Designed especially for neurobiologists, FluoRender is an interactive tool for multi-channel fluorescence microscopy data visualization and analysis.
Large scale visualization on the Powerwall.
BrainStimulator is a set of networks that are used in SCIRun to perform simulations of brain stimulation such as transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) and magnetic transcranial stimulation (TMS).
Developing software tools for science has always been a central vision of the SCI Institute.

SCI Publications


A. Bigelow, S. Drucker, D. Fisher, M.D. Meyer. “Reflections on How Designers Design With Data,” In Proceedings of the ACM International Conference on Advanced Visual Interfaces (AVI), Note: Awarded Best Paper!, 2014.


In recent years many popular data visualizations have emerged that are created largely by designers whose main area of expertise is not computer science. Designers generate these visualizations using a handful of design tools and environments. To better inform the development of tools intended for designers working with data, we set out to understand designers' challenges and perspectives. We interviewed professional designers, conducted observations of designers working with data in the lab, and observed designers working with data in team settings in the wild. A set of patterns emerged from these observations from which we extract a number of themes that provide a new perspective on design considerations for visualization tool creators, as well as on known engineering problems.

Keywords: Visualization, infographics, design practice

G. McInerny, M. Chen, R. Freeman, D. Gavaghan, M.D. Meyer, F. Rowland, D. Spiegelhalter, M. Steganer, G. Tessarolo, J. Hortal. “Information Visualization for Science and Policy: Engaging Users and Avoiding Bias,” In Trends in Ecology & Evolution, Vol. 29, No. 3, pp. 148--157. 2014.
DOI: 10.1016/j.tree.2014.01.003


Visualisations and graphics are fundamental to studying complex subject matter. However, beyond acknowledging this value, scientists and science-policy programmes rarely consider how visualisations can enable discovery, create engaging and robust reporting, or support online resources. Producing accessible and unbiased visualisations from complicated, uncertain data requires expertise and knowledge from science, policy, computing, and design. However, visualisation is rarely found in our scientific training, organisations, or collaborations. As new policy programmes develop [e.g., the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES)], we need information visualisation to permeate increasingly both the work of scientists and science policy. The alternative is increased potential for missed discoveries, miscommunications, and, at worst, creating a bias towards the research that is easiest to display.

S. McKenna, D. Mazur, J. Agutter, M.D. Meyer. “Design Activity Framework for Visualization Design,” In IEEE Transactions on Visualization and Computer Graphics (TVCG), 2014.


An important aspect in visualization design is the connection between what a designer does and the decisions the designer makes. Existing design process models, however, do not explicitly link back to models for visualization design decisions. We bridge this gap by introducing the design activity framework, a process model that explicitly connects to the nested model, a well-known visualization design decision model. The framework includes four overlapping activities that characterize the design process, with each activity explicating outcomes related to the nested model. Additionally, we describe and characterize a list of exemplar methods and how they overlap among these activities. The design activity framework is the result of reflective discussions from a collaboration on a visualization redesign project, the details of which we describe to ground the framework in a real-world design process. Lastly, from this redesign project we provide several research outcomes in the domain of cybersecurity, including an extended data abstraction and rich opportunities for future visualization research.

Keywords: Design, frameworks, process, cybersecurity, nested model, decisions, models, evaluation, visualization

M.D. Meyer, M. Sedlmair, P.S. Quinan, T. Munzner. “The Nested Blocks and Guidelines Model,” In Journal of Information Visualization, Special Issue on Evaluation (BELIV), 2014.


