Nicta humanises the computing environment

With four months of setup work behind them, National ICT Australia researchers have started using the new Visual Information Access Room (VIAR) in Sydney to explore ways in which data visualization techniques can help people better understand and share information.

The first program to use the new room has been named the Humans Understanding Machines, or HUM, program with Professor Peter Eades at its head. He believes the implications for businesses with this technology are profound.

"There are fairly concrete applications for the business world - it's an interface for collaboration, which is embedded in the office architecture," he said. "The VIAR can also be used as a stock market surveillance centre where a trader would be surrounded by pictures of data. With a person's field of view being only seven degrees if we spread information all around the walls it won't be stock market charts but a visualisation of the stock market."

The program's vision - which Eades says is at least 10 years away - for the future is where everything is interfaced with a computer so that touching a desk or waving your hand can trigger an action.

"The light that comes from every surface is controlled by a computer," he said. "It's a different world from the keyboard, mouse and screen and can also be used to interface with other humans."

Eades believes the VIAR research facility is the only one of its type in Australia, and at a cost of a few hundred thousand dollars it was cheap to set up.

"Nicta is experimenting in using VIAR for the future in information exchange," he said. "This involves blending of equipment into the architecture so the normal walls will be screens. We're chasing commodity user interfaces and everything runs on PCs."

Eades said that in 10 to 20 years, lots of offices will look like VIAR.

Nicta's CEO Dr Mel Slater said visualization is an interesting technology and will go a long way to alleviating the "glut" of data that is being generated by the applications that are important to people in Australia.

"Right now there are something like 30 billion e-mail messages that are generated around the world today on a daily basis," Slater said. "That is nothing compared with what we are going to see in five years from now. So the question then becomes, how do you deal with all that data?" Slater said health, education, and financial services are creating enormous amounts of data.

"There are opportunities for technologies in data handling that are emerging," he said. "One of the ways you want to present these technologies to people is through visualization. Visualization technologies have a way of taking a look at complex sets of multi-dimension data and putting them in visual representations that let people extract the information that they need quickly."

"So we see visualization technology as being a tremendous aid in understanding how to deal with enormous multiplication factor in data that we is being generated right now," Slater said.