5 reasons to use virtual reality for data visualisation

24 August 2016


Virtual reality, through its ability to immerse us in new environments, could be the next big step in data visualisation efforts

The world is exploding with data.

It’s now pouring out of every home, office, computer, mobile, machine and human being. Data has become so vast and unwieldy that we’ve upgraded its status to ‘big data’. The visualisation of this data therefore plays an increasingly important role to help us break down its complexity.

Virtual reality is a new medium that offers a lot of potential for data visualisation. By immersing ourselves in the data, we can take advantage of the greater space on offer, more natural interactions, and analyse multi-dimensional data in a visceral way.

By living in a world of data rather than being a spectator in it, studies have shown that the effectiveness of the visualisation is multiplied. This leads to ‘demonstrably better perception of a datascape geometry, more intuitive data understanding, and a better retention of the perceived relationships in the data.’ 1

Many will argue that the 3D spaces and experiences that VR brings can be emulated on a 2D screen. This is true to some extent but the 5 differentiating reasons for using virtual reality for data visualisation purposes are:

1. Less distractions 

By focusing your entire field of vision, you can hone your concentration on the objective, whether that is to help archaeologists visualise the location of objects of interest during an excavation or to take users on a guided tour of 21 years of the Nasdaq.

Through being ‘present’ in the data you can also get a true sense of scale which is difficult to achieve when viewing the data on a desktop screen.

2. More space

With a 360 degree sphere of space to use, there is a lot more real estate to display data such as in the below proof of concept by Bloomberg of its virtual reality trader terminal.



Source: Virtual reality headset Oculus Rift meets the Bloomberg terminal (Quartz)

3. Multi-dimensional data analysis 

We primarily use our sight to analyse and interpret data, but what if we could also use our hearing? Through data-audio relationships, we could understand the significance, subject, and location of a particular data point through the loudness, type and direction of the sound, for example.

By using multiple senses, we can enhance our ability to process data with more dimensions. While it may be a bit radical to talk about taste and smell in a data visualisation context, it is not outside the bounds of possibility to ‘feel’ data. This is technically achievable right now with haptic feedback gloves.

4. Greater bandwidth for processing data 2

Much like a computer, our optic nerve is capable of transferring information at about 1 MB/s. When we simply read words on a screen we’re only using 0.1% of this capacity. Naturally, this would have improved with visualisation techniques that have been developed over the years, but at the end of the day this is still about reading information from a 2D screen.

Virtual reality immerses you in a stimulating 3D world that engages your brain and enables you to fully utilise your optic nerve’s bandwidth.

5. More natural interaction

In the real world we interact with objects directly with our hands. This allows us to connect with the environment around us and get a better idea of the objects we’re dealing with. For a long time, we’ve used keyboards and mice as conduits for this interaction. Through virtual reality, we can return to a more natural way of interacting - by physically pushing buttons, moving windows around and manipulating data streams (such as in this VR assisted biological specimen analysis). That is in addition to being able to walk around and through these data worlds.

Through these benefits, we can improve employee efficiency, conduct a deeper analysis of data more easily, and make faster decisions.

There are still some obstacles to overcome before data visualisation in virtual reality really takes off. The resolution of the headsets needs to increase so text is comfortably legible, and eye strain and nausea are still an issue for a segment of the population. One of the key challenges is not building a VR data visualisation just for the sake of it - we need to design useful visualisations which take advantage of VR’s strengths and offer an intuitive way of interacting, analysing and manipulating the data.

With the hardware developing and our understanding of this new technology improving every day, it’s only a matter of time before we see data being usefully visualised in virtual reality.

For real-life insight into the many ways data is being collected, analysed and used, come along to the ‘Our Lives in Data’ exhibition hosted by the Science Museum in London which is proudly sponsored by PwC.

This blog was originally published by Jeremy Dalton here.



  1. Donalek, C., Djorgovski, S., Davidoff, S., Cioc, A., Wang, A., Longo, G., Norris, J.S., Zhang, J., Lawler, E., Yeh, S. 2014. Immersive and Collaborative Data Visualization Using Virtual Reality Platforms. URL: https://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1410/1410.7670.pdf. Accessed in August 2016.
  2. Michael D. Thomas. 2014. Using virtual reality to understand big data. URL: https://www.sas.com/ro_ro/news/sascom/2014q1/virtual-reality-big-data.html. Accessed in August 2016.




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