Can VR Enhance Data Visualization?

In addition to the growing hype about AI (artificial intelligence) and NLP (natural language processing) as enhancers of data visualization, VR (virtual reality) is now making the same erroneous claim. How does VR enhance data visualization? Here’s an answer that was recently given by Sony Green, the head of business development for a startup named Kineviz:

For a lot of things, 2D is still the best solution. But VR offers a lot of advantages over existing data visualization solutions, especially for certain kinds of data. When you get into really high dimensional data, something like 100 different dimensions per node. It’s difficult to keep track of all that info with lots of 2D graphics and it becomes a very large cognitive load for people to track them on multiple screens at once.

VR allows us to tap into our natural ability to process special information. Without looking around, we have an innate understanding of the spaces we are in because that’s how our brains are wired. In a simulated environment created by VR, we use these natural ways of processing information that a 2D screen can’t offer.

Furthermore, VR opens up use cases that were previously impossible by lowering the barrier for common users. You don’t have to be a data scientist: anyone who can play a game can use VR to explore data science in a way that is intuitive.

TechNode, Emma Lee, April 28, 2017

So, VR supposedly “offers a lot of advantages.” What are these advantages? According to Green, VR makes it possible for our brains to process “100 different dimensions.” This isn’t true. VR adds a simulation of a single spatial dimension: depth. I can think of no way that VR can enable our brains to process more than one additional dimension of data compared to what we can process using 2-D displays. Plus, the simulation of depth is of little benefit, for we don’t perceive depth well, unlike our perception of 2-D space (up and down, left and right). And let us not forget that we can only hold from three to four chunks of visual information in working memory at once, so even if VR could add many more dimensions of data in some way, it would be of no use to our limited brains if we weren’t able to process all of those dimensions simultaneously.

What else can VR do? “VR allows us to tap into our natural ability to process special information.” Apparently, this special information has something to do with spatial awareness, but how does this help us visualize data? According to Sony Green, we’d better figure it out and get on board, because, with VR, data exploration and analysis can be done by anyone who can play a game. Who knew that data analysis was so easy? The claim that “without looking around, we have an innate understanding of the spaces we are in” is humorous. We have no understanding of the spaces that we’re in without looking around or exploring them in some other way, such as by touch.

VR attempts to simulate the 3-D world that we live in. In the actual world, I can place data visualizations throughout a room on various screens or printed pages, and I can then walk up to and examine one at a time. Similarly, VR can place data visualizations throughout a virtual room, and when it does I must still virtually walk around to view them one at a time. Are the data visualizations themselves enhanced? Not in the least. Making the graphs appear more three-dimensional than they appear on a flat screen adds no real value.

Years ago I was approached by someone who was creating data visualizations for the VR environment Second Life. She was enthusiastic about her work. When I took a look, I found a collection of 3-D bar graphs, line graphs, scatterplots, etc., which I could walk around and even upon, looking down from the lofty heights of tall bars and lines, and with virtual superpowers I could even fly around them, but this actually made the graphs harder to read. It is much easier and efficient to sit still and view 2-D data visualizations on my desktop monitor.

Just to make sure that I haven’t missed any new uses of VR for data visualization, I did a quick search and found nothing but more of the same. In the example below, the Wall Street Journal allows us to ride along a line graph of the NASDAQ, much like riding a roller coaster:


Imagine that you’re viewing this using a VR headset. What useless fun! And in the example below, Nirvana Labs allows us to view a map (currently off the bottom of the screen), a bar graph (the transparent vertical cylinders), and a line graph (the bottom edge appears at the top of the screen), but they are much harder to read in VR than they would be as a 2-D screen display. A VR headset makes it possible for us to walk around the graphs, but that isn’t useful.

Nirvana VR

I have seen 3-D displays of physical objects that are actually useful, but 3-D displays of graphs are almost never useful, and placing them in VR doesn’t change this fact.

Don’t let yourself be suckered in by false marketing claims. Software vendors are always looking for some new way to separate us from our money. When you encounter people who claim that VR adds value to data visualization, ask them to prove it. Request an example of VR that works better than a 2-D display of the same data. Look past the cool factor and attempt to make sense of the data. If you come across a beneficial use case for data visualization in VR, I’d love to see it.

Take care,


25 Comments on “Can VR Enhance Data Visualization?”

By Jason Mack. May 1st, 2017 at 12:54 pm

Well they are a startup- it doesn’t have to make sense- they just need to hype it to get funding while the money is easy!

I thought the VR hype cycle died out at the beginning of this year. It was ‘the next great thing’ at CES in 2016 and nary a whisper about VR at CES 2017.

By Andrew. May 1st, 2017 at 1:16 pm

VR is certainly appropriate in marketing and entertainment, no doubt. Everywhere else, I get the feeling it’s a solution with no problem; that every industry is scrambling to invent problems for it to solve.

