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Immersive Visualization: The Future of Data Presentation

The goal of data visualization is more than simply conveying information. Spreadsheets and Word documents can perform that same function in tightly-organized columns. But visualization allows us to draw lines between data points like a constellation and present the viewer with a fully-formed concept in a way that rows and columns cannot. If we take it a step further, we can even use visualization to create a fully interactive experience.

Jeffrey Shaw has taken that step further.

An Australia-born new media visual artist, Shaw’s most famous piece is the inflatable pig used by Pink Floyd on the cover of Animals, floating above London’s Battersea Power Station. But his more recent work has arguably been even more trippy.

Using sophisticated modeling system called AVIE (Advanced Visualization and Interaction Environment) Shaw has re-created a number of cultural heritage sites as immersive visualization environments. His interactive diorama displays allow users to explore sites such as the Vijayanagara in India in a participatory fashion complete with audio and narrative elements.

Some 40 years in the making, Shaw’s virtual environment conjures similarities to Star Trek’s holodeck, which conjured simulated, interactive worlds from nothing. But Shaw’s work is firmly grounded in scientific fact, not fiction. His goal is to use AVIE to create a definitive record of some of the most culturally significant world heritage sites—including several in China, where he is the Dean of the School of Creative Media at Hong Kong’s City University—while preserving their current appearance, allowing for their digital reconstruction by future generations.

Shaw’s system and others like it work like this: A projection screen is shaped into a cylinder. Twelve high-resolution digital video projectors display the stereoscopic image onto the 360-degree surface, creating an immersive experience for anyone standing inside of it. The system is user-friendly in both design and execution: interactive elements synced with iPod or joystick allow users to control the images.

In an interview with Yuk Hui at Theory, Culture, & Society, Shaw emphasized that new media strategies as art have the ability to push boundaries in much the same way that paintings have in the past.

“I would like to think that that the new media technologies also have this capacity, and the cinema is a case in point,” he said. “Its technology is a fairly uniform set of materials—camera, screen, projector, movie theatre—but these have facilitated an extraordinary range of ongoing artistic (and non-artistic) experiment and expression.”

Though Shaw is using his stereoscopic, three-dimensional environment for the purposes of historic preservation, the technology suggests a number of wide ranging business applications. Take for example the data interactivity of a system like Christie Digital Systems, which has a similar overall set up to Shaw’s AVIE system. That system allows architects and engineers to view prototype structures before they’re completed. It also provides opportunities in education, because it can create an interactive learning experience, and in the medical industry, for its image mapping capabilities.

A number of universities now feature entire departments dedicated to spatial analysis using similar technologies. Researchers at the University of Arkansas’ Center for Advanced Spatial Technologies (CAST) are exploring 3D modeling in a wide range of disciplines: practical uses include archaeology, community development, environmental studies, and other historical preservation efforts.

A full-scale, immersive approach to data visualization isn’t a good fit for every business, naturally. It can be prohibitively expensive, after all. And Shaw himself sees such immersive systems benefiting primarily in the world of arts and culture. But the development of immersive, three-dimensional, interactive visualization system are likely to provide new insights and advances that will have wider-reaching benefits.

Do you think 3D visualization has practical applications for information presentation? Would you be interested in seeing the world’s famous archaeological sites virtually? Is Animals one of Pink Floyd’s classic albums, or merely a creative placeholder between Wish You Were Here and The Wall? Please let us know in the comments section.

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