Sunday, February 10, 2008

Data visualization in Second Life

Virtual worlds are the next generation of the Internet, its natural evolution as a communications, commerce and information platform. Buildings and exhibits have been built, but the medium is mainly only alive through avatars. Virtual worlds could be mirror worlds, comprised of live streaming data, ready for constant user interaction and manipulation.

Streaming data into virtual worlds and making tools for its visual display is an obvious next step.

Virtual world data visualization tools are needed
An open source data visualization tool suite for virtual worlds is needed, something to be the Many Eyes or Swivel of Second Life and other platforms.

There are some real-time interactive data displays (NOAA's real-time weather simulation, 3d stock charts, LAX air traffic data and IBM's virtual network operation centers) in Second Life but not tools for loading and manipulating custom data sets. Existing static exhibits of scientific and other tools could be enabled to accept data streams for real data analysis.

Standard web data formats like Google Docs spreadsheets could underlie virtual worlds data visualization tools. There should be web-based spreadsheets that can call data that updates in real-time. For example, stock portfolios calling real-time data can be made at various websites but a stock price data element cannot be called in a Google spreadsheet or a web-based data visualization tool like Many Eyes or Swivel. Please comment if you know of tools that do.

Advantageous properties of virtual worlds
The idea would be to use unique virtual world properties (real-time updating, data-streaming, camera zooming, interaction, 3d world aspects) to make data display and interaction tools that are complementary to traditional data visualization software. Some interesting uses could be:
  • Sending microscopy results directly into virtual worlds to be digitally imaged; e.g.; have real SIMS microscopy data populate Second Life SIMS microscope displays in real-time as people are running experiments.
The SIMS microscope in the clean room on Nanotechnology Island in Second Life, why not feed real data to the microscope in real-time?
  • Viewing hundreds of scientific experiment results simultaneously on massive data walls, using the zoom functionality to look closely or far away at multiple levels of detail

University of Michigan pharmacokinetics professor Gus Rosania's data walls, further described in his open science blog

  • Running thousands of simultaneous simulated experiments more efficiently than in physical reality
  • Allowing colleagues and classes around the world could observe the results, participate and collaborate in real-time.
More information is available at the SL Data Visualization wiki or feel free to email me if you are interested in data visualization in virtual worlds.


Roberto said...

Dear Melanie,

Here is how you call a stock price data element in a Google spreadsheet:

CELL A4 (type the name of the company):

CELL B4 (get the ticker name of A4):
=GoogleLookup(A4, "ticker")

CELL C4 (get the price of ticker in B4):
=GoogleFinance(B4, price)


Have a great day :)

Roberto Vitalini

LaBlogga said...

Hi Roberto, thanks for the tip!

I have now built a Google spreadsheet calling data that updates real-time. Fabulous.

I will look into calling other web data elements for real-time update.

Btw, your website is really interesting.

Thanks again!

Anonymous said...

No offense, but I do not think Second life is ready for "data visualization" yet. I signed up today out of curiosity,and ...well.. too many annoying bugs:P My character would go through people, get stuck in out of bounds land or sky, your cameras do not work properly either. Adding data visualization to this will break it.
And on more philosophical note: who needs data visualization anyway? ( in average human world). Watching stock prices shapes in 3D is a boring thing...The complexity of representation kills the benefits of being able to see...ever changing world...

CyberCat <^**^>
aka Cortana Euler ( nice dictatorship touch on not letting people to select last names)

LaBlogga said...

Hi Cyber Cat, aka Cortana Euler, thanks for your comments.

Thanks for taking a look at Second Life. If you would like more of a tour sometime, let me know. There will be an interesting conference in-world March 15-21, Life 2.0, which provides a good introduction and look at applications of the medium.

The 60 or so virtual worlds platforms are far from ideal, but I think it is better to push ahead with innovative applications that shape the medium rather than wait until it is perfect. I have been disappointed at how hard it is to do even simple things in virtual worlds, for example all the dev time to produce the simple on-demand 3d stock chart.

It is also true that not everyone sees a use for data visualization. Its traditional use in science was to quickly scan large data sets for relevance and exception and to view multivariate data. As the mainstream world becomes more data rich and the applications more established, demand for data visualization will increase.

For example 'powers of 10' was a unique concept for zooming in and out of data at scale but we all do it all the time now with Google Maps or Google Earth.

The focus of a good representation of data in any medium should be the content not the format.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for linking to the SL Data Viz wiki. I hadn't known about it, but have been wishing something like it existed. Off to play!

LaBlogga said...

Hi Christen, thanks for the comment. Please feel free to add yourself to the virtual worlds data viz wiki