By Alberto Cairo. May 1st, 2017 at 11:15 pm

I am quite skeptical of VR data visualization myself for the same reasons you explain, but we’ll see. That said, I think that the VR revolution will happen in the pictorial visualization of real objects and environments. That’s where I think efforts should be invested.

By Andy. May 2nd, 2017 at 5:30 am

Hi Steve
I’m also skeptical. Two comments:
1. I’d offer a tiny defense in the ‘useless fun’ of the NASDAQ example. There is something viscerally exciting about following the ride and falling off the cliff of the financial crash. I’ve played the video to audiences and there is definitely a gasp as the collapse translates to a feeling of physically falling. For that reason alone, there is small value.
2. I think augmented reality offers much more potential. Overlaying data on top of real world objects could help in many areas. Those overlaid charts needn’t be 3d, they could be simple, effective bar charts, apparently tied to the physical object.

By Benjamin. May 2nd, 2017 at 5:36 am

Stephen, I believe you are right: VR as an enhancer of data visualization is mostly a false marketing claim. And I actually cannot think of a single case where it could be applied at my job.

However, I do think that in many cases it will help with the understanding of data. I remember struggling in my engineer career trying to “understand” 3 dimensional functions in a piece of paper. Having some kind of 3D would have greatly helped.

By Stephen Few. May 2nd, 2017 at 7:44 am


If I understand you correctly, the value that you might have found in VR as an engineer pertained to 3-D representations of actual physical objects. As I mentioned in my original blog post, I agree that this can be useful, but this isn’t data visualization.

By Benjamin. May 2nd, 2017 at 11:09 am


I was actually referring to functions such as z=x*y… Don’t you think that a three-dimensional graph may help to understand the relationship between the variables?

By Stephen Few. May 2nd, 2017 at 12:15 pm


I’m finding it hard to imagine that a 3-D graph might sometimes be the best way to represent mathematical functions, but I have little experience with this, so I could be wrong.

By Daniel Zvinca. May 4th, 2017 at 12:40 am

Obviously a 3D graph will not provide the same degree of decoding accuracy as a 2D graph. However I found this example on Edward Tufte forum a long time ago, which might prove that in some circumstances a 3D approach might be useful.

By Stephen Few. May 4th, 2017 at 8:12 am


Given the particular angle at which the 3-D graph on Tufte’s site is being displayed, we can see the pattern, but we cannot read the values. A vertical arrangement of small multiples would allow us to see the pattern and read the values. Regardless, VR would add nothing to this experience.

By Daniel Zvinca. May 5th, 2017 at 1:35 am


The example on Tufte’s site lacks the decoding accuracy of a 2D graph, as I already mentioned, yet this compact design allows me to quickly decide what “2D (F, spatial frequency) slices” I want to investigate with a higher accuracy. It also helps me decide at a glance that four complementary crossed “2D (F, wavelength) slices” at spatial frequency values of 1/3, 2/3, 3/3, 4/3 would bring even more insights from another angle (perspective).

A dynamic selection of slices for 2D examination on other side of the screen looks to me useful. As you mentioned a well chosen angle can help us see common patterns, so a dynamic selection of the best viewing angle can be also useful.

If virtual reality is understood and implemented by vendors as a fancy walk through a 3D model, then it will be a useless technology as they are the pictures you provided as examples. 3D picture provided on Tufte’s site looks useful to me, but, indeed, it is not much VR related.

By Stephen Few. May 5th, 2017 at 8:29 am


Would the series of small multiples not provide the same overview? I think it would, plus it would support accurate interpretations and comparisons of the values. Why begin with a 3-D graph that must be replaced with 2-D graphs for closer inspection?

By Daniel Zvinca. May 5th, 2017 at 10:18 am


In my opinion the compact 3D design on Tufte’s site provides a better visibility to an alternative single 2D design of 15 overlapped line graphs. Obviously, your proposal, a series of 15 small multiples, allows a better individual decoding, yet it looses the perception of the second pattern of change along the wavelength and occupies a lot more space.

By Stephen Few. May 5th, 2017 at 10:30 am


The solution that I’m suggested loses nothing regarding the patterns of change. It does take a bit more space, but that’s a small price to pay for a display that is more effective.

By Daniel Zvinca. May 5th, 2017 at 12:30 pm


The colored line graphs show pattern of change of measure F along Spatial Frequency. A 15 multiple graphs solution will not loose this pattern of change, but the pattern of change along the third dimension, Wavelength. Of course, another series of 4 line graphs (F, Wavelength) for Spatial Frequency = (1/3, 2/3, 3/3, 4/3) would provide that more accurate, but we talk now about 15+4 graphs to replace a single 3D graph which does a good job.

By Stephen Few. May 5th, 2017 at 12:53 pm

A series of small multiples would display the pattern of change along the third dimension just as well. I you don’t think this is true, give it a try.

