University of Calgary
UofC Navigation

Student computer scientists bring Giant Walkthrough Brain to life

Ambitious project merges high-end computer graphics and games with health and life sciences
August 6, 2014

Back row, from left: Trevor Day, associate professor of physiology at Mount Royal University and leader, singer and rhythm guitar player for the Free Radicals band; Douglas Yuen and Justin Kelly, master’s students in computer science; and Dylan Dobbyn, undergraduate student in bioinformatics. Seated: Christian Jacob, professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Calgary; Jay Ingram (on Facetime); and Tatiana Karaman, master’s student in the Computational Media Design program. Photo by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

Four University of Calgary students are at the heart (or brain!) of a unique collaboration with nationally acclaimed science communicator Jay Ingram and his music band, the Free Radicals. The team partnered to create the Giant Walkthrough Brain, a 75-minute stage performance that combines the latest in computer visualization, a playful twist on science storytelling, and a musical act to enrapture the spectators’ journey.

The show is based on a 1972 idea by neurosurgeon Joseph Bogen who argued that a giant walkthrough brain should be constructed. Bogen imagined a 60-storey building — a science museum of the human brain — built to educate large numbers of people by taking them on guided tours inside.

As charming and audacious as it was, a physical scale giant walkthrough brain was never built for cost reasons. However, modern computer technology and advances in computational human anatomy models now offer a way to explore a three-dimensional virtual human brain.

“I’ve always been fascinated with the brain and had been sitting with this idea of the giant walkthrough brain since the 1980s,” says Ingram, who narrates the show by telling a series of brain-related stories, from the workings of the frontal lobe to understanding pleasure centres. “When my band and I got in touch with the University of Calgary’s computer science team and Hotchkiss Brain Institute, we felt that the time had come to bring this vision to life in a virtual way,” he says.

Project brings together diverse experts

Prof. Christian Jacob from the Department of Computer Science in the Faculty of Science led the group of Computational Media Design (CMD), computer science, and bioinformatics students through the concept and design of the virtual brain walkthrough for the on-screen animation component of the performance.

“For all of us involved, this project demonstrates how people with very different backgrounds can work together, learn from each other, and create exceptional synergies to build something none of us could have achieved alone,” explains Jacob, who also heads the LINDSAY Virtual Human project.

As part of Jacob’s ongoing lab work, students build interactive, visually stunning computational representations of the human body. The intent is to bring these models to life by incorporating physiology and biomechanics, with the ultimate goal of creating a computational 3D anatomy platform that merges high-end computer graphics and games with health and life sciences.

How students contributed to ambitious model

For the Giant Walkthrough Brain project, Tatiana Karaman, a second year master’s student enrolled in the CMD program, worked on modeling key parts of the brain. She also developed components and designed the interface for the software application used to create the visual animations.

“It’s been exciting to work on this project because the brain is the central operation of the human body and there are still so many unknowns to discover about it,” explains Karaman, who has been involved in the LINDSAY project for the past five years. “I hope to use this most recent work for my thesis focused on developing an educational brain toolkit used in schools and science centres.”

Dylan Dobbyn, an undergraduate student in the bioinformatics program, worked on neuron simulation models.

“I’ve always had a big interest in physiology and computers which is why I went into this field,” explains Dobbyn. “This project has opened my eyes to new ideas and concepts in the realm of computer science and I hope to explore these new boundaries in the future.”

Douglas Yuen and Justin Kelly, both computer science master’s students, also supported the project by delivering technical software design and increasing the automation of key visual effects such as neural brain activity.

Yuen used a professional game development environment to combine 3D models, slides, and videos into the interactive brain walkthrough, while Kelly worked on the automation of creating large networks of interconnected neurons.

Walkthrough brain makes official debut Sept. 12-13 at Beakerhead

The Giant Walkthrough Brain performance will make its official international debut on Sept. 12 and 13 at the TELUS Spark as part of Beakerhead, Calgary’s science and technology festival. In preparation for the big reveal, the team hosted a sold-out public rehearsal at the Banff Centre on July 30.

The Hotchkiss Brain Institute at the University of Calgary provided valuable funding for the project, with additional financial support from NSERC, the Faculty of Science, and the Department of Computer Science. Zygote Media Group also provided the original 3D models for the project.