With the launch last week of Datascape I thought it would be worth putting an MD’s perspective on the product – how we got here, what the philosophy is that lies behind it, and where we hope to go with it. For a more formal view of the academic and commercial background see our Immersive Data Visualisation white paper.
Datascape has undoubtably grown out of Daden’s virtual world heritage – and my own interest in data and data visualisation. Over the years we’ve used virtual world platforms such as VRML, Active Worlds, Second Life and OpenSim to create a variety of data visualisations, probably culminating in our original Datascape virtual command centre (which won a prize at the US Government’s Federal Virtual World Challenge), and the visualisation of Twitter data we did in OpenSim for the Royal Wedding in 2011. These examples and experiments, and those of others, together with an MOD funded research project we did in 2011 within Aston University doing a quantitative comparison of immersive and non-immersive 3D visualisations spaces convinced us that there was definitely something in immersive data visualisation.
In then moving from ideas and demonstrators to a full blown product I think that there are 4 key ideas that have informed our journey.
Datascape is about immersion. It is about putting you inside your data, allowing you to move around and through your data and view it from any angle, from inside or out. When in navigation mode there is no user interface – there is just your data ( possibly the ultimate expression of Edward Tufte’s Data Ink idea). This sense of immersion appears to help the brain see the patterns and anomalies in the data, because the data behaves like the real world – it stays still whilst your eye travels through it.
Datascape does not constrain you. If you want to map latitude to colour and longitude to shape you can do it. The heart of Datascape is the mapping screen, where you assign the fields in the data to the features of a plot point – its position, rotation, shape, size, colour, image and labels. With a full set of spreadsheet like functions at your call, and self-populating look-up tables, the plots you can produce probably really are only limited by your imagination. That flexibility does mean that initially there might be a bit more to learn, but we’ll be posting “recipes” and “how-to’s” on our web site to help you create the more common visualisations, and as we release successive versions of Datascape we may well start including wizards and templates that get you more directly to those common views.
Given that we needed good graphics and processing capability we took the decision early on that this would initially be a PC application, not something for the web or your tablet. However by basing Datascape on Unity we have got a path available to develop a web and/or tablet versions of Datascape if the demand is there. We have also been keeping a watching brief on HTML5 and WebGL and one feature under serious consideration is being able to export your completed workspace as a standalone HTML5 virtual world to share more easily with friends and colleagues.
One thing we have found as we begin to look at more and more data in Datascape is that we may need a new visual language to describe what we are doing with data in a 3D space. In 2D we are all used to line graphs and bar charts, pie charts and scatter plots. Whilst we can do these in 3D as well, they do not (except for the last) typically take fullest advantage of the medium.
For instance one problem we’ve found in 3D is that whilst the virtual space let’s us plot a long line of data stretching off into the distance, looking at the whole line is hard, you have to scroll as you do in 2D, unless we compress it (but then we lose the detail that the spread out 3D display brings). One solution that we have found is to plot the data as a cylinder, or even as a spiral, with the viewer in the centre. You can then take in a lot of data in one go, and just fly up and down the cylinder to other data – which is typically an easier action to control that horizontal flight. What other standard forms will we find, and how will we determine which form suits which type of data, and which type of enquiry?
Another difference is axes. In 2D the axes form a frame in which your data sits – and the same for non-immersive 3D cubes. But in an immersive space you are usually inside the data and the axes are nowhere in sight. So how do we maintain orientation within the data, and understand where the data points sit on the axes (that is if we actually need enumerated axes). There are no doubt a wide number of solutions to explore, and within Datascape we have distant XYZ markers so you can easily tell which direction you are looking in, whenever you hover over a point it can tell you its X,Y and Z values, and you can also have the point drop reference lines down to the axis or reference planes. One other thing we have tried, but not perfected enough to release, is a 3D compass, and another that we are looking at for future releases is the use of mini-maps, not just as a top-down (XZ plane) view but also as YZ and YX views as well. But can you cope with seeing your data in four directions at once?
A VIRTUAL WORLD FOR YOUR DATA
We thought long and hard about this tag line, just as we did about whether or not to have avatars. We didn’t put avatars in the single user version since we felt that a) you got enough of a sense of immersion from the navigation alone and b) for most corporate users we spoke to avatars are still a turn-off and too closely associated with gaming environments. However “virtual world” (most emphatically in lower case) did seem by far the most appropriate way to describe what you can create with Datascape, a virtual world populated solely by you and you data.
In multi-user mode we do provide you with a very basic humanoid avatar – but it is very much a place-holder, a glyph, for where you are in the world and what direction you are looking. We deliberately kept clear of an avatar that was human enough for you to start worrying about what gender, or race or age it was, and what clothes it should wear! The resulting avatar is enough to let you know where your colleagues are and what you are looking at, no more, but even so it’s not long before you’re playing hide and seek amongst the data.
Going forward we may well increase the virtual world sense – for those who want it – with better avatars, more 3D scenery in which to place your visualisations ( closer to the original Datascape), and persistency and controlled sharing of your data and workspaces. But let’s start simply, and with something that everyone can hopefully relate to.
So hopefully that gives you some insight into our thinking as we developed Datascape, and some clues as to where we might take it in the future. Please download it (there is a free community version with a 6000 point limit and a paid pro version with a 65,000 limit - although we have had it running up to 250k points) and give it a try, and hopefully it will open up a whole new world of data visualisation for you.