Vol.34 No.1 Feb. 2000

Visualization is Key to Understanding

Gordon Cameron

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We live in a world where the amount of data readily available at our fingertips is increasing at an astronomical rate, while our power to consume and make sense of that data seems to fall further behind each year. The information we are able to both generate and gather more of, is of little use without a means of understanding - and the key to that understanding may well rest in the subject we cover with this issue’s focus.

Visualization (until recently almost always tagged with the prefix scientific) - as described in the context of 2D/3D computer graphics - is by no means a new field, and is one that has been particularly active over the past decade. Up until recently, however, the ‘cost of entry’ has been prohibitively high for the mainstream. In order to process and/or produce the large amounts of complex data, expensive supercomputers were typically utilized, and the technology to visualize the data was rather costly. Early adopters tended to be in fields such as medicine, science, meteorology and other earth sciences, as well as in the very active research community. These, and others, have brought many innovations in the way in which we are able to view and interact with enormous (and varied) datasets in an efficient manner, allowing us to extract meaning that would otherwise be lost in a sea of data, and directly affecting the lives of millions of people (through e.g. medical visualization systems for surgical planning, weather analysis, drug design, etc.). Advances have included new algorithms to visualize volumetric data, ways of extracting and overlaying surfaces, modular visualization environments, fast database management and traversal, unique user interfaces - the list goes on, and the researchers in these areas continue to make great progress.

As the decade progresses, the visualization field will become of increasing relevance and importance - and not just to the scientific community. More are finding themselves in a situation where they have the means and power to generate (or gain access to) data relevant to their field. The visualization technology has become more affordable. (As an example, the work I was doing with simulation and visualization on then bleeding-edge Thinking Machines supercomputers and SGI workstations can now probably be handled on a handful of affordable personal computers). Smaller research facilities now have the ability to afford their own equipment to perform studies. Businesses (or governments) wishing to view the results of their data mining algorithms, and individuals attempting to make sense of the stock-market (is there any?) are all looking toward ways of visualizing their abstract numerical worlds in a way they can more easily comprehend. (Note: ethical issues abound, as we covered in Computer Graphics, 33(3) August 1999.)

There is no lack of data - the trick is how to extract meaning and enhance understanding utilizing novel and intuitive visualization techniques - spreadsheets alone will no longer be up to the task! Fortunately the visualization community is an extremely resourceful, driven and talented group of people, and one of those people is the highly regarded Bill Hibbard (who just so happens to be our regular VisFiles columnist). I was delighted when Bill agreed to edit this focus covering new applications of visualization techniques, and how these techniques can be tailored to the needs of users. I think you’ll agree that he’s done a wonderful job of gathering together some tremendous authors and articles. My thanks to everyone involved.

As always, I encourage you to respond with feedback to any of our contributors, as they love to hear from you!

Computer Graphics Editor Gordon Cameron spent his childhood skimming stones at the beach in Banff, Scotland and did his first programming at age 13 on a kindly neighbour’s Apple II Europlus. In 1995, he started working for SOFTIMAGE, Inc. in Montreal where he currently acts as Project Leader for Animation in the 3D team.

Gordon Cameron
Software Development
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