Visualization is coming!

This Monday I attended the Visual Forum 2010 in Norrköping, co-located with the EuroGraphics 2010 conference. There seems to be a growing interest in visualization, and specifically in Norrköping they are just about to open the Norrköping Visualization Center.

With visualization as a theme you might expect a lot of designers and communication people at such a conference but there was actually few, as well as among the exhibitors. The reason is that in this context, visualization is not about designing and drawing for developing concepts or evaluating a possible future. No, it’s rather about taking large amounts of data, processing it, and presenting it in a way that makes it possible to analyse and understand by human beings. One popular example of this is the Gapminder software presented by Hans Rosling.

Traditionally, as a designer, you are expected to claim how much better these things could look with help of professional designers. And surely, just a few years ago, what engineers would produce would be hideous old style Microsoft graphics with default colours and jagged pictures. But it seems that the iPhone-effect is coming this way also, that is that the modern tools make it easier to produce things that look good, and it becomes actually harder to make things ugly! I suspect there has been some design competence used here and there, but that certainly was not the subject for the day.

Of course, with these new possibilities, using professional designers can both remove irritating, focus stealing flaws and also take the whole thing to a new level. When people get used to using high quality machine generated graphics*, they will also demand high quality human created graphics.

And then think what happens when you combine them! When you combine designed graphics, for how you want things to be, with machine generated graphics that are ”alive”, that reflect the actual measurable conditions, and shows a certain state second-to-second!

So I found this conference very inspiring! Here are a few highlights:

Keynote speaker Thomas Ertl of TVCG showed several examples of state of the art machine generated visualizations*. In this picture he shows a system that can help choosing the relevant sequences out of thousands of hours of video, with special interest for the highly surveyed UK. I thought that this technology was interesting in itself, but also as a possible tool for understanding human behaviour patterns in shops, public transport and other public spaces, in order to make our physical environment more agreeable and efficient!

Anders Persson of CMIV, University of Linköping, showed several examples of medical applications where you today can make more advanced and precise scans. Basically this means that you can get much better information about a patient before making incisions. One interesting application was autopsy, where you can scan for example a murdered victim, then go back and make more studies at the crime scene before making the final autopsy, so that you really know what you are looking for and can work without destroying important traces.

Staffan Klashed showed the fascinating Uniview application. Have you been as fascinated by Google Earth as I have? Well this was an application of similar nature, but taking it several steps beyond! To start you can not only zoom out from the globe and see the atmosphere, you can zoom out to the farthest known parts of the universe. And this application is also ”alive”, it displays various data with graphics, bar charts with the bars rising like skyscrapers on the actual globe etc. There was also visualisations of climate change and animations of current airline traffic.

The combination of beauty, accuracy and use of live data was breathtaking!

I also enjoyed David Hughes comprehensible presentation of practically every possible way to get visual information out of a computer. Everything from giant LCDs to domes, caves and head mounted displays (remember those?).

So to conclude, it is very inspiring to see these new applications, using real data and creating understandable, involving and enjoyable graphics. Graphics created for strictly functional reasons, some of them with limited or no support of designers. As of course, even though fine tuning of elements can improve visual quality and focus, the earth in itself or the scanned human bodies do not need to be designed in themselves if they are only accurate. But, then just imagine what will happen if you combine this with good graphic design, creative concepts and storytelling, for all those relevant elements that you cannot derive from quantitative data. Fasten your seatbelts!

By the way, Norrköping was at its sunny best, see some pictures I took of this beautiful city here.

’)My own suggested term, ”machine generated visualizations” in contrast to ”human created visualizations”.

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