Experimenting with data presentation in VR with the HTC Vive and Tiltbrush

What happens when you try and draw a graph in Virtual Reality?

Another day, another experimentation with data, this time exploring the power and impact of VR (virtual reality) on presenting data to the public.

Whilst the attempted experimentation did not work in the end, I wanted to take the time to briefly write-up and explain some of the notes I made at the #Chimemdh music hackday.

What did I find?

Whilst VR graphs are fun to view and easy to make, the high entry price and the limited audience really stop this tool from being both used by producers and adopted by newsrooms.

Things I noticed whilst trying out this method…

1: The audience is very limited, less than a million globally:

By far the biggest problem I encountered was just how many people don’t own a high-end VR headset and this is perhaps the reason that this type of visual presentation method has not and for the near future won’t take off.

With such a small audience, it really makes no sense for anyone to fully develop graphs designed from the ground up for interactive VR. Yes, there may be a market for mobile VR (such as Gear VR) but the Vive stands out for having interactivity via the ability to move within the VR program via two sensor boxes and to lower the graph down to a level that would on mobile, you would lose all interactivity.

So the biggest problem we had was thinking is there even a need for it? The answer we came to? No. However, we carried on with this idea pushing it as we wanted to see what we could achieve in an afternoon.

2: It’s very expensive to set-up, at least £1,200:

A problem linked to why many people don’t use it is that it’s very expensive to set-up and create. This might sound like it has anything to do with experimenting with the platform, but when you consider you need a Vive headset (£780) and a high-spec PC (£1,000), the price needed to create this is already very high, thus putting many people out of the reach of this method.

The problem is that whilst the method is great and offers a lot of potentials, there really is not an audience nor enough incentive to fully develop for it.

As a gamer, I love the Vive yet if I told all my readers that to view an interactive graphic/chart they would need to fork over over £1,000 to view it, I can guarantee that most, if not all would say no.

3: People do enjoy it in a way they can’t on mobile:

The one thing I did find that even in a very early state the audience response to viewing graphs and maps in VR was amazing, something that I’ve never seen before. Everyone commented on how fun it was to use and in some cases how it was ‘revolutionary’ to look at the word in VR.

Our idea was simple:

Using VR, people could access a custom program which used the 3D VR world mapping tool, Google Earth to explore the site of the data, in this case, the music festival. Whilst exploring the map, charts could appear (drawn using Tilt brush in full 3D) in selective areas we had selected. For instance, we could pick the main stage and show a bar chart which visualises the most popular songs performed. If we wanted, we could even have the music playing in the background.

Now whilst this idea had great response, despite being in the very early stages of development, it was clear that people enjoyed it and one thing I got from this was whilst the audience may not be there, it’s still a worthwhile area to research into.

4: With more time we could have developed something great:

We really only had 6 hours to fully mess around with this idea, which is nowhere near the amount of time you would need to fully develop the idea into a useable product.

This was a key issue that I learnt was that it takes a lot longer to produce a data visual in VR then when you compare it to creating a more typical graph in 2D using a program like Excel, Infogr.am or Tableau.

5: It’s really easy to get to grips with, anybody can do it:

A little side-note. When we passed the controls to people who had never used VR before they were able to quickly and easily get to grips with the program in such a way which allowed them to produce graphs in 3D.

The interactive, user-friendly experience means anyone can get to grips with it.

So urm, what did you actually learn then Sandro?

A lot. If anything I learnt more about the social response to VR graphs. Whilst people really enjoyed it there are a select couple of reasons including price and consumer uptake of devices that stop this type of visualisation from really taking off, at least right now in 2017.

I do think there is a future for VR graphs, but at the current entry price, lack of mobility and awareness of these devices, it’s not worth putting a lot of time and effort into it as it’s more of a hobby than a practical tool as of March 6th 2017.a