We propose the nested blocks and guidelines model (NBGM) for the design and validation of visualization systems. The NBGM extends the previously proposed four-level nested model by adding finer grained structure within each level, providing explicit mechanisms to capture and discuss design decision rationale. Blocks are the outcomes of the design process at a specific level, and guidelines discuss relationships between these blocks. Blocks at the algorithm and technique levels describe design choices, as do data blocks at the abstraction level, whereas task abstraction blocks and domain situation blocks are identified as the outcome of the designer's understanding of the requirements. In the NBGM, there are two types of guidelines: within-level guidelines provide comparisons for blocks within the same level, while between-level guidelines provide mappings between adjacent levels of design. We analyze several recent papers using the NBGM to provide concrete examples of how a researcher can use blocks and guidelines to describe and evaluate visualization research. We also discuss the NBGM with respect to other design models to clarify its role in visualization design. Using the NBGM, we pinpoint two implications for visualization evaluation. First, comparison of blocks at the domain level must occur implicitly downstream at the abstraction level; and second, comparison between blocks must take into account both upstream assumptions and downstream requirements. Finally, we use the model to analyze two open problems: the need for mid-level task taxonomies to fill in the task blocks at the abstraction level, as well as the need for more guidelines mapping between the algorithm and technique levels.


A. Abdul-Rahman, J. Lein, K. Coles, E. Maguire, M.D. Meyer, M. Wynne, C.R. Johnson, A. Trefethen, M. Chen. “Rule-based Visual Mappings - with a Case Study on Poetry Visualization,” In Proceedings of the 2013 Eurographics Conference on Visualization (EuroVis), Vol. 32, No. 3, pp. 381--390. June, 2013.


In this paper, we present a user-centered design study on poetry visualization. We develop a rule-based solution to address the conflicting needs for maintaining the flexibility of visualizing a large set of poetic variables and for reducing the tedium and cognitive load in interacting with the visual mapping control panel. We adopt Munzner's nested design model to maintain high-level interactions with the end users in a closed loop. In addition, we examine three design options for alleviating the difficulty in visualizing poems latitudinally. We present several example uses of poetry visualization in scholarly research on poetry.

M. Hall, R.M. Kirby, F. Li, M.D. Meyer, V. Pascucci, J.M. Phillips, R. Ricci, J. Van der Merwe, S. Venkatasubramanian. “Rethinking Abstractions for Big Data: Why, Where, How, and What,” In Cornell University Library, 2013.


Big data refers to large and complex data sets that, under existing approaches, exceed the capacity and capability of current compute platforms, systems software, analytical tools and human understanding [7]. Numerous lessons on the scalability of big data can already be found in asymptotic analysis of algorithms and from the high-performance computing (HPC) and applications communities. However, scale is only one aspect of current big data trends; fundamentally, current and emerging problems in big data are a result of unprecedented complexity |in the structure of the data and how to analyze it, in dealing with unreliability and redundancy, in addressing the human factors of comprehending complex data sets, in formulating meaningful analyses, and in managing the dense, power-hungry data centers that house big data.

The computer science solution to complexity is finding the right abstractions, those that hide as much triviality as possible while revealing the essence of the problem that is being addressed. The "big data challenge" has disrupted computer science by stressing to the very limits the familiar abstractions which define the relevant subfields in data analysis, data management and the underlying parallel systems. Efficient processing of big data has shifted systems towards increasingly heterogeneous and specialized units, with resilience and energy becoming important considerations. The design and analysis of algorithms must now incorporate emerging costs in communicating data driven by IO costs, distributed data, and the growing energy cost of these operations. Data analysis representations as structural patterns and visualizations surpass human visual bandwidth, structures studied at small scale are rare at large scale, and large-scale high-dimensional phenomena cannot be reproduced at small scale.

As a result, not enough of these challenges are revealed by isolating abstractions in a traditional soft-ware stack or standard algorithmic and analytical techniques, and attempts to address complexity either oversimplify or require low-level management of details. The authors believe that the abstractions for big data need to be rethought, and this reorganization needs to evolve and be sustained through continued cross-disciplinary collaboration.

In what follows, we first consider the question of why big data and why now. We then describe the where (big data systems), the how (big data algorithms), and the what (big data analytics) challenges that we believe are central and must be addressed as the research community develops these new abstractions. We equate the biggest challenges that span these areas of big data with big mythological creatures, namely cyclops, that should be conquered.

R.M. Kirby, M.D. Meyer. “Visualization Collaborations: What Works and Why,” In IEEE Computer Graphics and Applications: Visualization Viewpoints, Vol. 33, No. 6, pp. 82--88. 2013.


