Walking Around Your 3D Data
Green Phosphor, Ltd. specializes in using 3D platforms for dense data-visualization, working in bioinformatics, genomics and similar data-intensive vertical markets. In July 2009, they launched an online web service – Glasshouse – to help others visualize and interact with data in three-dimensional virtual worlds such as Sun’s Wonderland, Forterra Systems’ On-Line Interactive Virtual Environment (OLIVE™), and Linden Lab’s Second Life.
Before Neo and Morpheus in the seminal 1999 film, The Matrix, there was William Gibson. In Gibson’s fiction, the matrix is the next generation of the Internet: an abstract three-dimensional grid, representing everything and everyone connected by arbitrary objects and avatars of their choosing.
Famously, Gibson characterizes this vision in the 1984 novel, Neuromancer: “A graphic representation of data abstracted from banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding.”
Movement in Gibson’s Matrix occurs by thought, and feedback is directly given into the brain by electronic signals.
Early on –- well before the Internet became as ubiquitous as the telephone –- Gibson saw that critical decision-making involving massive amounts of complex multidimensional data requires more advanced and interactive visual representations than simple tables, pie-charts, and line-charts. While the web remains mostly flat and two-dimensional today, 3D and 4D data visualization software for science, health care, technology and business has become increasingly sophisticated. Here’s a short video that shows surgery, anatomy, mechanism of action (MOA), and physiology in 3D:
Software for 3D visualization includes microscopy, geography, earthworks, forensics, time-resolved spectrum analysis (such as EEG and GC spectroscopy), and thermal mapping. 4D “stack” data (data stored as voxels or pixel-like volume units) applications include computed tomography imaging, volume visualization, and ultrasound skin scanning.
Green Phosphor’s Glasshouse service lets users romp around 3D representations of data in virtual worlds. It’s a step towards the type of 3D data visualization that Gibson describes in his fiction. It also provides a persuasive reason for corporate knowledge workers to join virtual world services such as Second Life and Sun’s Wonderland and use them as more than just marketing and communication tools.
Glasshouse can work with data from Excel spreadsheets or SQL databases and uses Green Phosphor’s Content Injection and Control Protocol (CICP) to provide the presentation of data across multiple virtual world platforms. Here’s a quick video showing Excel integration in a virtual world:
Here’s another video showing Green Phosphor’s ability to create a graph in Second Life which updates in real time based on external data – in this example, market indicators such as the S&P 500 and the DJI:
Using an avatar –- a human-like representation of you within a virtual world –- you can see data, drill into it, re-sort it, and explore it interactively by walking (or flying) around it. Glasshouse produces graphs that are “avatars” of the data itself.
According to CEO Ben Lindquist, Green Phosphor is tailoring the system for the use of biotech companies, specifically for drug discovery and development. They recently hired Dr. David Resuehr, a molecular biologist, as Chief Scientist. In a report titled "Market Forecasts for Virtual World Experiences" published in June, 2008, Strategy Analytics predicts that 22% of global broadband users will register for one or more virtual worlds by 2017, resulting in a market of 1 billion users worth about $8 billion. One Glasshouse early adopter writes, “The potential business value of 3D dashboards and situation rooms is enormous. I’m following this use of immersive technology closely, as it will be one of the key growth areas during the next couple of years.”
The company’s beta release provides a client-side Java applet that interfaces between your data and the Green Phosphor CICP Hub that routes the 3D rendition of the data to your target virtual world. Green Phosphor is offering a lifetime subscription to any developer who is the first to fully implement CICP within any popular open-source virtual world platform.
Lundquist envisions specialized corporate specialists who will render complex 3D data using virtual worlds, “… every company has Excel experts who set up spreadsheets others use; report writers who can pull the numbers people need faster than anyone else; SAS experts who can whip up an analysis for executives to use in making a decision… I believe these people are already the ‘data wizards.’ He goes on to say that immersive data visualization technology can be set up to let everyone in an organization explore the organization’s database with data wizards as guides, “… our goal should be to get them into the immersive space… so that teamwork and communication are enhanced.”
Virtual worlds like Wonderland, Second Life, and OLIVE are still fairly primitive – partially a limitation of today’s Graphics Processing Unit (GPU) chip technology – and still far from Gibson’s poetic vision of a 3D graphic representation of data abstracted from “banks of every computer in the human system.” Still, they are immersive in ways 2D spreadsheets and SQL databases are not –- you can use avatars to walk around your data. Analyzing and responding to competitive data in real time is critical to corporate survival. Glasshouse – or something like it – may just have the potential to become a “killer app” for the emerging virtual world market segment.