IBM engineer says AR will trump VR for data visualization

It turns out blocking out the world isn't great for work

When it comes to enterprise data visualization, IBM Software Engineer Rosstin Murphy thinks augmented reality trumps virtual reality. In his view, VR's "transportational" nature makes it less suited to business applications.

"It takes you and it sends you to the moon, or to outer space or to or an alien planet," he said. "But augmented reality is transformational. It will transform the world you're already in, and for a business context, that's exactly what you want."

Murphy pointed out during a talk at the Virtual Reality Developers Conference in San Francisco that AR headsets let users continue to interact with the objects on their desks, like keyboards and phones. That's important for people who want to get work done while reaping the benefits of new hardware like the Microsoft HoloLens.

That's important to note as Microsoft, HTC, Oculus and others compete to offer enterprises useful new 3D tools. Visualizing data in three dimensions is incredibly powerful for researchers, and AR will be the most helpful, Murphy said.

He's working on building software that takes data from IBM's analysis tools and lets users visualize it in three dimensions. Murphy started his data visualization work in virtual reality but moved over to the HoloLens under the guidance of management.

"As reluctant as I was to start with the HoloLens, once I actually started working with it, I was really impressed," he said.

Using AR for data visualization lets researchers and other users interact with data in a third dimension. It's a shift that he said would be important for analyzing complex datasets that people are currently stuck with viewing in two dimensions.

One example that he shared was a graph of data from the MNIST database, which is used to test the ability of computer vision systems to analyze handwriting. In 2D, it looked like a tangled blob, and some relationships between data points were obscured altogether. Viewing the same graph in 3D made it possible to understand which nodes connect with one another.

There are still pitfalls that need to be worked out. Murphy said he can only wear a HoloLens for around 3-4 hours a day before his neck starts to hurt. The device's field of view remains a frustration, and he finds the device uncomfortable with his glasses. But Murphy is hopeful about the potential for the HoloLens, especially when it comes to Microsoft's long-term investment in the device.

In the future, he thinks we'll be surprised by how we got by without 3D visualization. He's also looking forward to a new class of data visualizations that will be designed to take advantage of AR.

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