As Augmented Reality (AR) continues to gain strong momentum, it is clear that data and information now have a physical 3D context, both conceptually and at the point of display. In the past, we were content with excellent 2-dimensional solutions for 2-dimensional displays, free to ignore 3D data viz as fraught with peril and difficult to execute. At a minimum, we must now wrestle with the challenge of presenting 2D visualizations in a 3D world. And, if we limit ourselves to that, we will fail.

2D solutions to 2D problems

In the past, we have developed excellent two-dimensional forms for presenting data to desk-based analysts. The page, the desktop screen, and later the mobile screen, were our flat and only mediums. We used those mediums generally to simplify complex data sets for the analyst. The constraints of the medium and the requirement for simplicity led us to where we are today. It was no surprise that simple two dimensional forms in a two dimensional medium for the purposes of data simplification usually outperformed three dimensional solutions in the same situation.

Enter Augmented Reality

L100 Pump Temperature Gradient

Whether implemented as tablet-based or via see-through wearables, Augmented Reality is a promising new technology that will allows us to inject data into our experience of reality, especially when it comes to our immediate environment. Injecting previously developed two-dimensional forms into this reality will be about as effective as holding a report or a tablet in one hand. A heads up display of a map as a navigational aid instead of a 3-dimensional overlay of your route onto your view will be a failure. Similarly in an industrial context, a virtual array of gauges to display temperatures will be a failure. These temperatures correspond to real world objects with a physical context right in front of you. A physical context that causes them to have their temperature. No need for simplification any longer, we can now embrace the physical complexity and we must.

Blair MacIntyre identifies this in POI’s are Pointless. He bravely questions the emperor’s clothing, noting that point of interest “floating bubble” AR demos are an exciting technological capability demonstration, but are almost always functionally worse than a 2D map. This is another example of insufficient porting of 2-dimensional forms to the AR environment. The information-rich pushpin and associated callout that we all know from our mapping software fails to deliver in AR.


What we do know is that Augmented Reality will bring the third dimension to data and information visualization. What was best avoided as difficult to execute and a path to failure is now a requirement. To meet this challenge will require great bravery and great care.