Data Tectonics: A Framework for Building Physical and Immersive Data Representations

Carmen Hull, Wesley J. Willett

CG&A 2018. [DOI]

The emerging research areas of physical, immersive, and situated data representations promise to revolutionize our experience of data – moving data visualizations off of the desktop and instead surfacing data into the world we inhabit, touch, and sense with our whole bodies. While full of opportunities, this shift also poses immense new challenges for visualization designers, who must now contend with the reality of creating systems that have the spatiality, materiality, and scale of real-world environments. While the visualization community has long considered the role of perception and cognition for screen- and paper-based visualizations, designers of data physicalizations and situated visualizations must now consider our perception and experience of physical environments, material properties, cultural symbolism, and spatial relationships.
Fortunately, many of the challenges posed by these new data representations echo those which architects have long faced when designing the built environment. Architects use the term “tectonics” to characterize the holistic process of reconciling the various competing factors inherent in challenging design problems. We extend this term to include the concept of “data tectonics” to describe the integrative practices surrounding the designing of complex, embodied, and data-driven representations. This preliminary discussion explores new ways of thinking about data representations, inspired by two long-standing practices used in architectural design - diagramming and modeling. Our discussion facilitates a deeper understanding of the structure and materiality of data representations.