How the cloud lifts ‘The Expanse’ out of this world

Dominique Tipper on 'The Expanse'
Engineer Naomi Nagata (played by Dominique Tipper) watches a projectile whiz past her in an episode of “The Expanse.” Mavericks VFX was responsible for the whiz. (Mavericks VFX Photo)

It used to take a cast of thousands to create cinematic extravaganzas, but now the job can be done with a cast of dozens of artists and developers, plus thousands of cloud-connected computer servers.

The proof of that can be seen today in science-fiction epics ranging from “Star Wars” to “The Expanse.” And those shows merely hint at the beginning of a computer-generated revolution in visual effects, or VFX. Just wait until artificial intelligence hits its prime.

“That’s changing the game for all of us,” Brendan Taylor, president and visual effects supervisor for Mavericks VFX, told me. “That’s going to turn the VFX industry on its head in the next couple of years.”

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Air Force sets up prize for space visualization

Space object visualization
The VQ-Prize aims to boost the development of new visualization tools for space situational awareness. (Air Force Space Command via YouTube)

The U.S. Air Force is looking for a few good apps to visualize satellites and other objects in Earth orbit — and it’s willing to pay $100,000 in prizes for them.

That’s the bottom line for the Air Force Visionary Q-Prize Competition, or VQ-Prize, which runs through Jan. 15. The tech challenge is aimed at encouraging non-traditional industry partners to develop visualization tools to enhance space situational awareness for the Pentagon’s space operators.

“The need for timely and accurate object tracking is paramount to the defense of space, and this competition will help augment existing capabilities with visualization tools that enable operators to intuitively absorb and quickly navigate massive amounts of space object data,” Brig. Gen. William Liquori, the Air Force Space Command’s director of strategic requirements, architectures and analysis, said in a news release.

The software tools can include flat-screen user interfaces as well as virtual-reality and augmented-reality solutions. Contestants can include universities, individuals and small businesses. No background in space applications is required.

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Get a colorful 3-D view of human stem cells

3-D stem cell
A color-coded visualization shows a human stem cell as its nucleus undergoes mitosis and segmentation. (Allen Institute for Cell Science)

Imagine being able to see inside a transparent human stem cell, like the “Visible Man and Woman” models in biology class. That’s what the Seattle-based Allen Institute for Cell Science lets you do with its brand-new data imaging platform, the Allen Cell Explorer.

The cells you see on the screen aren’t made-up animations: They’re based on an analysis of high-quality photomicrographs documenting more than 6,000 induced pluripotent stem cells, or IPS cells, derived from human skin cells.

The IPS cells underwent gene editing to attach fluorescent markers to 11 different types of structures that make up the cells’ machinery – and that’s not all. The institute then applied deep-learning computational methods to predict the complete structure of each cell, based on their glowing patterns.

“This is the first time researchers have used deep learning to try and understand the elusive question of how actual cells are organized,” Rick Horwitz, the institute’s executive director, said in a news release.

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Map shows where climate will move species

Image: Migrations in Motion
A visualization shows the likely routes that would be taken by mammals (pink), birds (blue) and amphibians (yellow) as they move northward in response to climate change. (Credit: Mapbox / OpenStreetMap / Migrations in Motion / Nature Conservancy)

A University of Washington professor’s research into climate-caused migrations has been transformed into a hypnotic map of the Americas that gets the message across.

The animated map, titled “Migrations in Motion,” shows the trajectories that species are expected to take in response to the warming trend that’s likely to unfold over the course of the coming decades.

“One of the nice things about the map is that it gives you a look at the main effects of climate change for animals: that species are going to move around,” UW ecologist Joshua Lawler told GeekWire.

Three years ago, Lawler and his colleagues published a study in Ecology Letters that laid out the likely impact of rising temperatures on migration patterns for nearly 3,000 species.

The study suggested that species in North America would tend to shift toward more northerly habitats, following routes that went through higher elevations and less developed terrain. In the eastern United States, the Appalachian Mountains stuck out as a superhighway for species shifts.

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