Human Factor in Virtual Reality Data Visualization

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When I saw the first Oculus presentation video, I didn’t start dreaming about games. My first thoughts were about areas that VR can transform: travel, commerce, and 3d modelling. But data visualization was the most exciting field for me.

Even with available rich 3d graphics, for data visualization, flat shapes was more suitable. 3d charts on flat-screen make information more difficult to understand and compare.
But stereo vision opens new frontiers. A user doesn’t have to rotate the model to get an idea about the volume. He can literally feel shapes and proportions. And in some experiences, even naturally interact with data. It’s like making any visualization twice better by giving the extra dimension of information. As a user is closed in VR experience, it helps keep focus and give a feeling of higher involvement.

During the time, I became confused. Why aren’t appear great examples of data visualizations and tools for building them?
So I decided to do little research and compare a few numbers in the usual 2d and VR view.

My general hypothesis is: Data visualization in VR is better than in 2d.

There are already some examples of 3d charts in VR:


Such experience can nice, but it doesn’t give a lot of advantages. In case of a simple bar chart, it even makes it worse because of perspective distortion. On 2d chart user can compare sizes, in VR, it isn’t so easy because of perspective distortion.
Maybe charts that extra layer of information (for example, 3d scatter plot or 3d bar chart) will have more sense in VR. But in this research, I decided to don’t dig into this way. Advantages of such visualizations aren’t high. And hardware for virtual reality isn’t so popular.

The obvious take away here is:

If squares aren’t exciting enough, transform them into boxes in VR isn’t going to help.

After this, I focused on objects that can make more sense for users that bar charts. After little research in areas around, I decided to build the demo about people diversity. It shows information about the population using silhouettes of people. The initial idea is that real scale person will affect empathy of a viewer. And pride instincts allow roughly understand the volume of groups.
But at first have a look at flat version:

And VR version:

If you have a chance, I would recommend using a VR headset: Did you know how many people have more than $10 a day?

I was more than satisfied by the effectiveness of the VR demo. I continued searching for other objects that have an emotional connection with us. The obvious finding was money. So I build the demo that compares some numbers of bucks.

There is the usual bar chart.

VR version:

Check demo: Random Numbers

With real-life objects and feelings, data visualization gets much more sense than just bar charts. I tested them on a few people and got interesting feedback. In VR demos they were much more involved. VR view doesn’t give more understanding of size or numbers. But immersive experience definitely helped users understand more clearly values behind numbers.


I can’t say that data visualization in VR is better than in 2d.
It isn’t worse, either. It’s just different. It definitely makes sense to use VR in cases when values can be shown in objects from real life.