Science On a Sphere® was invented by Dr. Alexander “Sandy” MacDonald, the
director of the NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, CO and OAR
Deputy Assistant Administrator for NOAA Research Laboratories and Cooperative
Dr. MacDonald came up with the concept for Science On a Sphere® in 1995 as an
outgrowth of other visualization projects he was directing within the former
Forecast Systems Laboratory.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
is a federal agency focused on the condition of the oceans and the atmosphere.
It plays several distinct roles within the Department of Commerce with a broad
mission. Some of NOAA’s more widely-known divisions include the National
Weather Service, The National Hurricane Center, and the National Marine
NOAA’s vision is to create “…an informed society that uses a comprehensive
understanding of the role of the oceans, coasts and atmosphere in the global
ecosystem to make the best social and economic decisions.” The mission of NOAA
is to understand and predict changes in the Earth’s environment and conserve
and manage coastal and marine resources to meet our nation’s economic, social
and environmental needs.
An early prototype of Science On a Sphere® was built in 1995, followed by an
earnest effort to develop a complete system beginning in the year 2000. David
Himes was the original lead software engineer on the project, who along with
others, engineered, developed, and integrated all of the software and hardware
components used to create a Science On a Sphere® system. A patent was awarded
to NOAA for Science On a Sphere® in August 2005, with Dr. MacDonald credited as
Science On a Sphere® is a large visualization system that uses computers and
video projectors to display animated data onto the outside of a sphere. Said
another way, SOS is an animated globe that can show dynamic, animated images of
the atmosphere, oceans, and land of a planet. NOAA primarily uses SOS as an
education and outreach tool to describe the environmental processes of Earth.
Science On a Sphere® was initially developed as a way to explore environmental
data using new visualization techniques. It became quickly obvious that when
combined with the narration and supporting educational material, a well-crafted
visualization provides a unique and powerful teaching tool. Over the past
several years, NOAA has been using SOS to support educational initiatives,
primarily in informal education venues, such as those found in science centers
and museums. Visit NOAA’s Office of Education website.
Science On a Sphere® is built from standard hardware components and at its very
basics is composed of off the shelf PCs, video projectors, wires, and a sphere.
The PCs run a version of Ubuntu Linux. When installed in a room, the sphere is
generally suspended from above and surrounded at the corners of the room by
four video projectors. Only one computer is required to operate the whole
exhibit, with a second computer as a spare. Data is pulled from the disk,
manipulated, re-projected and synchronized back onto the sphere.
While the interactions between all of the hardware pieces are complicated,
using the system is easy and straightforward. The system comes pre-programmed
with various data sets that show the Earth’s land, oceans, and atmosphere, to
name just a few. The data sets are organized into categories such as land, air,
water, and space and then further sorted into subcategories. Datasets can also
be organized into presentation playlists. An SOS presentation playlist is
analogous to the MP3 player concept of a playlist. The items in a playlist can
be randomly selected or played in sequence. The system allows for an unattended
(or automatic) mode of operation or it can be controlled via the SOS Remote
Enhancements and new features are continually added to SOS to ensure that it
remains at the forefront educational visualization display. Recent enhancements
include compatibility with 4K projectors, a selection of sphere sizes, the
ability to use fewer projectors, the Visual Playlist Editor, and the SOS Public
Kiosk. Check out the SOS Product Suite for full details on the