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.
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:
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.