Data Visualization and Virtual Reality

Hear Rosstin discuss immersive data visualization at Spark Summit in San Francisco on Tuesday June 7.

My project for the past few months has been to explore the value of Virtual Reality in relationship to Data Visualization. When I embarked on this project I was initially skeptical… what can be shown in 3D that can’t be shown in 2D?

Together with Imran Younus, we made some predictions about the benefits that might be gained from visualizing data in VR.

– Extra dimensions
– Infinite screen real estate
– Sense of Scale
– Intuitive gesture controls


Much of the data analysis and visualization that we do involves data with many, many dimensions. In order to visualize that data, we have to push those dimensions back down to just 2 dimensions. What kind of benefits do we get if we loosen the restriction of 2-dimensional data, and go up to 3 dimensions?


Examples from

Technically speaking, there are many graphs that cannot be represented without line-crossings in 2 dimensions. (Nonplanar graphs.) This is never true in 3D– you can always represent a graph in 3D without line crossings.

This MNIST data was a key example– the 2D version of the graph doesn’t have enough dimensional space for all of the groups to spread out and become distinct. With the 3D graph, there’s more room for the distinct groups to form.


Another problem we can attack with VR is the problem of screen real-estate. Much time and money has been spent creating environments that are completely saturated with data readouts. On a small-scale, developers and stock traders often have a huge number of monitors to display all the information they want to keep track of.

multi-monitor-setup 2560x1440-_ljl2393At top, Adam Sender, a high-volume stock trader. Above, the Electronic Visualization Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Rather than purchase dozens of monitors or construct a room-sized monitor, a single VR headset can give create the exact same effect. One idea we’re pursuing is to create an environment with an infinite number of desktop windows that can be placed around the user.


Another benefit of VR visualization is the sense of scale imparted by being in virtual reality. We often talk about “enough people to fill a football field” or “if we stacked up this money in dollar bills it would reach the moon and back.” VR Data Visualizations have the power to actually convey these concepts.

A concept we’re pursuing is a “large number visualizer”, an application that displays data in VR with constructs that can convey scale.


An unexpected benefit that I’ve discovered in my research is the value of VR hand-based gesture controls. When I started with Leap Motion, I thought of it as a toy. But as it has become more and more refined, the potential ease of manipulation for 3D objects has shown real value. Rotating an object in 3D with your hands is far more intuitive than moving the object with a mouse or keyboard.

The original version of this blog post appears here.


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