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Swim through an Ocean of DNA Sequences Using VR

ATLAS in Silico is coming to Mofo in Hobart this week.
Images courtesy of Mona Foma

From 2004-2006, the Global Ocean Sampling Expedition used a custom-built yacht to circumnavigate the globe and catalogue the DNA of microorganisms from every ocean. The ambitious genome-sequencing project fundamentally changed how we see life on earth—and now, its complex sets of digitised metadata have inspired a virtual reality artwork where participants can gain a unique understanding of our underwater worlds.


Created from 17.4 million genomic sequences and their associated metadata, ATLAS in silico is coming to Hobart’s Mofo this week. The VR artwork is a massive undertaking, and one that its artist Ruth West— who worked collaboratively with a creative team of 19 artists, scientists and technologists—found as fascinating as she did challenging.

“I encountered the Global Ocean Sample (GOS) while I was working at UC San Diego and was fortunate enough to meet some of the scientists working on its analysis,” she tells The Creators Project. “They shared some of their insights and challenges in working with the data with us. The more I learned about the GOS and how it was changing our view of life, as well as how it blended global cultures, biology and advanced technologies, the more fascinated I became with it.”

West and her team have created what she calls a “metadata environment”, a full-body immersive and interactive virtual experience created from a blend of custom real-time stereoscopic 3D computer graphics, computer vision, stereoscopic projection, and spatialised multi-channel audio. Every aspect of the artwork and its VR world is created from the GOS data and metadata,” West esplains. “Instead of an HMD users wear polarised stereo-3D glasses so they can be individually immersed and yet share the experience with a group. You interact with the virtual world through a gesture-based interface.”


The immersive experience “looks like a brightly coloured 3D galaxy, a universe of data” that’s “poetic and abstract, yet emotionally resonant and visceral.” Using gestures, you can move within it, interact with it, and run your hands through it— almost as if you were running your hands through water and running grains of sparkling sand through your fingers. Except the sand is data.

“Each shimmering brightly coloured dot represents a DNA sequence from the database. You can push them around in a large virtual data fluid, grab them close to you, and let them go back into the ocean of data. They change and transform into different geometric patterns and soundscapes, murmuring their statistics to you or generating a rumbling roar as you move about,” says West.

Previous participants have described it as like “being in a dream” or on the “inside of a new metaverse.” To experience the dream for yourself, head to Mofo this week. The Creators Project is partnering with this year’s festival, held in the grounds of  Mona from January 18-22.


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