Wednesday, November 18, 2009

2D Maps vs 3D Visualisation

Via the ever readable Mark Harrower of Axis Maps* I find that Ed Parsons has been discussing cartography. Part of Mark's post:

"Ed Parsons dislikes Cartographers 'more than anyone in the World'

The title was one of the opening statements made by Google’s “technology evangelist” Ed Parsons in a recent talk for the British Computer Society. In the talk he argues traditional street maps are bad (all of them) because they fail to engender a sense of place and because they abstract the world using map symbols. He goes on to say Streetview is good and doesn’t suffer any of these problems. So is Google Earth. The take-home message is that 2D is bad! Maps symbols are bad! Photos are good! And paper is bad! [subtext: Google doesn't make paper, but if we did, we might soften our stance].

Here is my concern: I’m not aware of any research to support such simplistic claims...."

Provocative Ed: If you watch the talk you'll see that Ed admits he is being deliberately provocative and that he didn't know someone was going to video him so I take his comments with a pinch of salt . However, he does advocate the use of 3D visualisation over traditional 2D symbolization with phrases like:

"[a paper style map is] caught up in old cartography that doesn't give you a sense of space"

So its an opinion worth discussing, to do that we need to start with a wider view of technology.

Manic Miner, watch at your peril....

The GeoWeb is not necessarily a Destructive Technology: Ed's argument relies on 3D spatial tools (like streetview, Google Earth topography) being ‘destructive technologies’. For example on slide 22 (the video FF controls don't seem to work) he discusses an old ZX Spectrum game Manic Miner which only used 8 colors. He makes the point that although he (and I as it happens) enjoyed playing the game when we were young, no teenager now would touch it as its outclassed by todays games with millions of colors. His argument is that static paper maps are similarly going to disappear because the GeoWeb is a destructive technology. However, not all novel technologies are destructive, the arrival of VHS players in homes seriously dented cinema takings in the 80s but people are still going to cinemas to see films today. In the same way I suspect paper maps are going to survive as useful tools for a while yet despite more people getting smart phones that show 3D spatial tools. For example, a paper underground map of London for tourists has the following advantages; ultra light, requires no batteries, highly usable, requires no wifi and can be easily scribbled upon.

Video Showing Augmented Reality on a Smart Phone

Augmented Reality vs 2D Google Maps: Ed anchors the discussion as being about 3D spatial tools vs paper maps. I think this is a misleading framing of the question, paper is not interactive which is a serious disadvantage but that doesn’t mean interactive 2D maps will disappear. I propose a more relevant question: Is 3D augmented reality (AR) necessarily better than a 2D map with symbols? For example, if my iPhone had AR I could leave London Waterloo, hold it up and it would show the camera view with overlay labels of cafes I might like to go to to get a coffee. If my chosen cafe was hidden from view down a street is AR better for planning the route to get there than the existing 2D Google Map with cafe icons? I don’t know the answer so I agree with Mark that I want to see research results before I’ll believe any claims. However, I do think that deciding when to use 2D or 3D is dependant on context and I do know of research that suggests that in many situations the old style 2D map will be better as I outline below.

2D is Hardwired into your brain: Children were tested on how successful they were finding a hidden toy in a room. To help them they were either shown a photograph showing the location of the toy marked or a scale 3D model which also had the toy visible inside it. The kids were better at finding the toy in the real room when shown the photo (Marzolf and DeLoache, 1997). Fascinating isn't it? The researchers explanation was that kids are 'preprogrammed' to understand that 2D photos represent objects but they have difficulty identifying symbols in a 3D model in the same way. The logical conclusion is that 2D maps may offer a faster way to comprehend certain spatial relationships than the kind of 3D representation we see in GEarth, Streetview or AR because we are hardwired to understand 2D symbols better than 3D ones.

I Love 3D: That being said, Streetview is hugely useful in certain situations, I used streetview to preview neighbourhoods when I was flat hunting recently and it performed excellently. Also, I can’t wait to get AR tools on my iPhone.

Conclusion: I agree with Mark’s opinion that Ed’s discussion was too simplistic and he should back up his claims with user testing. I suspect that such user research will show that although AR looks cool, in lots of situations a 2D map representation with symbols will be better.

*I have just recently quoted his blog post about problems with thematic maps in GEarth in a research bid document


Mark Harrower said...

Hi Rich - Thanks for the post and for providing a great framing of the issues here. As you suggest, the basic questions are: What is the role and best uses for cartographic abstraction? When do we do better with hyper-relaistic/augmented reality and when do we do better with generalized/abstracted map views? For what kinds of users? What kinds of tasks? When do we need our maps to be interactive, and when does interactivity just get in the way?

I'm certainly not up on all of the research around these questions, but I do know that questions like "how well do people remember routes if learned from 3D movies or 2D maps" have been studied for at least the past 20 years...some of the early stuff via military funding for training soliders (i.e., situational awareness in the field), and at the other end of the spectrum, the kind of childhood education/cognitive work you cite. If nothing else, it reminds us these are not entirely new questions and the current debates around Streetview et al. could tap into that work.

Rich Treves said...

Mark, yes, you're quite right, there is a lot of work that has gone into looking into how people perceive maps and a lot of it is relevant to the 3D vs 2D debate. I'm not up on it myself but I'm hoping to start writing papers which will force me to do the background reading. I only got to reading the paper I quoted as I was stuck on the train with a dead laptop!