By Tom Spring. May 11th, 2017 at 2:18 am

Completely agree Stephen, whilst I’m professionally a data analyst, I’ve been doing hobbyist game development for about 10 years. Obviously in that space, VR makes a lot of sense and its really what its for. However, as with any new technology, it begins to seep outside that realm and into other industries, some that work, and some that don’t (this clearly being one that doesn’t).
That being said, I can see it working for data visualisation if thats not its primary application, though I can’t think of any examples of that (other than virtual monitors in VR with some 2d graphs on it, but thats cheating).
At the end of the day, this is another novelty for an industry that clearly wants them but doesnt need them (and of course, it would work against it).

By Anthony. May 13th, 2017 at 4:38 am

VR will thrive in areas where immersion and presence (being there) can outweigh the cost of having a cell phone strapped to your face. Facebook Spaces probably isn’t one of them I think most people here would side with Tamara Munzer and say that resolution beats immersion (src: 8 axioms, Visualization Analysis and Design) — I can buy a 4k or greater display and that will be far more useful from a vis perpective in most casees and it will cost less. But there have been some examples in visual storytelling (NYT Mars, David Attenborough underwater VR projects) where the presence Is so compelling and once you are in that environment then overlaying data vis on top of the existing visuals makes a lot of sense. So while I can’t think of resons to use VR right now in the more traditional business analytics side, I am glad there are tinkers and data artists and researchers out there working in the vis VR space. Lastly, we are particularly bad at understanding scale and I am very curious if VR can help in that arena.

By Stephen Few. May 13th, 2017 at 8:50 am


The examples of visual storytelling that you mentioned worked in VR because the subject matter was physical and 3D in nature. VR wasn’t used to enhance the data visualizations that were shown. In fact, the data visualizations would have worked as well or better in 2-D space. If the “thinkers and data artists and researchers” who are experimenting with VR space find an application that enhances data visualization, I’ll gladly embrace it, but they haven’t so far.

What did you mean when you said that “we are particularly bad at understanding scale”? What in particular about scale do you believe that we struggle to understand?

By Tom Spring. May 15th, 2017 at 12:27 am

Actually I think Anthony has a very good point here, it’s easy to forget that data visualisation is used for more than business.
If I told you a blue whale is 31 metres, you know its big, but its very difficult to imagine how big it is. Showing you a size comparison chart gives you a better idea because you have something to compare it against, but due to the lack of immersion you still don’t get a good feel of how big it really is. In VR however, since the human comparison is now you, you get a much better idea. Its the same concept that museums use, you get a much better idea of the scale of something if your standing next to it.
And thats the purpose of VR in this case, to serve as a virtual museum.
Of course, that’s a niche case for one particular industry, and it doesnt mean that VR is good for data visualisation in general. You could also argue its stretching the definition of data visualisation

By Stephen Few. May 15th, 2017 at 8:30 am


What you described is not a data visualization. Rather, you described a physical representation of a whale. There is no doubt that VR is useful for representing physical objects.

By Tom Spring. May 15th, 2017 at 11:45 pm

I did, but in the context of size, which of course is data. So long as everything else is to scale as well, surely that is a fine way of visualising data.

By Stephen Few. May 15th, 2017 at 11:55 pm


What you described is a fine way of visualizing a whale. It just doesn’t fit what we call data visualization. Is a drawing of a whale a data visualization? No, it is a drawing. Visual representations of physical objects fall outside of the realm of data visualization.

By Chris. May 16th, 2017 at 6:02 am

While I believe the designs above do not add anything meaningful to the landscape, I believe data visualization through a VR… well AR view could be useful, especially in a retail environment.
Let’s consider a store like Best Buy or WalMart
A dashboard of data at an aggregate level such as a department, or product line would be useful; but showing data at the individual sku level would be cumbersome, and as you said above… the human mind can only retain a few pieces of visualization.

However, if I could look at an end cap, and see a heat map laid out on top of the actual products… perhaps showing me sales, or shelf life cycle, that would be great. Another possibility would be to visually show me the ‘connections between products’… i.e. drawing a line from one product to each of the other products bought with the original product where the color intensity would represent how often the products are bought together. Using this information, I could make business decisions such as:
When the consumer buys product A they more often purchase widget B than C… C is located on a different shelf farther away than B. But since C has a higher profit margin, we should consider moving it closer to product A or stocking it in both locations.

This additional information (I believe) could present it self better in an augmented view of the real world vs. a dashboard/scorecard on a screen.

By Stephen Few. May 17th, 2017 at 11:00 am


I have no doubt that AR (augmented reality) can incorparate data visualization in useful ways. The issue that I raised, however, involves VR (virtual reality), which is a different matter. While it is certainly possible that someone might find a way that VR can enrich data visualization, no one has done so thus far. For the time begin, claims by software vendors that their data visualization products benefit from VR are nothing but noise.

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