AR/VR Data Visualization Takes on Big Data
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Regular readers might recall that one of our well-traveled MBAs surfaced in the middle of the Pacific Ocean last year on the Marshall Islands. Between spearfishing for his dinner and throwing back beers with the locals, he managed to write a few articles. What’s even more amazing than the fact that the U.S. tracks space junk from that remote outpost is that anyone could find their way to these islands in the first place. Yet the Marshallese were once expert sailors, navigating their canoes by using stick charts that represented ocean swell patterns. You might say these were among some of the earliest data visualization tools developed by humans. Today, data visualization, which is basically the graphic representation of data in various forms, is a growing multi-billion-dollar business. So, it was only a matter of time before AR/VR data visualization became a thing.
Seeing Data in a 3D World
While some of us might still prefer a good old-fashioned Excel sheet for dumpster diving through datasets, most of the world has moved on (and sometimes already past) to different graphic representations. Remember when Word Clouds were a thing? The last decade saw more and more examples of 3D data visualization tools on offer, including a relatively recent freebie from Microsoft. It’s not much of a leap to immerse the user in 3D data through virtual reality or splay it across the conference room using augmented reality. After all, there’s plenty of research out there that suggests the human brain does a better job of understanding information in 2D over 3D.
“Visualizing data in 3D allows users to uncover trends and patterns that may not be immediately visible with 2D visualizations.”
That comment comes from Alfredo Ruiz, who happens to be the design lead at IBM Watson. He recently wrote about one of his team’s latest tools, IBM Immersive Data, “an augmented reality visualization tool that allows data scientists and business executives to quickly explore and understand data.”
He went on to explain why AR data visualization is a useful tool:
“Users are drawn to the physicality of the data. One user likened AR to using a physical textbook vs. an e-book. With a physical book, you can see the big picture, it creates a more physical experience: the size of the book, the structure of the contents, the layout of the information etc. With an e-book, although that information is technically available to you, it’s not as readily understood.”
NASA is also onboard with using AR/VR data visualization. A paper presented at the world’s biggest annual science conference in 2018 highlighted how a team at Goddard Space Flight Center has been developing a PointCloudsVR platform that visualizes “flow data, such as convection flows or ocean flows as well as revisiting ‘real-world’ field sites captured using LiDAR” and other imaging techniques. Other visualizations can immerse scientists in virtual forests of data on forest structure and topographic features.
Startups Doing AR/VR Data Visualization
In one sense, AR/VR data visualization can be seen as the natural progression of virtual collaboration, which has to be better than meeting in a real conference room under the soul-draining light from fluorescent tube bulbs. We’ve come across a few instances of AR/VR specifically for data visualization. One recent find was a company called Nanome that created a VR platform in life sciences to accelerate drug discovery. During the course of our research, we found quite a few companies working on some version of this theme, though not many had appeared to raise much funding. A few names rose to the top.
VR Data Visualizations for Virtual Collaboration
The most well-funded of the bunch seems to be a Pasadena, California company called Virtualitics. Founded in 2015, the startup has raised a total of $11.4 million to develop its Virtualitics Immersive Platform (VIP) that combines machine learning, big data, and virtual reality. AI comes into play by identifying key insights in the data, only requiring users to drag and drop to run different routines like smart mapping and anomaly detection. The software then creates immersive data visualizations that can be viewed on a desktop or with VR in a collaborative virtual office space.
The company released the latest version of VIP earlier this month. Virtualitics claims VIP 2020 is able to render 3D visualizations of network graphs and compute insights that range from 10 to 100 times faster than other tools on the market. In one case study, researchers at Columbia Medical School used VIP to understand the link between cancer mortality and flu epidemics. Bottom line: Don’t get non-small cell lung cancer during flu season.
AR/VR Data Visualization for Networks
Another company that emphasizes collaboration in its data visualization platform is Austin, Texas-based 3Data. Founded in 2016 and originally called DatavizVR, 3Data took in an undisclosed amount of money in the form of a convertible note back in 2018. The company’s Virtual Operations Center integrates AR/VR with AI and real-time data analysis that enables remote teams to collaborate. One of the featured use cases is to provide data visualizations for monitoring an enterprise computer network, which 3Data developed for Cisco.
For example, Techopedia reported how 3Data used machine learning to search for anomalies in data flows to detect cyber attacks, which are illustrated by the disparate size of network nodes. In another case, hand gestures on the network diagram can shut down congested physical ports, and the corresponding graph will show in real-time the impact on traffic in the network.
AR Data Visualization for Connectivity
Remember how in the Matrix movies computer code would fall across the screen like green rain, representing the virtual reality of the machine-made world? Well, a Los Angeles startup, BadVR, is sort of doing something similar with data signals. Founded in 2017, the small company has raised an undisclosed amount of money through grants in 2019 from AR unicorn Magic Leap and the National Science Foundation (NSF). Our guess is BadVR has raised upwards of $725,000 based on the max amount Magic Leap provides through its Independent Creator Program and a $225,000 grant from NSF. You can read about the company’s origin story here.
The money from Magic Leap has gone into the development of an AR app called SeeSignal. The tech gathers data about radio frequency signals coming from cell phones, home routers, and wireless devices using “patent-pending sampling algorithms, data spatialization, and a touch of machine learning.” It displays the information to users via a fully interactive and immersive augmented reality environment. The idea is that users can leverage the data to improve coverage and eliminate dead zones in hardware placement.
AR/VR Data Visualization to Generate Alpha
Another alumni of the Independent Creator Program is a Boston Area startup called Immersion Analytics. Founded in 2015 and also known by the name Virtual Cove, Immersion Analytics has developed its Visualizer Software specifically for Magic Leap One. The freebie software allows users to visualize seven data dimensions in one, meaning multiple columns of a database can be seen in a single view.
The company is marketing its data visualization toward finance applications, with initial use cases focused on risk management and alpha generation, as well as portfolio management and quantitative research.
Mining with AR/VR Data Visualization
Another technology link to AR/VR data visualization is the ability to create a digital twin. That enables users to virtually explore a physical space and the corresponding data all in one place. That’s one of the main use cases proposed by LlamaZOO Interactive, a Canadian company based in Victoria on Vancouver Island. The company has raised less than $1 million. Its flagship product is MineLife VR, a VR platform that presents a true-to-scale 3D representation of a mine using complex geospatial and mine planning data. The business model is similar to how VR and AR is being used to futurize construction.
One obvious advantage is being able to study a remote site without spending time and money needed for multiple assessments. For example, LlamaZOO created a digital twin of a 30,000-square-kilometer mine in British Columbia that is believed to possess one of the largest undeveloped copper-gold-silver deposits in the world. The company estimates it saved its client between $100,000 and $250,000 dollars by creating a data-rich model in VR, while also accelerating the project timeline.
We initially approached this article with a healthy dose of skepticism. After all, is there really any advantage of looking at 3D pie charts in AR/VR vs on a desktop? But we’ve come to accept that there are some real benefits to immersive data visualization. The chief one is probably the ability to see patterns in large, multi-dimensional datasets in real time. Some of the case studies were surprising, such as modeling computer networks or network connectivity. These sorts of unique use cases, combined with related technologies like creating digital twins within a collaborative environment, help make the case for AR/VR data visualization as yet another tool for business intelligence.