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Walking in a data-wonderland: Big Data meets virtual reality

data VR interface

One of the biggest challenges of Big Data is that the human mind is just too feeble to comprehend such vast amounts of information. Our brains become overwhelmed by petabytes of data, but EU researchers think they’ve hit upon a way to make it more digestable.

The European Commission has just announced €6.5 million in funding for the Collective Experience of Empathetic Data Systems (CEEDS) project, which hopes to improve cognition by building a kind of sensory-based data visualization system.

Located at Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, the eXperience Induction Machine (XIM) employs virtual reality technology to enable people to literally walk inside their data sets. The system itself can be thought of as a room that’s immersed in complex data visualizations. Those standing inside the room wear an array of sensors to track their physiological reactions, and the complexity of the data visualizations dynamically changes in response to triggers like eye movements, gestures and heart rate.

“The system acknowledges when participants are getting fatigued or overloaded with information,” said Jonathan Freeman, Professor of Psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London and coordinator of CEEDs, “and it adapts accordingly. It either simplifies the visualizations so as to reduce the cognitive load, thus keeping the user less stressed and more able to focus. Or it will guide the person to areas of the data representation that are not as heavy in information.”

The CEEDs project is made up of 16 research partners from nine European countries, including Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands and the UK. Driving their research is the reality that as data sets grow larger and more complex, new tools are necessary to help people navigate and understand them. CEEDs says potential use cases for its XIM tech include helping students to study more efficiently, and it’s already being put to use in museums. The Bergen-Belsen concentration camp memorial museum in Germany has been using the technology for two years, and CEEDs is said to be in discussions with other museums in the U.S., UK and the Netherlands.

Aside from museums, CEEDs is also talking to charities and commercial organizations about customizing its system for their needs. It says that potential applications might include visualizing soil quality and climate conditions in Africa to help farmers produce better crop yields, and a ‘virtual retail store’ at an unnamed international airport.

Other use cases might involve satellite imagery, oil prospecting, historical research and economics.

“Anywhere where there’s a wealth of data that either requires a lot of time or an incredible effort, there is potential,” said Freeman. “We are seeing that it’s physically impossible for people to analyze all the data in front of them, simply because of the time it takes. Any system that can speed it up and make it more efficient is of huge value.”

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