On Monday I attended a large presentation about visualizations at a reputable conference. NASA, NOAA, and Sun attendees were active participants. Then someone showed up dressed as a teddy bear. One of the panel members was a little blue cat. When Xantha Oe (the little blue cat) spoke, we all listened, as it explained the approaches its team had taken to visualize stock market trends -using floating shapes of volumes and colors one could fly around.
Where was all this taking place? The conference was Life 2.0 and the venue Second Life, one of the most popular virtual worlds engines and services available today. In Second Life, you get to create your virtual avatar, and given basic rules of physics and some construction tools, create buildings, clothes, vehicles..and environments where information can be visualized and played with in novel ways.
How does a conference work in Second Life?
This particular session was interesting to our work so I logged into the ‘grid’ on a side monitor, teleported my avatar into the conference area (I had registered as a Life 2.0 attendee before) and sat at one of the chairs in the auditorium. I turned on the video and audio streams which allowed me to hear the presentation as spoken by the panel and see the passing slides on huge screens. There is a common chat session for everyone in the area (when you ‘talk’ others in the amphitheater can ‘hear’ you). The best is that all of this infrastructure can be put together for free – an interesting approach to hold a meeting for non-profits who have tech-savvy members.
The talk was divided into five 10-minute presentations ranging from visualizing stock prices to mathematical models and statistical analysis applied to chemistry. My key takeaways:
- All visualizations basically work by consuming data in some external web service (it is possible to script Second Life objects using LSL to make HTTP calls and get/post information from arbitrary services). There was only one example of a visualization using in-world data held in "notes" – Second Life’s version of a sticky note. Some visualizations consume data in proprietary stores designed to serve the required information of their particular domain (e.g. the chemistry data), but others are more general purpose and take data from RSS feeds. I found it innovative that one of the visualizations actually took a Google docs spreadsheet URL and got its data directly from there. Maybe a pattern to follow for other graphing/analysis toolkits?
- Many of these visualizations are available as open source with real examples in-world of how they are used. There was at least one commercial venture building products in the area. (as the example above from Green Phosphor)
- The intrinsically collaborative environment of Second Life is a good place to visualize together. I was happy to see folks paying attention to building visualizations to support conversations between multiple people and using them to lower the bar of shared understanding (as opposed to making the super-specialized visualization only one expert will consume on his/her own).
- There is a growing amount of work in the area of visualization related to geography and real-world physical structures. Examples of building design and architecture were given, where layouts were optimized as a result of overlaying heatmap visualizations on virtual models of real areas (e.g. airports, highways) . One project of interest was "Second Earth" an open database of shapes and imagery that can be used to create realistic globes and maps in second life and add data on top, such as animated weather simulations. They are even working on a KML importer so you could consume in-world the same visualizations. For rigor I’ll mention there are other similar efforts. This could support scenarios beyond collaborative visualization to hybrid ‘augmented reality’ applications where geo-tagging and field logistics blend in information from the virtual world onto images of the real world.
One thing I was sorry about is that due to a previous appointment I missed another whole session of Life 2.0 dedicated to nonprofits and humanitarian work sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation. If I can chase down one of the presenters and get a recording I’ll post it here.
All in all, I’m a skeptic optimist when it comes to these applications of virtual world technology.
On one side I think it takes a lot of work to deploy useful technology in second life – especially on the perception side, explaining to the last adopter why they would ever want to learn to control an avatar, helping them beyond the perception that virtual worlds are for foolish purposes, and showing how this can be used to do work that otherwise is harder or impossible. And obviously the technologies are still maturing, adding some hurdles to the implementation. It’s still hard but not frivolous.
On the other side, seeing this ongoing work and its outcomes means that the area will be constantly improving, and that there could be breakthroughs in how people visualize and understand information together. And if it’s what it takes to get there, I’m willing to take the advice of a little blue cat.