To people involved with the application of computer graphics in science, the words “firehose of data” will sound familiar. Those were the words used to describe the situation scientists faced in the early ’90s when supercomputers were being used to collect and calculate data, but there were few methods developed for visualizing the data, according to a seminal report published by the National Science Foundation. The situation for scientists then parallels the situation for business people today.
“In the old days, we’d get screens and screens of text and numbers during space missions,” says Butler Hine, president of Fourth Planet (Los Altos, CA), who was working at NASA at the time. “We had to have someone available who was trained to understand that data.”
Then NASA scientists began finding new ways to make the data more easily understood. “Instead of presenting the data as text, we would map the telemetry streams onto CAD models” Hine says. “A solar panel on a space ship would change color depending on its status, for example. If it was green, everything was OK. If it changed to orange or red, it meant the voltage was dropping.” With this model, nearly anyone looking at the computer screen could instantly evaluate the situation from minute to minute as the data streamed in from outer space.
Other scientific visualizations, however, produced abstract graphics and many of the early business visualizations mimicked these abstract visualizations a little too closely, some believe. The abstract representations of business data, the argument goes, does little to help make data more understandable to those who are not statisticians or scientists. “A lot of people have created visualizations of financial data that look like abstract weather patterns, and they’ve gotten stuck there,” says Martin Plaehn, CEO, Viewpoint DataLabs (Provo, UT), now a subsidiary of Computer Associates. Plaehn believes that business people are better served by data that assumes the form of familiar objects.
Obviously, as a provider of 3D models, this approach would serve Viewpoint well. But Plaehn’s is not a lone voice in the wilderness. “I was so dissatisfied with scientific visualization,” says Fernando Diaz, who founded 6D (Honolulu, HI) after working at Microsoft on Excel development and at the University of Washington’s Human Interface Lab. At 6D, he and his team are experimenting with metaphors from nature to create virtual worlds.
The first results of that work appear in a “themed entertainment” restaurant in which people can interact with artwork on 10 fiat-panel displays and navigate through virtual worlds with continually changing themes. “There’s no beginning or end in these worlds,” he says. “Someone can pick up where you left off.” Eventually, he’ll tie data into virtual worlds such as these. “We could show a stock portfolio as a Zen garden, or people could navigate sales data as if on a golf course,” he says. “I always look to nature for answers. In nature, even the most complex systems are represented in ways that six-year-old kids are able to understand.”
Virtual worlds such as these are filled with 3D objects, and having access to 3D models is certainly one of the reasons Computer Associates (CA) recently bought Viewpoint and 3Name3D as well as an exclusive license to distribute the REM Infografica content. These companies are the three leading providers of 3D models that can be used to help build 3D interfaces. Why would CA want to own 3D models and model-making companies? In part, to help build 3D interfaces. “If you have to stop and read the label on a generic icon to know what it represents, what does 3D do for you?” asks Anders Vinberg, vice president of research and development for CA (New York). “However, if you can immediately recognize the object, you have an immediate, intuitive response.” Four years ago, Vinberg led a team that designed an intuitive, 3D interface for CA’s Unicenter software that is used to monitor large, worldwide computer networks.
In a typical Unicenter application, at the top-most level you might see a screen with a map of the United States. The cities that have offices connected to a company’s network are immediately obvious because a collection of small buildings appears in each city’s location. For each location, a small colored sphere shows the status of the machines in the buildings. A red sphere might indicate serious trouble, a yellow sphere might be a warning. Click on a location, and a closer view of the company’s buildings zooms into view with the colored sphere now indicating where to dive next. You can keep diving until you reach the source of the trouble–all the way inside a computer to see, for example, a disk drive. At each step along the way, the 3D models match objects in the real world. “We have a service operation that takes photographs of the buildings and constructs the models” Vinberg explains.
The project has been “enormously successful,” according to Vinberg who claims that Unicenter is a $2 billion a year product now. “We were surprised that no one had done this before,” he says.
This ability to represent data dynamically using real-world 3D objects is also being applied in other areas by CA. For example, a food chain in England uses Unicenter to monitor and manage the refrigerators and air conditioners in several stores. A system manager in the company’s headquarters sees models of stores onscreen, and by “diving deeper” sees models of display cases in those stores. Similarly, the system is being used in a hospital to monitor computer equipment. “One time the system manager noticed that a computer wasn’t working” Vinberg says. “He called the hospital, and they discovered that a janitor had unplugged the computer to sweep behind it.”
“What all these applications have in common is complexity” Vinberg says. “A Windows GUI works well in a small environment–like managing the data on your own disk drive. But when the environment becomes more complex, you need another visual paradigm.”
