Architect of Virtual Worlds

They research or use future technologies, develop innovative technology or algorithms, advance supercomputing or visualisations: in loose succession, we introduce young scientists here who are sure to hear more about themselves. In this episode: Elisabeth Mayer, who specialises in 3D applications and virtual or mixed reality at the Leibniz Supercomputing Centre and also builds wonderful digital worlds or impressively illustrates research results with the help of game engines.


A bridge for better learning: Graphics for the app "Bridge of Knowledge"

Admire golden stucco, glide over colourful marble inlays, contemplate old paintings: There is a lot to see in the chamber chapel of Electress Maria-Theresia at the Schleißheim Palaces. But the room and its delicate works of art may no longer be entered. At the Leibniz Supercomputing Centre (LRZ), the complete work of art has therefore been recreated in virtual worlds. Together with students from Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität Munich (LMU), the team from the Centre for Virtual Reality and Visualisation (V2C) digitally reconstructed the chapel and its altar niches from photos and plans - one of the first projects Elisabeth Mayer was involved in: "We support researcher to make better sense of their data by visualizing it," is how she describes her work.

The V2C team creates real experiences for the viewers: Equipped with a head-mounted display and controllers for the hands, they can not only navigate through the chamber chapel and zoom in on details, but also - in other applications - fly through the alleys of the SuperMUC-NG or scrutinize how blood flows in the veins: "Virtual or augmented reality applications create immersive experiences and help scientists to intensively explore and thus better understand phenomena from the environment or medicine or art," explains the 3D specialist. "The challenge here is Big Data, the question is always how we can import and visualise huge amounts of data in VR applications."

Combining technology and art

The preparation and visualisation of data is teamwork and takes time. 20 students worked with lecturers and V2C experts on the lifelike model of the Chamber Chapel for more than a year. Know-how, data analysis, 3D modelling, graphic and illustrative tasks and programming all come together. Elisabeth has specialised in 3D modelling, photorealistic illustration and programming of interaction possibilities. She makes sure that the presentation is true to reality and that the viewers move smoothly in the models, that the incidence of light, shadows and colours are correct in every position and that fast zooms do not jerk. To do this, she works with image processing and 3D programmes, as well as with game engines that are used to develop online games: "Every model is different; in the case of art, it is often about realism and experiencing spatiality, whereas in subjects like biology, astrophysics or geophysics, it is more about reducing information and highlighting the essentials," says the multimedia specialist. "For this, data has to be manually prepared, supplemented and modelled, and finally VR software has to be used to programme the interaction possibilities for viewing." With special glasses you can see and experience these works with all senses or immersivly in the five-sided LRZ Cave, a projection installation for image and sound. With controllers for hands VR work can not only be detected but also be worked with the showed details.

It is the mix of programming and design that appeals to her: Elisabeth wants to build bridges between art and technology, from research to the public, and yes, also between women and technology. She found her subject through the Lord of the Rings film trilogy and the question of how its fantasy worlds and effects are created. "For that, new worlds were created and reality expanded, I wanted to be able to do that, too," she says. "I want to combine computer technology with creativity." After her A-levels, she enrolled in computer science at the LMU and, because it was too one-sidedly technical, switched to art and multimedia. She came to the LRZ as a student assistant via a course on 3D modelling before completing her Bachelor's degree in 2017 and stayed on as a staff member after graduation 2018: "The course project was to result in an interactive VR application, which was exactly what I wanted to do, so I applied the same day."

Since then, the Cape Town native has dived even deeper into virtual worlds, developed further tools and programmes, set up a beer garden, a Christmas market and trade fair stand for the LRZ in the Mozilla Hubs for presentation purposes, developed VR representations for art history and took over the technical project management of a learning app : "Bridge of Knowledge" is an adventure quiz that can be filled with a wide variety of learning content, the bridge as the central symbol for entering knowledge worlds. She has also contributed her skills to much acclaimed, excellent visualisations. The latest, a representation of blood flow in the forearm, is currently causing a furore in the high-performance computing (HPC) community. For this, not only were measured values and image data processed, but with scientists from the European Centre of Exzellence CompBioMed and colleagues, Elisabeth developed workflows and tools so that the HPC programme HemeLB for simulating blood flow can be run with the ray tracer Intel OSPRay for visualisation on the LRZ's SuperMUC-NG. Both now help researchers visualise comparable data. "SuperMUC-NG simulates research data with programmes like HemeLB, we turn the results into VR applications that people can interact with in real time."


Some Mozilla Hubs for LRZ

Planning is everything

The media specialist explains this work confidently and comprehensibly at conferences and in webinars. Elisabeth Mayer has also been teaching 3D modelling and how to use game engines to process research data at LMU for some time. She takes away schoolgirls' shyness about IT and technology by showing them how to create three-dimensional images (photogrammetry) from smartphone photos or how to build their own 3D worlds on the internet at Girls' Day. A busy and interested person who mediates and inspires: Colleagues appreciate her professionalism, value her know-how of various programmes, as well as her good planning skill and ideas. "There is no task or challenge she is not up to, she always finds a solution," says Daniel Kolb, PhD student and colleague at the V2C. Elisabeth has her say when it comes to design, pop culture, art or research. She knows music, discusses politics, literature. She plays the cello herself and is interested in classical and film music. Draws in a sketchbook as well as on an iPad. Likes Art Nouveau, especially the works of Alfons Mucha and the Dutch digital artist Lois van Baalen. "Elisabeth naturally takes over the organisation and documentation for upcoming projects, always shows appreciation and gives honest feedback and motivates," adds colleague Kristian Weinand. "It's quite amazing how many projects she works on in parallel."

That, in her turn, is a matter of "structured procedure". Elisabeth comes to the interview prepared, brings a notebook and first written information. She listens intently, asks questions and sometimes takes some more time to think about her answers. And she really does a lot: as a finger exercise and to learn new programmes or working techniques, she co-develops online games or apps at game jams and hackathons. She designs and programmes her own media installations: "Currently, I'm focusing on the transitions between digital worlds and real life and how the two are connected." The multimedia talent has yet to come up with a master's subject: "There is still no subject that really suits my work," she says and smiles. "There is so much happening in the field of VR at the moment, at the LRZ I can deal with the latest technology, and I also want to keep the mix of creativity and technology. Master's programmes for my field are just emerging." Computer science is out of the question, media informatics doesn't quite fit either, and a Master's in art and multimedia is not (yet) possible. So Elisabeth stays on at the LRZ and supports research here. "It may be that researchers are sometimes surprised that I'm only in my mid-20s, but as soon as they get to know me and my experience, the conversation is on an equal footing," she says. "I've found my place at the LRZ, I'm doing exactly what I've always wanted to do here - VR, 3D visualisations, supporting science and bringing research results to a broad audience." Or building bridges in the digital. (vs)


Elisabeth Mayer, LRZ

More young researchers and specialists you should know:

Amir Raoofy, TUM: Compouter Science and Supercomputing (HPC)

Mohamad Hayek, LRZ: Computer Science and Datatransfer

Sophia Grundner-Culemann, LMU, cryptography

Bengisu Elis, TUM, supercomputing and programming models

Daniëlle Schuman, LMU, quantum computing