Does the rise of immersive, 3D visualization through gaming technology, virtual reality, and augmented reality mean that 2D displays are dead? After all, why click and scroll through a 2D map when you can virtually visit a 3D landscape?
Which view of the Brandenburg gate do you find more engaging?
3D does have benefits over 2D. 3D depicts the height, volume, and contour of objects to give viewers a sense of spatial relationships between objects and a more nuanced understanding of the texture of objects than 2D can provide.
But 3D also presents challenges to displaying, understanding and manipulating data. When you add the Z-dimension, you increase the amount of spatial data available about an object – more data, more challenges to determining how and what data to present, and how to avoid overwhelming a person’s ability to take in, and make use of, more data points.
Also, when an object has volume, it takes up more visual space making it more likely that nearby objects get obscured. And alas, we just haven’t gotten that good yet at displaying 3D information in ways that are smooth and feel natural to manipulate. The HoloDeck from “Star Trek” is a nice start, but we’re not there yet.
There’s also the challenge of managing level of detail versus height of viewing. When looking down on a city block from a simulated elevation of 100 feet, you can take in details about individual items. But if you move to a simulated viewing elevation of 10,000 feet, all those details become too much to display both from a comprehension point of view and from a software performance point of view.
Decisions need to be made about what information is important at 10,000 feet vs. 100 feet. Those decisions depend on who’s doing the looking. Making software that intelligently handles these changes in viewing elevation requires forethought and deep understanding of the user’s tasks.
Designers can compromise using 2.5D displays. These visualizations add perspective to a 2D display, but don’t go all the way towards three true dimensions.
You get the sense of height perhaps, but not of volume. This can be useful in making items stand out more against a 2D surface, plus it looks a little cooler and affords the ability to rotate displays in space to understand better the spatial relationship between objects.
As with many aspects of visualization, the choice between 2D, 2.5D, and 3D display comes down to design thinking. What task are users trying to perform, and what’s the best way to accommodate and accomplish that task? It all depends on your user’s point of view.