For its nScope product, a plug-in that melds a 3D graphical user interface onto the HP OpenView network-management system, Fourth Planet chose a different method to picture a complex network. Rather than starting with a top-level view, then having users click to dive inside as with CA’s Unicenter, nScope tries to display a network’s entire topology at one time. Appearing onscreen are thousands of icons representing computers/servers with connecting lines between. Any type of data can be mapped onto the icons and onto the connecting lines, according to Hine–performance, for example, might be indicated by the color and size of connecting lines.
To see what’s happening with the network, a system manager would fly through the 3D landscape looking for trouble spots. “Humans have amazing pattern recognition” Hine explains. “If you take someone through a forest, they can tell at a glance where it’s healthy and where it’s not” This ability to recognize patterns in nature applies equally well to seeing problem areas in a network represented as a forest of icons. “With the old style 2D interface, we could show 200 icons at most. Trying to view a network with a 2D screen is like being in a forest with your head frozen in one place;’ he says. “In 3D, we can show 10,000 icons.” Based on EAI’s WorldToolKit (from the Sense8 division in Sausalito, CA), nScope runs on Linux, Solaris, HP, SGI, and Windows NT machines and is priced at $10,000.
3D graphical interfaces based on objects from the real world are also being used to represent other types of data. At Argus, for example, tools created for virtual-reality environments are being applied to data-visualization problems. The company also uses WorldToolKit and has developed proprietary tools to create dynamic worlds that it plans to market later this year. In one application, the Children’s Health Network wanted to explore the relationship between asthma and environmental factors. Argus placed models of small buildings, schools, clinics, factories, and so forth onto a map of the town under examination. Discolored areas on the ground represent levels of contaminants, and at each clinic, icons representing groups of people show the number and seriousness of asthma cases.
Showing relationships within a different sort of database is a 3D metaphor created at CA for a stock brokerage firm. Divekar explains: “A stock broker would like to know in 30 seconds everything she can about a client.” Suppose, for example, the broker gets a phone call from a client. When she types in the client’s name, a snapshot of a 3D environment appears onscreen. Elements in the environment have been generated based on the client’s records so that by looking at the picture, the broker instantly knows a lot about the client. If the space looks like an office, the client is an institutional investor; if it’s a den, he’s a private investor. If he’s a private investor, the quality and type of furniture will indicate such things as his age and financial status. A pair of dice on the desk shows a level of risk-taking. The bookcase is filled with icons representing various types of investments. The broker can click on various elements to get to the actual financial data. CA has created similar metaphors for other types of sales organizations as well. “In the past, IT [information technology] has been about saving money. Now, it’s helping people make money,” Divekar says.
“Making environmental interfaces that sit on top of legacy software is a bold idea;’ says Plaehn,” but it’s not a technology problem. The data exists. We don’t have to rewrite underlying applications. We just have to figure out new ways to package and present the information.”
It’s an idea that’s beginning to be picked up by studios that primarily create multimedia applications as well. VisionFactory (Apex, NC), a multimedia communications company that has specialized in product simulations and Hollywood-style business presentations, is beginning to create interactive 3D interfaces. “In the past, hardware support for playing real-time, interactive 3D hasn’t been available, but that’s changing” says Daniel Lott who heads the visualization center.
Indeed, Hine and his partners at Fourth Planet left NASA for precisely this reason. “What caused us to jump is that ordinary PCs can do the job now,” Hine says. “A Compaq with a Diamond FireGL can run our software.” When Vinberg built the first prototype of the Unicenter interface, it required a $30,000 machine to run. “Now it runs on my kid’s [PC] game machine,” he says.
The leading personal computer vendors are now shipping “3D-enabled” machines, and Intel is making a big push for 3D on the Internet as a marketing stratagem for its Pentium III processor. The marketing clout that Intel can muster is convincing several Internet developers to add 3D to Web sites, and the search engine Excite now boasts a 3D interface.
If 3D interfaces such as these are successful, businesses will be more likely to demand 3D SUIs (spatial user interfaces) rather than 2D GUIs, and the whole face of business computing will change. That opens additional opportunities for such software companies as Advanced Visual Systems (AVS), EAI’s Sense8 division, SuperScape, Division, MultiGen, and others, which have already seen their tools beginning to be used for these applications. In addition, companies that offer authoring tools, 3D modeling and animation software, and, of course, 3D models will benefit. New types of tools such as Shell Interactive’s 3D Dreams and, more recently, Virtus’ OpenSpace3D for Director will become increasingly important. And artists and animators with imagination and general (rather than specialized) skills who can create these new 3D worlds will find new markets for their talent.