Data Visualization

A friend of mine works at a company that specializes in data visualization, and it got me to thinking about computer displays in science fiction. There’s not much flash to the ones we write about, but we certainly see a lot of that in the movies. I think about the floating, translucent displays from Avatar or the gesture-based interface in Minority Report. Then there are the holographic displays, running the gamut from the chess set on the Millennium Falcon to the holodeck on the Enterprise-D. Yes, at its heart the holodeck is a fancy computer display, complete with the best haptic feedback system you could imagine. But in terms of really looking at data, these are just bells and whistles.

I think the really interesting developments will be in how computers figure out how to turn data into a picture, not how that picture is displayed.

For example, let’s talk about a random number generator that wasn’t all that random. It was one of the early random number generator algorithms in computer science. The numbers indeed seemed fairly random when considered one after another or even in long sequences. Then someone started using them to generate points in three-dimensional space, where the point (x,y,z) was filled out with (random1, random2, random3). What they discovered was that while the points jumped around in 3d space with a nice apparent randomness, over time, they started to collect in a series of parallel planes. From one point to the next, you might jump from one plane to another, but the points never fell between the planes. Not so random after all.

Ok, so someone made a sloppy random number generator. What does that have to do with the real world? Well, there was similar case when looking at water dripping from a rapidly dripping faucet. A team studying chaotic systems looked at the simple question of how long does it take for the next drop of water to drip? You might think it’s a steady interval, but it’s not. It is actually quite chaotic, the time from one drop to the next seemed to be random. But again, when plotting them out in 3D-space triplets, i.e. (x,y,z) as (time to drop1, time to drop2, time to drop3), they formed a distorted loop. The data points did not march faithfully along that loop, but while jumping from one spot on the loop to another, they all still fell on the loop.

While those two cases were very similar in terms of the visualizations, there are lots of twists on that. What if the pattern turned out to require four sequential data points instead of just three? Maybe it could have been done as a 3D animation, where the sequential numbers formed points in 3D+time (x, y, z, time). Or maybe it did turn out to be at least a little more random, and instead of taking sequential points, you merely had to skip every fourth number.

Then there’s data that comes in not just as a sequence of numbers, but with its own dimensionality, i.e. it’s not merely a single number, but a pair of them, like wind speed and compass direction. And what if you consider that wind direction as not merely a single compass direction, but as a three-dimensional vector. What if you also had to track some extra component of the wind as well, like some notion of spin?

That takes us smack dab into the interfaces that the starship navigators face in some of my books. They’re sailing on the tachyon winds, and they sometimes shift in dramatic ways. Navigators look at that wind speed and direction, looking for changes that could thrash their ephemeral sails hard enough to rip them apart, pushing back against the generators down in the engine room. They’re looking not just at the current speed and direction, but also the derivatives, looking for critical inflection points to see not when the wind has changed direction, but when it is about to change. Truly experienced navigators eventually learn to recognize certain shapes in the data, being able to distinguish between a meaningless transient versus the leading edge of something horrific.

Personally, that’s the kind of computer display stuff that I want to see more of in science fiction — not just fancier graphics — but new and interesting ways to interpret the crazy world around us.