Posted by: Peter Quirk | June 2, 2008

Multi-dimensional visualization in Second Life

I’m currently involved in a messy analysis of of our workforce in many dimensions. We have the usual organizational and geographic dimensions, plus a funding dimension, product/market dimension, job role, management level, etc. The traditional way to present this kind of data is as a series of charts in PowerPoint slides, each slide presenting a different slice of the multi-dimensional cube in the ways that management is likely to want to see it. The need for static data that people can review before the meeting or print out to review while travelling preempts the idea of presenting live data in Excel or any OLAP visualization tool.

Just for grins, I mentioned to one of my team that it might be easier to represent this multi-dimensional problem in Second Life, and sent him a link to my post Visualizing Information Outside the Box. He was intrigued by the Green Phosphor tool, but challenged me to explain why visualization in Second Life is so powerful.

For the next few days I ran through all the usual explanations in my head. There’s the sheer physicality of 3D charts and being able to see them from any viewpoint. There’s the ease of layering additional information into chart elements, whether it’s a different color dimension (where a numeric measure might control the hue or a color gradient) or a texture (where the pattern or image might represent one of several categorical values) on each face of, say, a four-sided bar. You can also place web textures on the faces, so that the viewer might have to get very close to a bar to read a lot of supporting details for the numbers represented by the bar. There’s also the possibility of interaction. Each bar could have a custom pie menu which offered more information, or the mere act of touching a bar could generate an explosion of data in the form of a new bar chart nearby which corresponds to a drill-down operation on the cube cell represented by the bar.

Going beyond traditional spreadsheet-inspired charting, it’s possible to represent just about anything. NOAA’s realtime weather map is a beautiful example of a complex chart conveying lots of information in a simple fashion.

NOAA weather map on Scilands island

Here you see relative temperature represented by a color disk, and weather conditions represented by clouds and rain. In the top-left corner of the photo you can see a thunderhead. The chart also contains topgraphical details.

I wrote recently about an idea for PowerPoint slides in Second Life to project themselves into the third dimension. I talked about animating bulleted paragraphs by pushing them slightly towards the viewer. I also suggested the idea that you could “tear off” a slide as you can in some GUI interfaces, effectively sampling or freezing the linear flow of time in a presentation. Each of these concepts contains the germ of an idea – switching dimensions around so that what might have been the Y dimension (distance from the avatar) become a time dimension (in the sense of bullet sequencing). In the case of cloning a slide, we shear time & space and move a slide from a time sequence at (xy,z) to a single point in time at (x1,y1,z1).

These ideas brought me back to the amazing Studio Wikitecture on Architecture Island. If you haven’t heard of it, take 10 minutes to watch at least the beginning of Jon Brouchoud’s talk at Metaverse U. Alternatively, you can read the FAQ for the Wiki-tree control system. Once you understand the concepts, consider this scene:

The Wiki-tree canopy above, a building in the distance


What’s happening here is quite amazing. At ground level, normal Euclidean space-time applies. But up in the Wiki-tree canopy, the space-time continuum has been folded in an amazing way, and it’s still embedded in Euclidean space-time!

How so? Each sphere on the Wiki-tree represents a volume (an entire building design), effectively compressed into a point in space. The grey tubes connecting the spheres represent the time dimension in that they show the chronological progression of the design. Time flows in two dimensions here, both X & Y, since the tree represents branching designs. The time dimension is comingled with a “similarity” dimension. According to the documentation, the further apart the spheres are, the more dissimilar they are. The color of the spheres denotes a popularity dimension. This strange dimension, which ranges from red (very unpopular) to bright green (very popular) reminds me of the very small dimensions in string theory. You can imagine this dimension becoming invisible to distant observers as the light fails and everything becomes grey.

Clicking on a sphere causes the entire volume of the design it represents to be projected onto the viewing site. The building in the background is the 3D shadow of a leaf on the n-dimensional Wiki-tree. And all of this is taking place in a continuous Euclidean space!

It’s no wonder that people are captivated by the potential of Second Life to communicate new kinds of information. If you’ve got some more examples, please share them below.


  1. No no no no no no. :) Essentially all the examples above of nice visualizations and dimension enfolding and all could be done in like a CAD program without 90% of the complexity of Second Life.

    The primary thing that differentiates SL and other MMO environments is that you are there also, and that other people are also there, and you can see yourselves and each other and interact.

    If there’s really potential in MMOs for visualization (and I think there is), it’s going to be because they allow presence and collaboration: you’re there, you can see who else is there, and you can see what they’re doing. Our brains have TONS of wiring to support that kind of thing, and it’s going to be by taking advantage of that wiring that MMOs are going to really shine for collaboration and visualization.

    So whip up some examples of that sort of thing when you have a minute… :)

  2. Thanks for the comments Dale. I agree that visualizations can be done (and probably better) in CAD systems. The genius of Second Life is that its CAD tools have been good enough/cheap enough to reach many more designers than the producers of CAD tools imagined there were. Moreover, the scripting facilities and access to external data are just good enough/simple enough to some groundbreaking systems to be created.

    What is really exciting about this collision of virtual worlds with traditional CAD systems is that it will drive the creation of new visualization systems.

    In your opinion, which CAD vendors “get it” and are likely to take the lead in MMO CAD? Dassault Systemes seems like a leading contender to me. Google’s Sketchup could be another really disruptive tool if extensions are encouraged. Surprisingly, the Blender community hasn’t shown any inclination towards MMO collaboration features.

  3. Why does Dale start his comment with a string of nos? He says constructing data visualisations would be easier with CAD programs, then recognizes the particular value of MMO environments, because of the collaborative element. Putting these observations together could just well result in a string of yeses. Yes, once virtual worlds have developed better CAD tools these types of visualisations will be easier to implement. Yes, MMO environments create particular possibilies for visualisation, because of the collaborative presence of several avatars, and also because of the perceptual boost provided by immersion. And so on.

    It is of interest to imagine new uses of the immersive experience, as you do, because the technology is evolving fast enough to make new applications feasible. An example is discussion of the possible use of mesh rather than prims by the new realXtend viewer, which would allow OpenSim platforms to get much closer to standard 3D modelling. Your post also makes me think of the Metaverse Roadmap, especially the sections on Mirror Worlds, Augmented Reality and Lifelogging, which describe all sorts of ways to overlay layers of information on cartographic or chronographic foundations. What a mashup…

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