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Making Sense of Big Data With Virtual Reality And The Unconscious Mind

August 18, 2014 | Telepresence Options

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Story and images by Forbes

A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic, is a well-known quote - often mistakingly attributed to Stalin. Regardless of the author, the sentence is interesting because it can be read in at least two ways: in one, it relates with compassion fatigue, our inability to feel outrage when the horror surpasses a certain threshold. But it might also be seen as pointing to our inability to visualize and grasp the meaning of huge data amounts.

When numbers are too high, the mind struggles to make sense of them. If, instead of a single number, you deal with large datasets, it's difficult to find meaningful patterns that characterize them. It's what's happening now, in all kind of disciplines, from astronomy to neuroscience, archaeology, history or economics: every single minute, the world generates 1.7 million billion bytes of data, equal to 360,000 DVDs. How can we make sense of it? In fact, we largely don't. Our mind alone, even with the help of computers is simply not equipped to take this challenge.

Or when it is, it would take too much time to do so. But what if we could present the data in a way that's more "empathic", closer to the way in which we usually address the world? That's exactly what scientists at the CEEDs (which stands for Collective Experience of Empathic Data Systems) project, a consortium of 16 partners in 9 European countries, are trying to do.

Using the eXperience Induction Machine (XIM), an immersive multi-modal environment located at Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, they are trying to use virtual reality to enable users to 'step inside' large datasets. Since, as they say, an image is worth a thousands words, you may want to have a look at the video below, to see how it works.

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