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Editors’ Choice: Knowledge in 3D – How 3D data visualization is reshaping our world

­How is humanities and social science knowledge impacted by the introduction of three-dimensional visualization technologies? While 3D visualization may seem far removed from the everyday work of scholars in the social sciences and humanities, it has great potential to change how we conduct and communicate our work.

Three-dimensional visualizations can be used for creating models, supplementing maps, developing games, printing objects, developing virtual environments, enhancing telecommunications, and housing simulations. They can be used to support retrospective and prospective analysis, exploration of counterfactuals, and representation of hybrid or alternate realities, particularly when they combine objects in 3D contexts. An art historian might want to understand how an artifact was perceived in context, or how a built structure looked in earlier eras, or to document an installation or exhibition. An archeologist might use 3D models or prints to complete a broken artifact or to reassemble a ruin. A sociologist might develop agent-based modeling in a 3D space to understand the social dynamics in a given location. A historian might explore 3D viewsheds to determine lines of sight and power. A linguist might construct a virtual environment for language learning. A literary scholar might build out a navigable imagined space as a form of nonlinear literary criticism. A statistician might display data in 3D infographics to aid in interpretation. And of course, artists, architects, and designers of all stripes might use 3D to create new objects and environments as well as use such techniques as a way to study those that already exists. All of these researchers in turn might communicate their work through multimodal, immersive, affective visualizations for public outreach, policy impact, or funding solicitations.

Although the technologies used to create them are daunting at first, these visualizations are becoming increasingly accessible to nonspecialist users, and the underlying conceptual approaches that they highlight are not new to the disciplines where they’re now being used. Designing and representing 3D space and objects in 2D images, text, and other forms comes naturally to us in many fields. Maps, plans, and networks fill the pages of social science research. Where and how people think, live, work, and interact are contextualized in historical and contemporary places, spaces, environments, and geographies. Artists and architects build their maquettes and design their structures and installations. The dimensional space of the stage, performance hall, or theater is a key component of the production. Lighting, acoustics, and movement are all part of the process. Museums and cultural heritage institutions have taken advantage of the rhetorical power of 3D for their interpretative exhibits for years.


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