Visualizing data: Hollywood special effects or the next UI?

You’ve seen bad metaphors for the Internet. Pop culture is filled with films where special effects show computer networks as highways, with towering servers encroaching on light-filled roads. These scenes try to represent the Internet as, well, a series of tubes (Play this clip from Hackers to jog your memory.)*

This happens a lot in Hollywood, and in too many cyberpunk novels (like one I’m finishing now just to spite myself.) I forgive William Gibson’s “collective hallucination” and Neil Stephenson’s Metaverse because, well, they’re good books.

But maybe the UI of the future will look like this after all, at least for certain applications. Check out Britain from Above by way of the folks at Flowing Data. Warning: clicking this video may make your browser lock up for a minute for some reason. Be patient, or go to the Youtube playlist.

There are clips for telecommunications, air traffic, and even shipping on the site itself, which is well worth the visit.

I’m a huge believer in visualizing information and making the world more understandable, and the convergence of things like geomapping and GPS are making understanding even easier. These clips resemble nothing if not an RTS for the real world. It makes me want to click and drag routes for cars and boats.

I used to think Tron was a great movie, but not really a UI. Now I’m starting to wonder how these flying-through-data approaches, first conceived as a network metaphor for the non nerd, can become user interfaces.

This is how the prescient visuals of Minority Report slowly become reality.

We’re about to drink from a firehose of positional data as location-aware personal devices replace traditional cellphones and we move towards a sensor-driven world. We have the cloud computing infrastructure to handle massive computing and fast data retrieval. How long until Britain From Above becomes a live Google Earth overlay?

Oh, wait. It already is. Here’s the site’s Google Earth layer. When will web analytics catch up with this?

(*For real fun, check out the eighties-era Mac copy dialog at 8:18 in that Hackers clip. Anachronisms, FTW!)

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