I'm sure most by now are familiar with the virtual reality headset Oculus Rift. It's a very exciting technology that provides by far the most realistic experience of any other virtual reality device. But what makes it interesting to me is its untapped potential application in data visualization.
The rational for using 3D technology for data visualization is simple. Our minds think in 4 dimensions (3 spacial dimensions plus time) so it seems obvious to try and use all of these dimensions when trying to encode information for understanding. Even still, unnecessary uses of 3D have been infecting data visualization for quite some time. Take for example the stereotypical 3D bar chart. No new information is provided by the 3D perspective and it actively detracts from its readability. Think too of how many more static as opposed to interactive style visualizations there are on the web. It always takes a lot of effort and time for new mediums to be fully utilized. Virtual realty seems like its still in a primordial state with so much potential as an entirely new medium of communication. Specifically for data visualization, what's going to be the equivalent of a data to ink ratio in virtual reality? data to area? data to head movement? data to eye movement? There will inevitably be those that try to apply old metaphors to this new medium but even more striking is that all the exiting demos I've seen haven't explored any new metaphors for data exploration.
One of the more interesting features of Oculus is its ability to update what you're looking at depending on the position of your head. This could make 3D elevation maps much more useful and intuitive. Imagine there was a piece of geometry blocking your view to a data point. In print this issue is pervasive but with virtual reality, you could simply move your head to the left or right to see it completely.
The Oculus could provide a seemingly infinite canvas on which to display data. Issues of screen real estate no longer become an issue. Now we're not limited to the dimensions of a newspaper or a magazine. As a user, if you want more detail, move your head closer; Want a high level view of the data? Move your head up.
The Oculus could provide a view into a data set completely free of distraction. With traditional visualization mediums, there's always the possibility the viewer could become distracted by something entirely outside of the visualization itself. With virtual reality, everything within the field of view of the viewer is controllable.
These are just a few possibilities the Oculus Rift makes possible for data visualization. We're at a very interesting and early stage in this new medium of expression and I'm sure we're going to start seeing much more creative new uses for it in all fields and data visualization in particular.