ASU's decision theater ushers in new age in public policy


TEMPE, Ariz. A new age is dawning on public policy, one based on advanced scientifically informed decision making, with the May 23 opening of the Decision Theater at Arizona State University.

The Decision Theater is an advanced visualization environment that will enable policymakers and others to see in detailed three-dimensional representation the consequences of their actions. It will feature a 260-degree "immersive environment" where researchers will literally see the effects of public policy decisions played out before them.

"The Decision Theater is an exciting new concept that melds science with public policy in a novel way, which we expect will have a huge impact in a number of socially important areas," said ASU President Michael Crow. "The Decision Theater will provide informed analysis based on scientific evidence to key public policy experts, who then can use that analysis on which to discuss issues and provide a basis for sound policy decisions."

As a tool designed to aid the public, the Decision Theater will focus on real-world issues relevant to today's society. Using computer models and computer visualization techniques, the Decision Theater at Arizona State University will enable researchers to test the outcomes of decisions made today on such topics as urban growth and water usage, and the effects of policy decisions on public health and on a myriad of environmental and social challenges.

"We are connecting science to the community with this new facility," said Decision Theater Executive Director Rick Shangraw. "The Decision Theater will be an important resource for policy makers by providing interactive forums to identify and assess probable outcomes of real world decisions, review the potential impacts of varying policy decisions, and provide visualizations of alternative future scenarios and scientific analyses produced by complex and integrated computer models.

The Decision Theater will be used in several targeted research areas, including:

  • Enabling policy makers, business leaders and government officials to explore the outcomes of possible scenarios of urban development, such as water availability, urban heating, land use patterns, transportation networks, air quality and homeland security.
  • As a forum where decision makers and scientists meet to discuss and explore integrated environmental, economic and social challenges to arrive at optimal decisions through the use of models and dialogue.
  • In simulation games, or "what if" scenarios, to model and visualize otherwise unimaginable future outcomes of the many factors that affect our society and possible "breaking points" of our critical infrastructure. For example, ASU researchers will be able to simulate metropolitan Phoenix in the year 2040, when it is expected to include a population of 7 million people, by inputting the known and expected growth patterns and associated demands for water and other natural resources.

Decision Theater will be a key tool to be used by researchers who are part of the Decision Center for a Desert City, a recently funded $6.9 million National Science Foundation center at ASU. Decision Theater is located in the Brickyard complex in downtown Tempe.

At the core of Decision Theater is the "drum," a theater area for up to 20 people, a significant advance in three-dimensional immersive environments, which are usually limited in the number of participants. In the Decision Theater, groups of people can experience the simulations in the drum and then use the analysis towards more informed decision-making.

The Decision Theater employs seven digital-image projectors back projecting stereo images onto seven high definition screens to achieve the 260-degree image surround. Hardware design and system set up is provided by Fakespace Systems Inc., Marshalltown, Iowa, a leader in virtual reality and immersive environments.

"ASU will have one of the highest performing and most state-of-the-art virtual reality systems in existence today," said Chris Clover, president and CEO of Fakespace Systems Inc. "The ASU system will have the largest number of stereoscopic imaging channels with advanced high resolution and high brightness projectors with more than 10 million pixels (7 channels at 1400x1050 resolution and more than 7,000 lumens of brightness each) to be installed and integrated in the virtual reality field.

"What also makes the ASU system unique is its use of advanced PCI Express video graphics technology from NVIDIA Inc., into a 7-node PC cluster," Clover added. "This will be one of the earliest systems to make use of this technology, especially in a multi-channel virtual reality system. Fakespace is proud to be a key partner in deploying this system."

Anshuman Razdan, director of research and technology at the Decision Theater said a key capability of the facility is its ability to incorporate and integrate complex multi-dimensional data from a variety of sources, such as numeric and spatial data, into models and simulations for display in an immersive environment.

"With this data fusion, we can take data from different sources, which oftentimes are gathered and presented in specific and varying ways, and integrate them to provide a complete picture of the scenario we are monitoring or simulating," Razdan said.

Initial funding for the Decision Theater came from Ira A. Fulton ($3 million) and ASU, ($3 million). Shangraw said they are looking into additional individual and corporate sponsors for the facility with the overall goal for it to become self sufficient in a couple of years.

Decision Theater researchers already have begun one project with the East Valley Water Forum, a regional cooperative of city planning managers in the eastern suburbs of Phoenix. This group is developing data driven scenarios for ground water policy issues under a variety of drought scenarios. These scenarios will allow decision makers to investigate options and potential impacts of coordinated water management plans. Their work will assist them in reaching informed planning decisions as the eastern portion of Maricopa County continues its explosive growth.

Shangraw says officials at Decision Theater also are in discussions with federal agencies on additional uses for the Decision Theater.

"This powerful tool will be an important element to any public policy researcher or agency that needs to project the impact of their decisions into the future," Shangraw explained. "The Decision Theater will help those people understand the full extent of their policy decisions and help provide scientifically based informed analysis that has never been available before in this type of forum."

Source: Eurekalert & others

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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