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Virtual High Energy Physics

By Rob Mitchum // November 16, 2015

You’re walking down a nondescript corridor lit by a harsh overhead light. As you exit the passage, you find yourself in an enormous room, dominated by a massive, shiny cylinder suspended in the middle of the chamber. With a flick of your thumb, you’re suddenly floating up towards the ceiling, looking down upon one of the world’s largest and most unique scientific instruments. Another few thumb and head motions, and you’re suddenly a proton, shooting down the beam pipe at the center of the machinery and into a long tunnel.

For the last few years, tech geeks have hyped up the Oculus Rift as the future of video gaming, the first consumer-ready “virtual reality” device. With a headset that provides stereoscopic 3D and motion tracking, users experience an immersive and interactive 360° environment, moving around with the aid of a game controller. Though Rifts don’t officially hit store shelves until next year, many developers have already been building software for the devices, including games, movies, and…virtual tours of particle accelerators.

Ilija Vukotic, a researcher with the Computation Institute and the ATLAS experiment, decided to put his Rift Developer Kit to use on a personal project: creating a virtual tour of the ATLAS particle detector at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider. With help from the CI’s Rob Gardner, Edward Moyse from University of Massachusetts, Dale Mertes from the University of Chicago, and Abha Eli Phoboo, Vukotic used the Unreal game engine to replicate the “experiment pit” 100 meters beneath the France-Switzerland border and the 46-meter-long, 7,000-ton detector it holds. By doing so, he would make it possible for everyone to visit this one-of-a-kind facility, regardless of their ability to fly to Geneva or gain security clearance.

That includes many of the 3,000 scientists on the ATLAS project, not all of whom get the chance to visit CERN or see the ATLAS detector in person during their time on the experiment. And so far it has proven popular in the physics world. During demos at CERN, several physicists in the audience took camera photos of the screen (“an unusual sight at a physics talk,” Vukotic joked), and a presentation at a recent conference created long lines to try out the program.

“Even if you work at CERN, it’s not easy to visit the detector space,” Vukotic said. “This gives physicists on ATLAS and others in the field the next best interaction to seeing it with their own eyes.”

The experience will also be useful for educational efforts, teaching students of all ages about the work going on at ATLAS and the LHC in general. To that end, Vukotic programmed in some “bonus features” that aren’t available to an actual CERN visitor, such as the ability to strip away layers of the detector — which is actually several detectors in one — to see each of the various components.

Another feature added to the software is the “Events” option, which allows users to get a particle’s-eye view of a typical ATLAS experiment. Vukotic hopes to further develop this feature to help physicists better visualize the collisions captured by the detector, allowing researchers to follow particle tracks in three dimensions.

But if you don’t feel like wandering around yourself or analyzing data, you can always take the tour, narrated (in the pilot version) by ATLAS scientist Steven Goldfarb. Like an amusement park ride following a track, it drops you down an 80-meter shaft, around the detector, into the LHC beam pipe, and more, while teaching you about the various goals of the ATLAS experiment and the LHC in general.

Before the Oculus Rift is released more widely next year, Vukotic is working to add various new capabilities to the software, such as a multiplayer mode where users could interact in real-time with physicist “tour guides” from ATLAS. He’s also hoping to bring the application to more classrooms and museums, as a vivid introduction to the groundbreaking discoveries underway at the LHC. For now, if you happen to have an Oculus Rift device, you can download an early version of the software here, or if not, you can watch a walkthrough below.

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