The imaginative vision and colossal funding normally reserved for a Disneyland ride have come together at the UCSB California NanoSystems Institute, resulting in a sphere-shaped, virtual reality collision of art and science.

Researchers from the UCSB Media Arts and Technology initiative (MATi) demonstrated the Allosphere, a 360-degree interactive environment, in its unfinished form yesterday to a small group of students and faculty members. The Allsophere, a 3-story spherical room that is 10-meters in diameter, is located in the CNSI building on the east side of campus and was designed as a research tool to help researchers from a variety of fields visualize, manipulate and even hear the data they collect.

“It’s a general purpose system that will allow users to navigate through a space by using intelligent [sensors] that move through a space and report back to the researcher,” said JoAnn Kuchera-Morin, director of MATi.

The Allosphere will have the complete sphere infrastructure and screens installed by January, Kuchera-Morin said. Only the upper hemisphere is currently working. She said it would take another year, probably until around Jan. 2008, to get the audio speakers and projectors working together to create a believable 360 environment in the sphere.

Up to 15 people will be able to interact with the space once it is fully operational by standing on a bridge that runs through the center of the sphere. Tuesday’s demonstration of the top hemisphere consisted of a virtual reality tour through different sections of a human brain, which could be controlled with a motion-sensitive wireless controller or by pressing buttons on a spherical controller.

The demo was created from data collected by Marcos Novak, a professor with CNSI, and Marc Cohen, a researcher in the brain mapping division of the UCLA Neurology Dept. It was a simulation of the blood density level in Novak’s brain when, during a previous test, he saw something aesthetically pleasing. The density was designated in the sphere by high- and low-pitched noises.

“We made it a piece of art, so there’s a lot of stuff coming at you in the environment,” Kuchera-Morin said.

The three-story room is covered with about $1.5 million of acoustical tiling on all sides, making it a near “acoustic dead zone,” Kuchera-Morin said, meaning the only sounds heard in the chamber are intentional. The screens are “near black,” reducing image reflection within the sphere.

Once complete, this sound chamber will feature 500 speakers for three-dimensional audio, trumping even the loudest stereos at I.V. parties.

“It was designed by the same people who did the San Francisco concert hall,” Kuchera-Morin, who is a trained orchestral composer, said.

The Allosphere will also feature 14 separate projectors, eventually mounted underneath the bridge with mirrors, which will light the entirety of the sphere with environments that appear 3-D to the user wearing special glasses.

Creating such advanced graphics requires an array of 20 heavily modified Mac and PC computers, one of which can run around $14,000. The display poses special technical challenges because it must combine the output of multiple projectors into a single image, Kuchera-Morin said.

“The video boards are $4,500 a piece,” Kuchera-Morin said. “This is because they have to do edge-blending for the projectors.”

According to Kuchera-Morin, not factoring in the cost of the structure itself, the equipment alone required for this endeavor would be roughly $7.5 million at retail value. However, she said the money is being generated through outside means at a substantially cheaper price. Along with a possible $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation [[ok]], researchers are looking to foundations, grants and industrial partners for funds.

Kuchera-Morin said she hopes that she and her team of about 30 researchers can have the Allosphere partially operational by January, despite the few glitches present yesterday: the program running the brain display froze and had to be rebooted during the presentation.

According to Kuchera-Morin, the Allosphere was first conceptualized in the ’90s when existing methods of digital media were becoming obsolete. Planning for the project began in 2000.

“The technology in the ’90s wasn’t right,” Kuchera-Morin said. “You had to listen [to the environment] through headphones, and it was only in your head.”

In addition to brain imaging, forthcoming projects for the Allosphere include 3-D audio, a model to debug circuits, displays of cartography, human behavior and, of course, entertainment.

“It gets you as close to reality as possible so you can get as far away from reality as possible,” Kuchera-Morin said. “It’s gets us outside of our head.”

The Allosphere will also be able to interface with various areas on campus, as well as remotely partner with researchers at other universities. At the presentation preceding the tour, Matt Harnack of the Interdisciplinary Humanities Center said the data storage available through the San Diego Supercomputer Center can be accessed UC-wide.

“We are looking at getting fMRIs,” Kuchera-Morin said. “We will also be [planning the logistics of] getting data from other schools and our partners.”

She said it is important that students enjoy the Allosphere in spite of its research function.

“I’m in this lab for one reason … to make the best educational tool for future students. This is a research lab, but we’ll be open for business,” Kuchera-Morin said.