Aug 24, 2018 in Category

Why three is better than two

Whether 3D rendering should be used in the visualization of structured data is the topic of an ongoing debate in the field of information visualization and human-computer interaction. With the web technology for hardware-accelerated 3D graphics WebGL now becoming increasingly mainstream in web browsers, the same question can be posed for web-applications: when should we favor three-dimensional visualizations over two dimensional? Should 3D be used at all in a web application?

Philip Fels
by Philip Fels
3d map compared to a 2d map
3D map compared to a 2D map

In a series of blog posts, I will discuss our choice for 3D for our web-application Mapiq and give you a sneak peek at the techniques we use for our interactive visualizations.

The use of 3D in user interfaces adds numerous complications to both the design and use of the interface. Navigation in a 3D interface is often perceived as counter-intuitive due to the projection on a 2D screen and the inherent 2D nature of the common input devices (mouse, pen, and touch). Simple interactions in 3D do not always map to simple interactions with these input devices (does moving the mouse pointer upwards correspond to panning the camera forward, upward, or tilting the camera?). Add to this that objects will visually occlude each other if the camera is placed in an unfortunate position.

Despite these complications, when we implemented our first prototype of Mapiq we were quickly convinced that we should go 3D for visualizing our building data. Our number one argument is that 3D is the most natural representation when dealing with physical objects (buildings and objects that have a physical location). We’re visualizing information that is inherently 3D. When showing this data in two dimensions, a lot of information is lost. Information that a user needs to form the complete mental representation of the physical building. This process of mental registration is known to be challenging and to put a high cognitive demand on the user.

As a simple example of how 3D can aid in the task of recognizing a buildings’ floor, consider the following two sets of visualizations of a building floor.


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