendering

High-quality rendering is essential to produce sharp high-resolution images with interesting lighting, reflections and shadows. Freely available renders such as POV-Ray and Aqsis (a Renderman clone) can help bring your images to life.

Arrows, Contours and Streamlines: Rendered in POV-RayArrows, Contours and Streamlines: Rendered in POV-Ray

With transient simulations that require rendering of multiple images (think many frames per second), you'll begin to appreciate why the movie industry has some of the most powerful render farms (computer clusters) on the planet.

Step 4: Stir

Tastefully stir together (I think the technical term is combine) the 3D visualization techniques with high-quality rendering and animation, and you too could have a visualization award winner on your hands.

Step 5: Take Caedium for a Spin

If I've got you itching to give your visualization dreams an outlet then consider taking our Caedium Professional add-on for a spin - it has all the tools you'll need to enter next year's visualization awards.

Visualization AnimationVisualization Animation