Monday, February 25, 2008


This movie (above) was a product of a class assignment from graduate school, co-developed by Hussein Suleman and Fernando Das Neves. Talented guys. Actually, they did most of the development. I was the CAVE SME but still a fairly green agile developer. The class was Dr. Ed Fox's Information Storage and Retrieval (archived). The assignment was a basic proof-of-concept for navigating the Electronic Thesis and Dissertation (ETD) digital library at Virginia Tech using a 3d virtual reality metaphor. This is probably first time I knew for sure that realistic physical metaphors for browsing large electronic collections is a complete waste of time. It's even worse when the digital collection does not map to any actual physical space (i.e., this isn't a model of the campus library) and that's usually the case. On the other hand, tagging virtual environments with contextual information can be quite useful. Keep in mind that this is screen capture from monitor, but we are in a 10 cu. ft room, fully immersed in a 3D environment. So if you then keep everything the same but change the use case...there might very well be some value in linking the contents of a digital library to a virtual environment as a way of enriching the environment. Instead of wandering through a library having a completely arbitrary "floorplan" conceived by the application developers you are looking at a piece of complex equipment inside a virtual power plant and you can click anywhere and link into the: parts catalog, component specification, training lesson...any digital content.  That would be more useful.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Visualization Doesn't Matter

Sense-making matters. I've always been cognizant of the fact that people without sight have exactly zero use for visualization. (Probably not 100% true, I bet.) The point is that there is nothing presumptive about visualization that makes sense-making possible. It is the human mind that makes sense-making have even meaning enough to give way to possibility. Communication matters, too. Certainly visualization makes communication possible by providing an entire medium/channel/wavelength such that when we lack it our communication may likely be impeded.

Obviously I think there is value in visualization. So why do I say it doesn't matter? Because visualization is never more than a means to an end. That end could be to have fun or it could be to make an important decision or it could be to send a message. But in any case, there can be 1001 means to achieving those ends and visualization is never more than one of them.

Why is this point worth understanding and remembering?

Selling. Working for customers. Providing a service to people. I am a computer scientist and a technologist and a visualization "guy" but my work and my business are all about people. Sometimes people forget what the word "technology" means.

And so when I'm talking to a customer about visualization and I find that we are talking too much about visualization then something is not right. We should be talking about the customer's wants, needs, pains in intellectual terms that are not constrained by any one means of achieving an end. It's up to me to decide how, where, why, and when visualization matters. That's what I'm getting paid to do.

Ok, so enough with the hand-waving. What is a practical example?

I have a customer who wants and needs to make an investment in visualization and part of his information technology capability. I know going in that the reason I am doing business with this customer is because he values visualization and knows he needs help integrating it into his IT portfolio. So I'm sitting down in front of him and giving him his first brief on what I am doing for him. Most of the hour long presentation (demonstrations, actually) is/are in terms of how visualization is used to present and interact with his domain data. He finds that all well and good in about 5 minutes, but what he really wants to know is "which of my problems does it solve?" And that's where it gets tricky. Because the answer is that visualizing domain information doesn't solve any problems de facto.

So do you want to talk about my visualization services or do you want to talk about your problems? What matters? I'm happy and comfortable discussing either. But in my business, people solve problems and it just so happens that my people are skilled at using visualization as a means toward that end.