In 1987, Bruce McCormick and his colleagues outlined the current state and future vision of visualization in scientific computing.1 That same year, Donna Cox pioneered her concept of the "Renaissance team"-a multidisciplinary team of experts focused on solving visualization problems.2 Even if a member of the visualization community has never read McCormick and his colleagues' report or heard Donna Cox speak, he or she has probably been affected by some of their ideas.

Of particular interest to us is their vision for collaboration. McCormick and his colleagues envisioned an interdisciplinary team that through close interaction would develop visualization tools that not only were effective in the context of their immediate collaborative environment but also could be reused by scientists and engineers in other fields. McCormick and his colleagues categorized the types of researchers they imagined constituting these teams, one type being the "visualization scientist/engineer." They even commented on the skills these individuals might have. However, they provided little guidance on how to make such teams successful.

In the more than 25 years since the report, researchers have refined the concepts of interaction versus collaboration,3 interdisciplinary versus multidisciplinary teams,4,5 and independence versus interdependence.6 Here, we use observations from our collective 18 years of collaborative visualization research to help shed light on not just the composition of current and future visualization collaborative teams but also pitfalls and recommendations for successful collaboration. Although our statements might reflect what seasoned visualization researchers are already doing, we believe that reexpressing and possibly reaffirming basic collaboration principles provide benefits.


A. Duchowski, M. Price, M.D. Meyer, P. Orero. “Aggregate Gaze Visualization with Real-Time Heatmaps,” In Proceedings of the ACM Symposium on Eye Tracking Research and Applications (ETRA), pp. 13--20. 2012.
DOI: 10.1145/2168556.2168558


A GPU implementation is given for real-time visualization of aggregate eye movements (gaze) via heatmaps. Parallelization of the algorithm leads to substantial speedup over its CPU-based implementation and, for the first time, allows real-time rendering of heatmaps atop video. GLSL shader colorization allows the choice of color ramps. Several luminance-based color maps are advocated as alternatives to the popular rainbow color map, considered inappropriate (harmful) for depiction of (relative) gaze distributions.

M.D. Meyer, M. Sedlmair, T. Munzner. “The Four-Level Nested Model Revisited: Blocks and Guidelines,” In Workshop on BEyond time and errors: novel evaLuation methods for Information Visualization (BELIV), IEEE VisWeek 2012, 2012.


We propose an extension to the four-level nested model for design and validation of visualization systems that defines the term \"guidelines\" in terms of blocks at each level. Blocks are the outcomes of the design process at a specific level, and guidelines discuss relationships between these blocks. Within-level guidelines provide comparisons for blocks within the same level, while between-level guidelines provide mappings between adjacent levels of design. These guidelines help a designer choose which abstractions, techniques, and algorithms are reasonable to combine when building a visualization system. This definition of guideline allows analysis of how the validation efforts in different kinds of papers typically lead to different kinds of guidelines. Analysis through the lens of blocks and guidelines also led us to identify four major needs: a definition of the meaning of block at the problem level; mid-level task taxonomies to fill in the blocks at the abstraction level; refinement of the model itself at the abstraction level; and a more complete set of guidelines that map up from the algorithm level to the technique level. These gaps in visualization knowledge present rich opportunities for future work.

M. Sedlmair, M.D. Meyer, T. Munzner. “Design Study Methodology: Reflections from the Trenches and the Stacks,” In IEEE Transactions on Visualization and Computer Graphics, Vol. 18, No. 12, Note: Honorable Mention for Best Paper Award., pp. 2431--2440. 2012.


Design studies are an increasingly popular form of problem-driven visualization research, yet there is little guidance available about how to do them effectively. In this paper we reflect on our combined experience of conducting twenty-one design studies, as well as reading and reviewing many more, and on an extensive literature review of other field work methods and methodologies. Based on this foundation we provide definitions, propose a methodological framework, and provide practical guidance for conducting design studies. We define a design study as a project in which visualization researchers analyze a specific real-world problem faced by domain experts, design a visualization system that supports solving this problem, validate the design, and reflect about lessons learned in order to refine visualization design guidelines. We characterize two axes—a task clarity axis from fuzzy to crisp and an information location axis from the domain expert’s head to the computer—and use these axes to reason about design study contributions, their suitability, and uniqueness from other approaches. The proposed methodological framework consists of 9 stages: learn, winnow, cast, discover, design, implement, deploy, reflect, and write. For each stage we provide practical guidance and outline potential pitfalls. We also conducted an extensive literature survey of related methodological approaches that involve a significant amount of qualitative field work, and compare design study methodology to that of ethnography, grounded theory, and action research.


