I recently wrote about how Facebook and others could be about to take online socializing to the next level with virtual reality. But the implications of the growing presence VR is going to take in the tech industry in the next few years go far beyond a new breed of chatrooms. A lot of excited discussions have been taking place around how it will affect the way we visualize data in general – and obviously that includes Big Data.
Visualization is often a key part of the ‘crucial last step’ in Big Data projects – large scale analytical operations designed to draw insights from the ever growing amount of digital data that we are generating and storing. While bar graphs and pie charts do their job of providing headline figures, today’s Big Data projects require a far more granular method of presentation if they are going to tell the full story. It must be simple for the user to identify and highlight correlations between perhaps billions of data points (in the case of really large scale projects such as fraud prevention in the financial services industry), which are often performed in real-time.
There are inherent limitations in the amount of data that can be absorbed through the human eye from a flat computer screen. In fact, we are limited to processing less than 1 kilobit of information per second, when reading text from a screen, according to SAS software architect Michael D Thomas. It’s not much use having ever growing amounts of cloud processing power able to hurl insights at us with ever increasing speed, if the interface between us and the algorithms doesn’t have a chance of keeping up.
This is where many people think virtual reality can step in. By immersing the user in a digitally created space with a 360-degree field of vision and simulated movement in three dimensions, it should be possible to greatly increase the bandwidth of data available to our brains.
The idea is not new, VR has been around for a while as an expensive industry tool. Several years ago Goodyear engineers worked with VR pioneer Dr Robert Maples to develop a complete simulation of its racing tyres based on their entire historical dataset. The simulation allowed the effects of every minor variable change on the tyre’s performance to be modelled and viewed in real-time VR.