Data visualisation is a simple concept but it has evolved beyond just charts and graphs. We are now capable of using high powered computers to process data and render them into spectacular images that we can interact with. So how can this kind of technology benefit businesses across a variety of industries? We find out.
The Chemical Brothers released a music video for the song Star Guitar back in 2002 that featured a continuous shot with buildings and objects passing by (stay with me, I promise you this is all relevant). Within a few seconds of watching the clip, most people would notice that the objects that go by don't just appear arbitrarily. They are timed exactly to the layers of beats and musical elements of the song.
The human visual system is an amazing feat of biological engineering in nature. It allows us to process images in tantalising detail and assimilates information from any given environment. It filters and organises an enormous amount of data and reconstructs components into complicated forms. Why am I telling you all of this? Because this is something that is beyond the abilities of modern computers.
We talk a lot about big data and analytics and how businesses can derive intelligence from them to make informed decisions. But there are insights that still require a human touch, which brings me back to Star Guitar. You can't write a program that will innately know that the video clip is depicting beats and sounds in the song as buildings and objects. You can only write code for computers to tell them to look for things that you know to look for.
This is where data visualisation fits in. At the Monash University in Melbourne, there is a large scale visualisation facility called Cave2, boasting some serious rendering hardware. It carries 40 curved screens for a combined 84 million pixels, 90 teraflops of memory, 20 Dell notes, 40 NVIDIA K5200 GPUs. Suffice to say it is capable of doing some epic image processing tasks.
It has been an invaluable tool for researchers who can use it as an interactive microscope as the Cave2 is capable of displaying 2D and 3D models of scanned imaging data of specimens they can interact with in real-time on a level that was previously impossible. But Monash University has seen a surge in interest in the Cave2 from companies across various industries.
The Cave2 in action
Monash University Cave2 platform manager and senior research fellow, Dr. David Barnes, told Lifehacker Australia that they have had a mix-bag of companies come in to use the facility. Architectural and construction firms have used the facility to display building plans in 3D to ensure there are no faults. Oil and gas companies have come in with models of their facilities formed from Lidar images to drill down on what components require replacement or maintenance. These are things that require human expertise and cannot be reliably done through computers.
"There are some things computers can't do - it only does what you tell it to do," Barnes said. "That is the whole drive for discovery. Discoveries are made by humans, by experts. Something like the Cave2 just allows us to put more information in front of experts to allow them to manipulate it in real-time."
This is applicable to both the medical research field and the business sector. By enabling people to see their data in visual form could result a new way of interpreting the information. It gives them a different perspective.
"It's a hypothesis generation tool. You can go take a look at the data in visual form in the Cave2 then go back and ask the computer to measure something for you, but you have to tell it what to look for," Barnes said. "At the end of the day, if you make a discovery through data visualisation, it will inform you of what kind of code you can write to measure it or measure it's frequency."
Spandas Lui travelled to the Cave2 in Melbourne as a guest of NVIDIA.