Going for Glitz.And Other Perils of Scientific Visualization

By Peterson, Ivars | Science News, October 9, 1993 | Go to article overview

Going for Glitz.And Other Perils of Scientific Visualization


Peterson, Ivars, Science News


Wayne Lytle's demonstration of his slick visualization software starts off innocently enough. And Viz-O-Matic's on-screen commands make it all too easy to proceed.

LOAD DATA: A block of 30 numbers - white digits against a stark, black background - appears on an uncluttered display.

VISUALIZE: A rectangular grid materializes, then crinkles into a jagged, three-dimensional landscape in which the heights at various points correspond to the original numbers.

INTERPOLATE: The ragged contours smooth themselves into gently undulating terrain. Increasing the glitziness level from 0 to 5.6 paints the landscape in vivid hues, from red-tinged peaks to blue-bottomed valleys.

ENHANCE DATA: Two data points look out of place; one peak is raised, a hollow deepended. As the glitziness scale climbs to 8.4, the entire scene begins to rock gently from side to side. A stream of tracer particles - a vagrant cloud of overweight snowflakes - wanders down the slopes.

ANNOTATE: Uninformative labels and cryptic scales flash into view. Time passes in units of googolseconds.

CREATE TITLE: Trickles of insipid music accompany the appearance of a lengthy, jargon-laden heading.

NARRATE: An unintelligible, droning voice adds to the aural and visual cacophony. As Viz-O-Matic's glitziness level rises to 10, the landscape itself begins to flutter, like a flag waving in an uncertain breeze.

Lytle's shy spoof of scientific visualization lasts just 60 seconds.

Yet it deftly captures many of the concerns that scientists and graphics professionals share about the overuse or inappropriate use of computer graphics techniques for visualizing scientific data.

"Scientific visualization should enhance our knowledge of a given phenomenon, not draw attention to the graphics techniques themselves or, worse, deceive the viewer," Lytle says. "Viz-O-Matic is a fictitious software package that automatically produces bad visualization."

He speaks from five years of experience as a visualization specialist at the Cornell Theory Center at Cornell University. Over the years, Lytle has helped scientists create animations representing gravity maps of the Martian moon Phobos, planets orbiting a pulsar, and laser pulses destroying an eye tumor, among other phenomena. He has also produced inventive animations ingeniously tuned to music of his own composition.

Called "The Dangers of Glitziness and Other Visualization Faux Pas," Lytle's brief, animated parody of scientific graphics was prepared for and presented at SIGGRAPH 93, held in August in Anaheim, Calif. This annual conference serves as the leading forum for computer graphics research.

"I specifically had SIGGRAPH in mind because I knew this was the audience that would appreciate hearing the message," Lytle says. "There are all kinds of mistakes possible, and I tried to incorporate as many as I could."

His animation proved one of the biggest hits of the meeting. Everybody thought it was hilarious, says Mike Bailey, manager of the visualization group at the San Diego Supercomputer Center. More than a few of these viewers may have recognized in the film's exaggerations some of their own transgressions.

Not so long ago, scientists had to be content with studying and presenting their data in simple charts, tables, graphs, and other rudimentary forms. But these techniques have faltered lately in the face of a rapidly swelling ocean of data - from satellite observations of Earth, from massive detectors focusd on high-energy collisions between elementary particles, from supercomputer simulatins of complex physical phenomena, and from many other sources.

So researchers have turned increasingly to new, computer-intensive methods of visualizing data in order to sort out information, extract meaningful results, and gain important insights. …

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