C. Fowlkes, K. Eckenrode, M. Bragdon, M.D. Meyer, Z. Wunderlich, L. Simirenko, C. Luengo, S. Keranen, C. Henriquez, D. Knowles, M. Biggin, M. Eisen, A. DePace. “A Conservered Developmental Patterning Network Produces Quantitatively Different Output in Multiple Species of Drosophila,” In PLoS Genetics, Vol. 7, No. 10:e1002346, pp. 17 pages. October, 2011.


Differences in the level, timing, or location of gene expression can contribute to alternative phenotypes at the molecular and organismal level. Understanding the origins of expression differences is complicated by the fact that organismal morphology and gene regulatory networks could potentially vary even between closely related species. To assess the scope of such changes, we used high-resolution imaging methods to measure mRNA expression in blastoderm embryos of Drosophila yakuba and Drosophila pseudoobscura and assembled these data into cellular resolution atlases, where expression levels for 13 genes in the segmentation network are averaged into species-specific, cellular resolution morphological frameworks. We demonstrate that the blastoderm embryos of these species differ in their morphology in terms of size, shape, and number of nuclei. We present an approach to compare cellular gene expression patterns between species, while accounting for varying embryo morphology, and apply it to our data and an equivalent dataset for Drosophila melanogaster. Our analysis reveals that all individual genes differ quantitatively in their spatio-temporal expression patterns between these species, primarily in terms of their relative position and dynamics. Despite many small quantitative differences, cellular gene expression profiles for the whole set of genes examined are largely similar. This suggests that cell types at this stage of development are conserved, though they can differ in their relative position by up to 3-4 cell widths and in their relative proportion between species by as much as 5-fold. Quantitative differences in the dynamics and relative level of a subset of genes between corresponding cell types may reflect altered regulatory functions between species. Our results emphasize that transcriptional networks can diverge over short evolutionary timescales and that even small changes can lead to distinct output in terms of the placement and number of equivalent cells.


M. Grabherr, P. Russell, M.D. Meyer, E. Mauceli, J. Alföldi, F. Di Palma, K. Lindblad-Toh. “Genome-wide synteny through highly sensitive sequence alignment: Satsuma,” In Bioinformatics, Vol. 26, No. 9, pp. 1145--1151. 2010.


Motivation: Comparative genomics heavily relies on alignments of large and often complex DNA sequences. From an engineering perspective, the problem here is to provide maximum sensitivity (to find all there is to find), specificity (to only find real homology) and speed (to accommodate the billions of base pairs of vertebrate genomes).

Results: Satsuma addresses all three issues through novel strategies: (i) cross-correlation, implemented via fast Fourier transform; (ii) a match scoring scheme that eliminates almost all false hits; and (iii) an asynchronous 'battleship'-like search that allows for aligning two entire fish genomes (470 and 217 Mb) in 120 CPU hours using 15 processors on a single machine.

Availability: Satsuma is part of the Spines software package, implemented in C++ on Linux. The latest version of Spines can be freely downloaded under the LGPL license from Contact:

M.D. Meyer, T. Munzner, A. DePace, H. Pfister. “MulteeSum: A Tool for Comparative Spatial and Temporal Gene Expression Data,” In IEEE Transactions on Visualization and Computer Graphics (Proceedings of InfoVis 2010), Vol. 16, No. 6, pp. 908--917. 2010.


