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Carnegie Mellon Research Explores Touchy-Feely Data Visualization

Two researchers at Carnegie Mellon University are exploring how touch devices, such as Apple's iPad, can be used in data analysis and visualization. Jeffrey Rzeszotarski, a Ph.D. student in the Human-Computer Interaction Institute and Aniket Kittur, an assistant professor at the Institute have developed Kinetica, a proof-of-concept app that converts tabular data such as the kind usually found in spreadsheets into a format that can be manipulated on a touchscreen.

According to Rzeszotarski, the new approach allows users to gain a "better understanding" across multiple dimensions of data. For instance, users examining data related to Titanic shipwreck passengers may quickly be able to pull out average age of passengers in Excel; but those using Kinetica can also explore relationships among data points, such as age or gender and survival rate.

The data points appear as small colored dots on the touchscreen. They can be manipulated using standard hand gestures to sort, filter, stack, flick and pull data points to form new views of data ties.

 

Kinetica Research Video from Jeff Rzeszotarski on Vimeo.


Kinetica allows users to manipulate data on a touchscreen with standard hand gestures.
 

Features of Kinetica currently include:

  • Magnet charts that pull data to their proper places;
  • Interactive "sifters" that filter data;
  • Lenses that uncover trends in data;
  • Tools for grouping, coloring and sizing data points;
  • Mix and match techniques for examining multiple data dimensions in one view; and
  • Export features for sharing data connections and loading the data into various table formats.

"People often try to make sense of data where you have to balance many dimensions against each other, such as deciding what model of car to buy," Kittur said. "It's not enough to see single points — you want to understand the distribution of the data so you can balance price vs. gas mileage vs. horsepower vs. head room."

To tackle this type of problem, a Kinetica user could first sort cars by gas mileage and horsepower, then filter them on various criteria, such as price and head room.

"It's not about giving you one way to do things, but giving you a sandbox in which to play," Rzeszotarski said.

Currently, the researchers are looking into the creation of versions of Kinetica for non-iPad devices.

A paper about the technology, "Kinetica: Naturalistic Multi-touch Data Visualization," will be presented at the April 29 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. This research was funded in part by the National Science Foundation.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a writer who covers technology and business for a number of publications. Contact her at dian@dischaffhauser.com.

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