Virtual Reality And The Value Of Visual Metaphors

Taking data out of the spreadsheet


In January, it was announced that the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists had edged the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock thirty seconds closer to midnight. The scientists in charge track global political and economic relations to determine how close to annihilation the human race is. At the dawn of the post-truth age, we are the closest we have been to this moment since the fifties, when hydrogen bomb tests by the US and Russia nudged us forwards.

Although unnerving, the timepiece provides us with the perfect example of how, as humans, we react to metaphors versus more granular data. The statistical data that underpins the Doomsday Clock would, undoubtedly, fail to convey the same sense of urgency that the ticking of the minute hand or the crescendo of the countdown does. In short, we find it easier to engage with and make sense of the visual metaphor than we would the raw data it communicates.

This principle is as clear in business as it is in science. As the millennial generation climbs the career ladder, digital natives are naturally turning to today’s best technology to help them gather, understand and utilize critical business information. The spreadsheet – relatively unchanged since its debut more than 30 years ago – no longer provides the visual engagement or intuitive understanding required to satisfy and provide urgent business information to young leaders. Instead, they require information that is as accessible as the technology they see every day in their personal lives. The solutions to this can, of course, be found in the digital dimension – and the changes they can bring are radical.

The digital reality

A great example of the power of technology-enabled decision making can be found in virtual reality (VR). VR as a concept has begun to make the jump from the world of gaming into the boardroom. It no longer exists solely as a device through which intrepid gamers can explore vast digital worlds; it is also a key business tool that provides digitally-savvy business leaders with instant, interactive access to data that might otherwise fill thousands of spreadsheets (or in some cases, filing cabinets) presented in a far more meaningful and actionable way. Part of this shift can be attributed to the democratization and accessibility of VR as a technology, but much more importantly, it presents information in a way that is far closer to our evolutionary psychology (the way our brains work) than a linear array of rows and columns on a screen.

Primal instinct

Ever since we lived in caves and hunted mammoths, our minds have been attuned to visually seek out and interpret threats (and opportunities) and react accordingly. Humans have always naturally looked for patterns in their surrounding ecosystems to help decide what to do next. Through virtual reality, we’re able to build a bridge between these primal instincts and the modern business environment. By replicating mental processes, technological algorithms have brought an element of the power behind our fight or flight instincts to a wide range of decision making.

The visualization that a virtual environment provides also allows us to process considerably more data points than when these are presented in numeric form, harnessing the power of the brain to identify patterns and trends that might otherwise have been imperceptible. The brain is a remarkably powerful and dynamic organ, and it is far more advantageous to apply that strength using VR than to condemn it to reading cells in a spreadsheet.

Moving forward (and in the not-too-distant future), it’s likely that artificial intelligence will develop in such a way that algorithms will make consistently reliable decisions, superseding human analysis and decision-making. When this happens, VR will become instrumental – not just in displaying data, but also in advising on the best course of action. VR could become the CEO’s best friend, providing a metaphorical and literal guide out of the data maze.

A drop in the ocean

The synergy with our thought processes aside, what does this environment look like when viewed through a VR headset? And moreover, how can we create a trustworthy virtual ecosystem that doesn’t encourage an emotional experience (which would distort the data), but instead presents a clear, transparent and honest metaphor for the data at hand?

Consider, for instance, that you’re standing in the middle of the ocean floor. The environment around you signifies key statistics about the health of your company. The coral reef at your feet represents the overall reputation of the organization – a skeletal, dying reef would signify that something is seriously wrong and needs immediate action. Meanwhile, the sea life surrounding you could give further insight; the shoals of fish could represent stakeholders and the ominous sharks (and their proximity to you) could portray the urgency of various risks to your business.

Several minutes spent in this ecosystem could provide a synopsis of the most critical areas of risk – allowing the user to continually monitor different business functions, activities and offices with ease and respond quickly and appropriately to any major concerns. All of the data from the spreadsheet is still present in the virtual lagoon; however, it is the way it is presented that makes VR more engaging, immersive and aligned to the way we think.

The power of visual metaphors goes way beyond the Doomsday Clock and its representation of humanity’s 'impending extinction'. Visual metaphors can inform and guide business decisions so that those at the helm of the world’s most influential businesses can react quickly and with great precision and insight to critical situations. Data shouldn’t be black and white – it should exist within a thriving, interactive metaphor; a virtual universe that serves not just to present us with structured data, but to encourage engagement with unstructured data and enable fast, smart, and sophisticated decision-making.

Looking small

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