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Visualizing Depth in Data

We have a plethora of ways to present data. But it's still missing something for me. It's depth.


Depth is probably best described when you first experience VR. The moment you put the goggles on, the sense of reality you experience is frightening. We can’t change the way our eyes work, and there are only a handful of ways to trick them into sensing space.


What if data had depth? Why shouldn't data have depth? I don’t mean deeply linked data or big data. I mean, having a sense of depth when you visualize a body of data. Depth doesn’t have to be only in the perpendicular Z direction of the view. It could be depth in the form of visual hierarchy and design. The way data objects interact and how each object maintains a certain integrity, provides a sense of permanence and hence how they move with each other provides a sense of depth.


What methods do we currently have to display data? They are almost always in one or two-dimensional. Modern UI's try to simulate depth. We can add depth via a form of translucency or shadow, or overlays. When things are 2D, I believe it’s more distanced from human touch. It’s like the difference between touch a ball and holding a ball, or watching animals online or going to the zoo. The visceral and ephemeral experience is irreplaceable. We know these experiences with live concerts and opera, but what about UI? How do we add these experiences to the digital realm?


I argue that by adding more attributes to each body of visualized data, we can allow the data to be more easily absorbed into our minds, or for it to mean something more to us, than if it was flat. Adding physical, spatial and graphical qualities to data gives makes the content more depth, more layers that can imply more meaning.


How do we do that? By stop treating elements as flat. By seeing them as real objects without the constraints of the flat screen constraints. Stop treating animation as the solution to object-ness. There's a way to make things more real, and ways not to. Try to compare the CGI effects of Transformers and Harry Potter — the first seeks to overload with all sorts of effects, whilst the latter seeks to convey a better sense of permanence, even when you have magic ad ghosts flying around. Even the ghosts have permanence and don’t just vanish or change shape.


It’s a hard thing to convey the idea. UI designers are akin to graphic designers and aren’t taught to design space. I just happen to be an architect who is trying to design a bridge from 2D seamlessly into 3D, AR and VR.


Visualising Depth in Data