Data Visualization in Three Dimensions

Imagine you are responsible for ordering parts for an oil rig. For the past few years, you’ve used reports that provide columns of data on all of the parts used in the rig, including their suppliers, specifications and prices.

The reports are helpful, but each time a part needs to be replaced it can take several hours -- if not days -- to find out which suppliers have the part in stock and which can supply it reliably and at the lowest cost.

Now imagine a new software application that shows a three-dimensional picture of the rig. After clicking on the needed part, a three-dimensional chart appears showing the price, delivery lead time, reliability rating and stock inventory for each part supplier. Based on a set of minimum acceptable thresholds for each variable, the chart immediately shows the best supplier for the part.

Such an application may seem like science fiction, but it’s not. It can now be built using version 6.0 of the Forest & Trees decision support application development environment from Platinum Technology Inc. (Oakbrook Terrace, Ill., www.platinum.com).

Welcome to the world of 3-D data visualization. While 3-D technology has been around for several years, it is just beginning to appear in enterprise-level business applications, from decision support to infrastructure management. "We believe that 3-D will become the standard," says Marc Sokol, senior vice president of advanced technology at Computer Associates. "Humans have a very 3-D graphical mind and memory."

In part, Sokol says, the accelerated adoption of 3-D technology is being made possible by improvements in desktop computers. Applications that previously could only run on $100,000 Intergraph workstations can now be displayed on $3,000 PCs, he explains.

Forest & Trees’ 3-D capabilities rely on the Virtual Reality Modeling Language (VRML), a sort of HTML for 3-D. The information needed to render a VRML model is stored in a text-based markup language. These relatively small text files make VRML ideally suited for transmission over low-bandwidth Internet connections. Developers from SGI and Intervista, a Platinum Technology company, created the first VRML specification four years ago.

VRML isn’t the only 3-D modeling language out there, but it is one of the most frequently mentioned, in part because of its ties to the Web and to Java. With version 2.0, developers can link Java code to VRML objects to enable interaction -- click on an object in a VRML scene or "world," and the code will be executed.

The VRML Consortium, an industry group dedicated to the adoption of VRML, is working on several data visualization initiatives. In September, the group approved a database extensions proposal that details methods of database access from VRML. The following month, the group approved a set of recommended practices for SQL database access. The group is also working on a specification for integrating XML and CORBA with VRML.

While Forest & Trees’ 3-D capabilities are specifically designed for data visualization, Platinum’s Vream subsidiary has a more general-purpose VRML development environment called VRCreator, which ships with hundreds of VRML models.

Platinum plans to add 3-D interfaces to its IT infrastructure management products. In this arena, however, Platinum’s products won’t be the first to market. Computer Associates has had a 3-D interface for its Unicenter TNG management framework since 1996, according to CA’s Sokol. With the 3-D interface, systems administrators navigate through their networks graphically, zooming past a 3-D representation of the accounting and marketing departments to find that router or switch that isn’t functioning properly. "The biggest benefit is that it makes something super complex easy to visualize," he says. "Customers have told us the best way for them to show their bosses how their network works is through 3-D."

In October, CA acquired 3Name3D and Viewpoint DataLabs, two California-based 3-D content vendors. The companies, which supply 3-D models to Hollywood wizards at Industrial Light and Magic and Centropolis, have thousands of models between them. The acquisitions enable Unicenter users to transform their interfaces from standard templates to actual representations of their facilities, Sokol says.

CA also plans to add 3-D technology to its Jasmine object-oriented database by enabling 3-D images to render inside the database. "We really want people to be able to build applications that have 3-D interfaces," Sokol says. "If we can render 3-D objects in the database, it will be easy to build those applications."

Unicenter’s 3-D interface doesn’t exactly fall into the category of data visualization, which generally focuses on visualizing data in databases. But as 3-D interfaces become more common, they will help merge decision support and applications, according to John Ulery, DSS product manger for Platinum, because it will be easier to visualize the huge amounts of data that such a merger would generate. "It becomes a filter for the info glut," he says.

Some other companies that implement 3-D technology in their Windows NT-based products include Research Systems Inc. (Boulder, Colo., www.rsinc.com) with Environment for Visualizing Images, an image processing application for analyzing remote sensing data; Cartia Inc. (Redmond, Wash., www.cartia.com) with ThemeScape 1.0, which evaluates unstructured text-based data and creates an interactive topographical map of the information; and Interactive Network Technologies Inc. (Houston, www.int.com) with J/View3D toolkit, designed for building 3D visualization applications in Java.