Last September I was looking for tools to import content into the Second Life® virtual world from external design tools. One search result introduced me to The Arch, a blog on architecture in SL. A recent post at the time introduced me to the concept of reflexive architecture – constructions that respond to the presence of the viewer (avatar) in some way. I was a newbie to scripting at the time and was unaware of the sensor functions which permit the built environment to sense the identity, position and speed of avatar. Jon Brouchoud’s Gallery of Reflexive Architecture demonstrated a variety of constructs that could move, change their transparency, emit sounds, materialize and dematerialize as avatars aproached them.
These examples crystallized for me how I might build special tools for data visualization – 3D bar charts for example, connected to enterprise data via web services, but with a twist. Inspired by the reflexive demos, I envisaged charts which could change depending on the viewer’s identity or on some attribute of the viewer. I thought about the idea of displaying the drivers of a company’s business. At my disposal might be various hats. With my HR hat on, the graphs would morph to show me the relationship between growth in each geography and the growth in headcount. If I switched hats and put my finance hat on, the charts might show me the cost of labor and fringe benefits compared to the revenue in each geography. Putting my CTO hat on, the charts might reveal the number of innovative ideas generated in each geography through various internal competitions and innovation networks.
I didn’t get beyond building a single bar proof of concept at the time. Fortunately, a company by the name of Green Phosphor has blazed a new path. It has created an on-demand data visualization system. The design includes an external database, controller and data shaper which feeds selected data to the in-world charting object, which looks like a glowing green phosphorescent orb above your head. You pre-stage relational tables in the data server by uploading CSV files into the data server. Once you have a green phosphor object in your possession, you can issue commands to it via the chat channel to select data and specify some display attributes. The video below shows the creation and manipulation of a 3D bar chart on my land parcel. The data follows you around. I guess the concept is that it represents a visible thought bubble. The problem is that my ceiling height is a bit too low for comfort!
Enterprise objections to the current design would be that possibly sensitive data has to moved outside the firewall in order for it to be served to Second Life. However, there’s a lot of interesting data outside the firewall that your staff might want to discuss in a collaborative setting. Green Phosphor is building a rich library of public data from UN data sources, and possibly from Swivel, which will encourage the visualization of data in Second Life.
The Green Phosphor product is really the seed of an idea for data wizardry (Green Phosphor’s term) in Second Life. The next step is to move from relational to OLAP data and explore the natural ways of slicing and dicing multi-dimensional data in a multi-dimensional world. Virtual Worlds already have distinguished dimensions (an old Microsoft OLAP term) for time and geography. Local X, Y, and Z, color, material, texture and sound are other available dimensions. Binary attributes are also possible with individual object shadows and glowing colors. Other small dynamic range attributes can be represented through pulsating color, vibrating or wobbling objects, visual effects that suggest something almost bursting at the seams. Add to that particle effects like steam or smoke rising from bars on a chart, or flames burning above them, and you can see that there’s a lot of potential for visualizing higher dimension data in a virtual world.