Cells in an organism share the same genetic information in their DNA, but have very different forms and behavior because of the selective expression of subsets of their genes. The widely used approach of measuring gene expression over time from a tissue sample using techniques such as microarrays or sequencing do not provide information about the spatial position within the tissue where these genes are expressed. In contrast, we are working with biologists who use techniques that measure gene expression in every individual cell of entire fruitfly embryos over an hour of their development, and do so for multiple closely-related subspecies of Drosophila. These scientists are faced with the challenge of integrating temporal gene expression data with the spatial location of cells and, moreover, comparing this data across multiple related species. We have worked with these biologists over the past two years to develop MulteeSum, a visualization system that supports inspection and curation of data sets showing gene expression over time, in conjunction with the spatial location of the cells where the genes are expressed — it is the first tool to support comparisons across multiple such data sets. MulteeSum is part of a general and flexible framework we developed with our collaborators that is built around multiple summaries for each cell, allowing the biologists to explore the results of computations that mix spatial information, gene expression measurements over time, and data from multiple related species or organisms. We justify our design decisions based on specific descriptions of the analysis needs of our collaborators, and provide anecdotal evidence of the efficacy of MulteeSum through a series of case studies.

M.D. Meyer, B. Wong, M. Styczynski, T. Munzner, H. Pfister. “Pathline: A Tool for Comparative Functional Genomics,” In Computer Graphics Forum, Vol. 29, No. 3, Wiley-Blackwell, pp. 1043--1052. Aug, 2010.
DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8659.2009.01710.x


Biologists pioneering the new field of comparative functional genomics attempt to infer the mechanisms of gene regulation by looking for similarities and differences of gene activity over time across multiple species. They use three kinds of data: functional data such as gene activity measurements, pathway data that represent a series of reactions within a cellular process, and phylogenetic relationship data that describe the relatedness of species. No existing visualization tool can visually encode the biologically interesting relationships between multiple pathways, multiple genes, and multiple species. We tackle the challenge of visualizing all aspects of this comparative functional genomics dataset with a new interactive tool called Pathline. In addition to the overall characterization of the problem and design of Pathline, our contributions include two new visual encoding techniques. One is a new method for linearizing metabolic pathways that provides appropriate topological information and supports the comparison of quantitative data along the pathway. The second is the curvemap view, a depiction of time series data for comparison of gene activity and metabolite levels across multiple species. Pathline was developed in close collaboration with a team of genomic scientists. We validate our approach with case studies of the biologists' use of Pathline and report on how they use the tool to confirm existing findings and to discover new scientific insights.


M.D. Meyer, T. Munzner, H. Pfister. “MizBee: A Multiscale Synteny Browser,” In IEEE Transactions on Visualization and Computer Graphics (Proceedings of InfoVis 2009), Vol. 15, No. 6, Note: Honorable Mention for Best Paper Award, pp. 897--904. 2009.


In the field of comparative genomics, scientists seek to answer questions about evolution and genomic function by comparing the genomes of species to find regions of shared sequences. Conserved syntenic blocks are an important biological data abstraction for indicating regions of shared sequences. The goal of this work is to show multiple types of relationships at multiple scales in a way that is visually comprehensible in accordance with known perceptual principles. We present a task analysis for this domain where the fundamental questions asked by biologists can be understood by a characterization of relationships into the four types of proximity/location, size, orientation, and similarity/strength, and the four scales of genome, chromosome, block, and genomic feature. We also propose a new taxonomy of the design space for visually encoding conservation data. We present MizBee, a multiscale synteny browser with the unique property of providing interactive side-by-side views of the data across the range of scales supporting exploration of all of these relationship types. We conclude with case studies from two biologists who used MizBee to augment their previous automatic analysis work flow, providing anecdotal evidence about the efficacy of the system for the visualization of syntenic data, the analysis of conservation relationships, and the communication of scientific insights.

A.R. Sanderson, M.D. Meyer, R.M. Kirby, C.R. Johnson. “A Framework for Exploring Numerical Solutions of Advection Reaction Diffusion Equations using a GPU Based Approach,” In Journal of Computing and Visualization in Science, Vol. 12, pp. 155--170. 2009.
DOI: 10.1007/s00791-008-0086-0


C. Ledergerber, G. Guennebaud, M.D. Meyer, M. Bacher, H. Pfister. “Volume MLS Ray Casting,” In IEEE Transactions on Visualization and Computer Graphics (Proceedings of Visualization 2008), Vol. 14, No. 6, pp. 1539--1546. 2008.


