Visual presentation of maps and globes in Virtual Reality

The research of PhD student Yalong Yang takes mapping movement to see what’s going on in the world a step further.

The research of PhD student Yalong Yang takes mapping movement to see what’s going on in the world a step further.

Most maps distort information in some way. After all, the world is round. Not flat. Yet conventional maps give us only two dimensions. This distorts reality. Go to Google Maps, for example – you’ll find that Greenland and Africa appear about the same size when Africa is actually about ten times bigger! Yes, three dimensions beat two, but the research of Monash PhD student Yalong Yang takes mapping a step further. He looks at movement.

We can learn a lot through visualising how things flow between one region and another. How have various migrant groups shifted around the globe? Where will the spread of Zika virus become a serious threat? Have Arctic whales altered their migratory patterns in response to climate change? What’s the story with wool exports worldwide? Have commuting trends in Sydney changed in recent years? Does bad news travel faster than good? Geographically-embedded flow data can provide the answers.

It is important for analysts (for example, geographers, anthropologists and financial analysts studying trade) to understand flows between different geographic locations to gain insight and discover patterns in these processes to support decision-making explains Yalong. Such potential propels his research.

In addition to applying flow data to maps and globes, Yalong has developed interactive visual presentations of geographic information only possible in virtual reality (VR). He describes one such project: The viewer is positioned at the centre of a large globe, or in front of a curved map…a bit similar to a curved screen, but instead of only curved in one direction, we actually curved it in all directions.

Yalong predicts that, within one to two years, the VR user experience will be enhanced by the wireless headset. Also, instead of a controller stick or gamepad to interact with the virtual world, he says that we should one day have our full body immersive into the VR environment, and we’ll use our hands to interact with virtual objects.

Augmented reality (AR) expands the realm of immersive interactions. Whereas VR creates a totally artificial environment, AR overlays virtual information onto the real world. Yalong muses how such information might be manipulated by touch, and even smell.

No, this isn’t a pipedream. AR and VR have already begun to transform medicine, engineering, architecture and the arts. The further such technology travels, the more we’ll find to explore. And Yalong won’t miss out on the action – he plans to push his research in this direction.