3D Information Visualisation: An Historical Perspective

This paper gives an overview over the use of 3D Visualisation of digital information and the historic background of perspective in that field. It was written by Theodor G Wyeld and it was presented in the Ninth International Conference on Information Visualisation (IV’05). The paper can be obtained through the following links:

ACM: http://portal.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=1084450

IEEE Xplore: http://ieeexplore.ieee.org/Xplore/login.jsp?url=/iel5/10086/32319/01509135.pdf?temp=x

The use of 3D visualisation in the representation of information has been growing at an exponential level since it was first introduced. Usually the information is presented to the user trough the technique of representing three-dimensional objects and depth relationships on a two dimensional surface, i.e. using perspective as method for viewing three-dimensional space. That method has dominated western visual culture since the Renaissance.

Some theorists claim that our ability to image regular three-dimensional objects in the mind’s eye is universal regardless of race, gender, or culture. Others counter claim that one needs cultural conditioning, and exposure to a normal variety of (Western) visual media, before we collude with what is otherwise merely an illusion. This distinction is most pertinent to 3-D information visualisation where the images displayed often have no physical-world counterpart other than as abstract metaphors, such as a deformed 3D mesh, globes, ziggurats and so on.

Due to the growth in use of 3D visualisation, there seems to be an excess on the use of 3D as an interface to digital information. But there are negative aspects surrounding the use of a perspectival information visualisation, like the inherent locus of meaning and the privileged viewing position in a perspective. What that means is that there is only one “correct” view, which affect what we see and look for in information displays. This remains true even when the user can manipulate the 3D view in real-time, because the user is simply moving through individual views, where each one has it’s correct center of projection. As a result of that, a main assumption in the use of perspective is that what the user can see may be all that matters. Although what is not visible matters to some particular users.

Extensions to the perspective paradigm are possible    within contemporary 3D computer graphics, such as animation, real-time navigable spaces, database-linked dynamically-updated displays, parameterized displays with multiple manual and automated input sources, and so on. Even though, these extensions are still circumstantially framed within the prevailing perspective paradigm. Alternately, non-Western perceptions about how to represent a multi-dimensional world are rarely explored – such as Asian isometry, African and South American iconographics, and Australian Aboriginal dot painting, to name a few.

What most people are attempting to emulate, through the use of 3D visualization, was achieved by Minard with his historical graphic that depicts Napoleon’s march into Russia in 1812. Through the use of color, line thickness, text, numbers, he was able to present seven dimensions of information and so capturing the essence of the journey. If  we where to present that same information in a 3D topological landscape, we would lose the succinctness of Minard’s presentation. Even though the 3D representation would allow the user to navigate through the map, it more likely make the user lose his way.

To conclude, this papers shows that due to the ideologically dominant role perspective plays in Western visual thought it means that alternative strategies are rarely explored.  However, the increasing complexity of human global interaction – cultural and information exchange – dictates that simplified three-dimensional representations may no longer be appropriate for conveying the depth of all possible understandings. While the conventional depiction of 3-D space, as a visual medium for organizing information, is far from exhausted, it has often been pursued at the expense of possible alternate methods. This has the potential to obscure information both literally and metaphorically.


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