Immersive Data Visualization with Virtual Reality

It is no secret that I have been dreaming about combining virtual reality with the world of big data visualization. Big data exploration today is limited by two and three dimensional visualization tools. Since the moment I laid eyes on HoloLens, I had visions of immersing myself in a sea of data to discover hidden patterns in innovative ways. The advances in virtual reality data visualization are exhilarating. Although these tools may not be imminently available, they are progressing quickly. .

Pioneers in Research, Scientific Computing and Gaming

The rising complexity in big data visual analytics brings new challenges with rendering, hyper-dimensionality and human cognitive perception limitations. If you attempt to visualize big data sets with most – not all – data discovery tools today, you will probably be disappointed. Many data visualization tools sample or limit rendered data sets and will issue ugly warnings. They also do not have the ability to effectively visualize more than two or three dimensions. These tools were not designed for exploration from numerous perspectives.

Unity 3D

To overcome those limitations, experiments have been done to build data visualization tools that allow users to collaboratively interact and visualize hyper-dimensional data spaces with emerging immersive virtual reality technologies in research and scientific communities. Inspired by the gaming world and virtual realm Second Life, early virtual reality data visualization prototype projects have been built with Unity 3D, WebGL, JavaScript D3.js, Kinect, Oculus Rift, HoloLens and other technologies.

Oculus Rift with Salesforce data

A thought leading, talented professor and research team from the California Institute of Technology has published a wealth of really exciting virtual data visualization content, research and the iViz tool.

iViz was developed with Unity 3D, C# and JavaScript. Several other universities are also creating virtual data experience labs and prototypes.


Since two dimensional pictures do not adequately illustrate the power of virtual experiences. You do truly need to immerse yourself in the virtual world of data to understand to magnitude of potential for this innovative technology. To get a feel for the different type of user experience, check out the fun Wall Street Journal stock market data visualization journey. You do not need the fancy goggles to partially experience these concepts.

The Wall Street Journal

Google’s Chrome virtual reality data visualization experiments and WebGL experiments are also quite interesting in regards to the user experience of tilting your mobile phone to navigate and travel within the virtual data world.

As virtual reality gains momentum in other industries, the business world has taken notice. Today there are apps being used that combine physical and virtual worlds for training, simulations and field research. Last year SAP announced the Digital Boardroom. Can you imagine data storytelling with virtual reality? I can’t wait!

Where to Start

Hyper-dimensional data exploration is a relatively new field. The nature of virtual reality data visualization, coupled with haptic or kinesthetic interfaces that capture human touch, expression and body language, is a completely different art and science than the data visualization storytelling most analytics professionals practice today. At the moment, Unity 3D appears to be the most used integrated development environment (IDE) in this evolving space. If this interests you, download the free community version of Unity 3D and take an online course. Storybench also has a simple how to tutorial on this topic.

Immersive data visualization offers the potential of easier pattern recognition in big data sets and more intuitive data understanding. In early experiments, researchers cited users that had interacted with the data using virtual reality capabilities had better retention of perceived relationships within the data than they did using two dimensional data visualization tools. However, there will be a lot of confusion and much needed new data visualization best practices to develop effective data immersion experiences.