For charts, visualization is best done in 2D. Introducing 3D into a standard chart often causes problems of area distortion, occlusion, or parallax.
There are instances where 3D is necessary, though. Architects and engineers designing buildings and parts need 3D digital environments to help create their work. Some data (weather, medical, space) also has a strong 3D spatial component and looking at the data represented in 3D can be one of the best ways to do it.
One of the problems with current implementations of 3D environments for people that have to work in them is the lack of good 3D displays and interfaces.
Luckily, this is changing. One of the demo tables at VisWeek was by Z Space, a 3D display and interaction system. I sat down at the demo table skeptical, but excited at the possibilities.
Just looking at the screen normally produces a fuzzy double image, certainly not something that would impress you. Putting on the glasses changes everything, though. In addition to turning the double image into a 3D image, the position of the glasses is also tracked. The tracking allows you to “look around” objects and for the perspective of the scene to be perfectly calculated based on your head’s location. This type of responsiveness is amazingly realistic and made the scene feel extremely tangible.
The head tracking technology limits the screen to only work for one person, but this is a small price to pay for the experience. Another limitation is that there is no depth of field effect. All objects are constantly in focus, whether you are looking directly at them or at something far off in the distance.
Another amazing part of the system is the interface for interaction. The system uses a stylus with buttons, although the pen is never placed on the surface of the screen. It can be used in the 3D space in front of the screen and its position and orientation are tracked. This means that when you pick an object up, you can flip it over just by turning your hand as if you were actually holding the object. The 3D vision combined with the pen also makes it very simple to place an object exactly where you want it in space. Since you have control over up, down, left, right, forward, and back all at once, just like in the real world, and your vision shows you exactly where the object is in the 3D space, manipulation is incredibly easy.
Systems like this are fantastic for working with 3D digital space. One of the clumsiest parts of 3D digital spaces is the transition to the 2D display technologies we use today. Removing this clumsy transition means that people who need to work in 3D can do it well. This doesn’t mean that every new visualization should be in 3D, or that 3D charts are better. It does mean that if you have to use 3D, there’s technology out there to make it easier.
Drew Skau is Visualization Architect at Visual.ly, and a PhD Computer Science Visualization student at UNCC with an undergraduate degree in Architecture. You can follow him on twitter @SeeingStructure