Last Friday we wrote about augmented reality for pretty obvious reasons: seems everyone out there is playing Pokemon Go and thus are thinking about different ways that technology can interact with the world around us.

True to VisualCue form we did a little digging after we wrote about it on Friday and are happy to present the results of a weekend of research and reading into exactly how the worlds of augmented reality and data visualization are linked.

We’ll go into greater detail below but just for now let’s put the main point first: the successful blending of augmented reality and data visualization is going to depend on mitigating both visual and information overload.

What is augmented reality

Before we can really get into how these two worlds can be combined we should first define what they are. According to Julio Cabero and Julio Barroso of the University of Seville “AR [augmented reality] can be described as the real-time combination of digital and physical information through different technological devices; in other words, it consists in utilizing a set of technological devices that add virtual information to the physical one.”

There is something in that definition that caught our eye- the ‘real-time combination’ of digital and physical information, and that is precisely where the worlds of AR and data visualization can and should overlap. With the advent of The Internet of Things and other streaming sources of data the volume, velocity and variety of information is only going to increase as time goes on: data is picking up speed, not slowing down.

However, data has always been abstracted- removed from it’s real-world context. Numbers in a spreadsheet are like that: they don’t look at all like their real-world equivalents but when you think about it that is exactly what they are. Each row and column in that spreadsheet, so easy to move around and dissect in the digital world, usually comes from a physical asset, process or person. But even though that information is generated in the real world it becomes more of a mental exercise than anything once you start playing around with it in spreadsheets.

And that is precisely where the world can miss things- because as soon as you take data out of it’s real-world context you run the risk of making decisions based on partial information.

Visual Overload

But the reasons behind taking data out of it’s context and putting it into spreadsheets was initially a sound move: there is simply too much information to take in in real time. If shipping containers were counted one by one on the dock there would be no time or mental energy left to find out how to make the unloading process from the ship more efficient: you need that bird’s eye view that comes from abstraction.

That is where the spreadsheet or data visualization tool is useful. It boils down the information into just what you need to be strategic. However, in the transfer something is lost: the details. It’s a catch 22 that no one can figure out- how do you take all of this streaming information and make it manageable to the layperson without being overloaded by the sheer amount of information present?

It’s the same problem with applying augmented reality to data visualization. So much information is happening so fast that it would be impossible to keep up with it all if the augmented reality visualization depended on numbers.

That’s why for augmented reality to work in the modern age of streaming data we need a way to consume all of that data as it happens in a way that everyone can instinctually understand. At VisualCue we rely on shapes and colors to deliver the story in enormous, streaming data sets- we see it as a way for anyone to access large amounts of data visually and understand it as quickly as it happens.

That’s the future that we envision for augmented reality and data visualization: don’t just put numbers on a screen but show the user, using colors and shapes that anyone can understand, the meaning behind those numbers. That’s when we’ll get to that future where everyone can make data-informed decisions.

Until next time,

The VisualCrew