The method of Moving Least Squares (MLS) is a popular framework for reconstructing continuous functions from scattered data due to its rich mathematical properties and well-understood theoretical foundations. This paper applies MLS to volume rendering, providing a unified mathematical framework for ray casting of scalar data stored over regular as well as irregular grids. We use the MLS reconstruction to render smooth isosurfaces and to compute accurate derivatives for high-quality shading effects. We also present a novel, adaptive preintegration scheme to improve the efficiency of the ray casting algorithm by reducing the overall number of function evaluations, and an efficient implementation of our framework exploiting modern graphics hardware. The resulting system enables high-quality volume integration and shaded isosurface rendering for regular and irregular volume data.

M.D. Meyer, R.T. Whitaker, R.M. Kirby, C. Ledergerber, H. Pfister. “Particle-based Sampling and Meshing of Surfaces in Multimaterial Volumes,” In IEEE Transactions on Visualization and Computer Graphics, Vol. 14, No. 6, pp. 1539--1546. 2008.

M.D. Meyer. “Dynamic Particle Systems for Adaptive Sampling of Implicit Surfaces,” School of Computing, University of Utah, 2008.


A ubiquitous requirement in many mathematical and computational problems is a set of well-placed point samples. For producing very even distributions of samples across complex surfaces, a dynamic particle system is a controllable mechanism that naturally accommodates strict sampling requirements. The systemfirst constrains particles to a surface, and then moves the particles across the surface until they are arranged in minimal energy configurations. Adaptivity is added into the system by scaling the distance between particles, causing higher densities of points around surface features. In this dissertation we explore and refine the dynamics of particle systems for generating efficient and adaptive point samples of implicit surfaces.

Throughout this dissertation, we apply the adaptive particle system framework to several application areas. First, efficient visualizations of high-order finite element datasets are generated by developing adaptivity metrics of surfaces that exist in the presence of curvilinear coordinate transformation. Second, a framework is proposed that meets fundamental sampling constraints of Delaunay-based surface reconstruction algorithms. In meeting these constraints, the particle distributions produce nearly-regular, efficient isosurface tessellation that are geometrically and topologically accurate. And third, a novel analytic representation of material boundaries in multimaterial volume datasets is developed, as well as a set of projection operators, that allow for explicit sampling of nonmanifold material intersections. Using a tetrahedral labeling algorithm, the material intersections are extracted as watertight, nonmanifold meshes that are well-suited for simulations.

R.T. Whitaker, R.M. Kirby, J.G. Sinstra, M.D. Meyer. “Multimaterial Meshing of MRI Head Data for Bioelectric Field Simulations,” In Proceedings of the 17th International Meshing Roundtable, 2008.


The problem of body fitting meshes that are both adaptive and geometrically accurate is important in a variety of biomedical applications in a multitude of clinical settings, including electrocardiology, neurology, and orthopedics. Adaptivity is necessary because of the combination of large-scale and smallscale structures (e.g. relatively small blood vessels spanning a human head). Geometric accuracy is important for several reasons. In some cases, such as computational fluid dynamics, the fine-scale structure of the fluid domain is important for qualitative and quantitative accuracy of the solutions. More generally, finite element approximations of elliptic problems with rough coefficients require increased spatial resolution normal to material boundaries [3]. The problem of constructing meshes from biomedical images is particularly difficult because of the complexity and irregularity of the structures, and thus tuning or correcting meshes by hand is quite difficult and time consuming. Many researchers and, indeed, commercial products simply subdivide the underlying hexahedral image grid and assign material properties to tetrahedra based on standard decomposition of each hexahedron into tetrahedra.

This paper presents a small case study of the results of a recently developed method for multimaterial, tetrahedral meshing of biomedical volumes [6]. The method uses an iterative relaxation of surface point point positions that are constrained to subsets of the volume that correspond to boundaries between different materials. In this paper we briefly review the method and present results on a set of MRI head images for use in bioelectric field simulation and source localization.