Beautiful Data as Virtual Architecture
August 2, 2007, 5:35 pm
Filed under: reflexive architecture, second life, virtual architecture

Taking the idea of reflexive architecture a step further, perhaps virtual architecture could not only be sensitive and dynamic to the movement of its occupants, but capable of incorporating real time data streams, becoming a visual metaphor for whatever data is relevant to the building’s program.

The YouTube video shown above, via a recent post on eightbar, illustrates the visualization of system architecture and business hierarchy. It seems possible that a system like this, which is automatically generating a model of the interconnections and relationships in the network infrastructure, could actually inform the realtime configuration of the virtual architecture within which avatars interact, collaborate and conduct their daily activities.

While reading a post over at Digital Urban about visualizing data using SketchUp, I was reminded of Edward Tufte’s ‘Visual Display of Quantitative Information’, or the experiments Clear Ink’s Leon Atkinson’s S&P 500 visualization build, as well a Asymptote’s design for the NYSE. I think these ideas are incredibly relevant in Second Life, not only to create visual displays of quantitative information, but perhaps to extend into the creation of the architectural itself.

Combining all of these ideas with the concept of ‘beautiful data’ recently contemplated in Ugotrade, I think we arrive at a very interesting and native capacity of virtual worlds. Could Leon’s S&P 500 become a virtual building or a city? Could we hold meetings inside of pure visual data relevant to the meeting’s agenda? Could data generated architecture help improve a meeting’s productivity? What new kinds of architectural metaphors might we develop to help increase their value?

I think the idea of ‘data as architecture,’ has some strong and far reaching potential, and will be central in the development of the next generation of virtual architecture.

4 Comments so far
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The problem with this application is that it is fundamentally a 3d visualization engine that’s way sub-par compared to a simple 2d visualization. For a system as simple as the one they’re demoing, you could for sure communicate exactly the same info in 2d as they do in 3d. I think looking at virtual environments as visualization platform is going to be a dead end. Doing visualization in 3d has a bunch of major problems. The biggest two issues are tightly linked – usually, no single view of a 3d information space accurately captures its contents. To actually grok the space, you have to orbit around for a while. With a good 3d interface, that can be okay, but it still can’t meet Tufte’s “compare in space not in time” dictum. The other issue is that you never know what someone else is seeing because they have to navigate the space in 3d independently from you. Even if you see their avatar in a space, they could be seeing things you’re not, and so you don’t share enough of a frame of reference to actually have a conversation about the space. This is exacerbated in Second Life by people’s cameras being able to fly off wherever they want – even if you know where someone is standing, you have no idea what they’re actually looking at.

The other problem with this approach is that it’s not actually creating functional spaces. I agree that embedding data in architecture is important (and I’m working on a few different projects in that area) but I think the key is that they not be data-for-datas-sake, but actually create functional interaction spaces, not just representations of something else. Otherwise, we might as well make a multi-user 3d visualization engine and not use Second Life at all. Which, I guess, is part of what IBM is doing, but I think we all need to be careful to not scope the Metaverse vision too tightly and get caught in the trap of “collaborative visualization engines”. The Second Earth article in Tech Review is a great example of that failure. I hope the metaverse can be much more than just being about visualization.

Comment by Drew

The metaverse is certainly much more than just being about visualization. In fact visualization is the wrong term all together. I can’t think of a good one at the moment that captures the scope of the project – maybe virtual architecture is moving towards something like creating responsive and beautiful, 3D architectural machines? But the uniqueness of the Second Life environment should not, IMHO, be underestimated – it is not like any other multi-user 3D visualization engine out there or in development, that I know of, for many reasons – too many to list here in a comment. And, when the servers are open sourced, the current limitations to the use of this unique environment will be removed. And, I suspect even the sky may not be the limit then.

Comment by Tish Shute

Thought the architect in question should respond :+) Yes the metaverse is *definitively* more than a visualisation engine – this technique enables remote interaction and collaboration with the model that is still difficult with a shared model file…(and difficult to capture on a 90 second video ;+) ). Displays like this spawn questions from the observers that are not immediately obvious from the 2D (UML) version of the same information…
Not only that, some of the C-level types I talk to don’t actually understand UML! The model shown is deliberately simple, but more complex structures are possible.
The philosophy behind this prototype is to provide a convenient means to consume and interact with complex multi-layered information in way that is more accessible to a wide variety of end consumers. The information in question would not be available in a single tool or a convenient 2D drawing and we’d usually end up transcribing it into PowerPoint to explain it (which takes time and is fundamentally non-maintainable)!
The video does not show the fourth dimension either, which could show it evolving over time…
It’s early days, but the dynamic and collaborative nature of the metaverse and the kind of dynamic spaces that could be created for the short-lived globally distributed teams that I seem to find myself working in makes it a very interesting place, full of possibilities, of which interactive and active visualisations are only a part…

Comment by Turner Boehm

[…] echoing the debate on Arch, Illuminous does not like the term visualization for the work he does in Second Life. He says we […]

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