Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Cutting Edge 3D - no User Tests

Today I want to highlight the work of the Senseable Lab at MIT, from a brief review of their work I'd say they seem to specialise in the area of real time 3D visualization and sensor input.

Beautiful Design Ideas: From an artistic 'this is a work of art' point of view their ideas are novel, fun and highly engaging, see this TED talk for examples

I really relate to the water building, I hang out on the South Bank in London and there's a similar water sculpture there that is hugely popular (clip). Also, I'd LOVE to have some of those helicopter pixels in my lectures to illustrate geography concepts like earthquake waves to students.

Artistic 3D Visualizations of Singapore: This year the Sensable team have produced a project collecting real time data from Singapore and visualizing it. Here are some examples as a clip:

Looking from the angle of information communication there's lots to like:
  • Engaging animations. The graphics draw the viewer in to find out more, they're certainly engaging and artistically beautiful. I'm sure their exhibition at Singapore Art Museum was a sucess.
  • Elegant Time lines: They show time as a playhead moving against a timeline or against a bar chart illustrating relevant data. These elegant graphics are minimalist and communicate effectively without making the animation too busy visually. In a lot of ways they remind me of Tufte's sparklines.
  • 3D Data Visualized Well? I've previously praised their technique in the of visualising 3D data using altitude, color and opacity at the same time as a way of getting over the problems of 3D thematic maps.
Beautiful but Ineffective? However, I worry that beyond looking attractive, these visualisations fail to communicate the data effectively. Two example issues that occurred to me:
  • Double 3D = Busy: In the heat vs energy consumption visualisation I think trying to show 2 sets of 3D data at once with the top layer of data partly obscuring the bottom layer doesn't work well.
  • Where's the Rain?: In the rainfall taxi visualisation by having the rain plot in 3D above the ground its difficult to relate where its actually falling on the ground.
I raise these issues without any evidence that they are actually problems, the only way of doing that is to conduct users tests. On the research page of the Singapore project Sensable discuss technical innovations and I admit in a real time visualisation project these are significant and important. However, there is no mention of user tests, given the amount of time and money that has gone into producing these animations wouldn't it be a good idea to find out if they actually work?

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