Monday, November 26, 2007

What Brave New World...
I saw Beowulf this weekend in 3D on the iMax screen. Sweeeeet! It got me thinking this morning about how I would use 3D as an information architect if that effect became available at the PC level.

It turned out to be a more challenging question than I thought it would be. My first inclination was to use it to emphasize text, imagining turning on "track changes in 3D" to see where an editor had changed text. Or to have search terms in a document float above the subtext. But we can already accent that information with color and other typographic effects. Then of course I thought of pop ups and layered windows, but again, we emulate 3D today for these effects. Having a 3D display just makes it look sexier.

Graphs could be cool, as well as typological maps, where elevation of data carried new content, not just a pleasing effect. Yes, graphs would be cool, especially if you could rotate the 3D graph and look at it from different angles. But these are graphic effects, and I'm a word guy. It still left me pondering what would I do with 3D as a writer, other than just make it a sexier alternative to using italics, color, underscoring, or boldface. "Oooh look, the term in this definition looks like it's floating."

How could information design benefit from a 3D display?
Well, let's back up a little and ask how information design benefits from 2D. Most information is rendered in one dimension with letters being combined in a sequence defined by placement along a single axis. You might think of this discourse you are currently reading as being displayed in two dimensions, since your eyes move along both an x and a y axis, but that is just an artifact of word wrap. This entire blog entry could be rendered on a single line read from left to right without losing any information.

Then 2D comes into the picture with tables. The meaning of a block of text takes its context from the intersection of its row and its column. How could a third dimension be added to tables that would add a useful additional dimension for information? Let's build an example:

First, let's start with several one-dimensional documents that discuss the history of several countries. Since they are one dimensional, we structure them as tales told about each country in the chronological order in which the events occur. Want to know what happened in China in 4000 BC? Pick up the History of China document and look in the front. Want to know what happened in Japan last year? Pick up the History of Japan document and look in the back.

OK, now let's make it a 2D document. structured like a table. Each row will represent a country, and each column a century. Want to know what happened in China in the 18th century? Go to the China row and scan over to the 18th century column and there it is. Curious about what was going on in England at the same time? Scan up the column you're in until you get to the England row. Curious in general about if anything important might have happened in that century elsewhere? Just scan up and down that column. Whoa, here's an interesting occurrence in America at that time. What might have caused that? Lets just browse back in that row and look at the 17th century. OK, you get the point; 2D could make comparative history more relevant.

Let's take that same model and add a third axis, one that separates science, art, politics, and religion. We can zoom in and out depending on what aspect of a society we are interested in. Now that would be a cool use of 3D in an information design context.

OK, tag you're it. What would you do as an information designer if you could display your information products in 3D (and allow the user to manipulate the display along all three dimensions)?

BTW, give yourself low creativity points for any rendering of physical space in 3D. That is like so today!

1 comment:

Martha Stevens said...

This is an interesting challenge. I hope others will chime in. Decision-support tools, such as complex flow charts, would be good candidates for 3D. It would be especially helpful if they were actionable, changing perspective or content based on user interactions. Also, network diagrams, particularly diagrams of virtual networks, would benefit from 3D. Dynamic content/perspective would be even more helpful here, because of the possiblity for virtual machines to move from host to host automatically.