List of Physical Visualizations
and Related Artifacts
Enabling technology

1200 – Pop-Up and Movable Books

While gatefold mechanisms were already used in the 1100s, one of the first movable paper mechanisms was a volvelle created by Benedictine Monk Matthew Paris to calculate the dates of Christian holidays in his book Chronica Majorca (1236-1253, see left image above). Volvelles are paper discs or rings placed on top of each other that rotate around a string or rivet. Many other types of paper mechanisms have been invented since then, such as flaps, which were used in anatomy books starting from […]

Added by: Pierre Dragicevic, sent by: Benjamin Bach. Category: Enabling technology  Tags: anatomy, book, mechanical interaction, paper, pop-up

1897 – Stop Motion Animation

Stop motion animation is the frame-by-frame capture of (generally) inanimate objects which are manipulated by increments in order to produce the illusion of motion. It was first used in movies to produce magical effects. The first movie to use this technique was The Humpty Dumpty Circus (1897), where a toy circus of acrobats and animals comes to life (left image). With modern 3D computer graphics, stop motion animation has become largely obsolete, but remains occasionally used. A particularly […]

Added by: Pierre Dragicevic. Category: Enabling technology  Tags: stop motion animation

1900 – Modern Solid Terrain Modeling

The Institute of Cartography ETH Zurich published a great review of past and present techniques for doing solid terrain modeling. Although terrain models are not physical visualizations in the strict sense, the techniques could be in principle used to convey data. Physical terrain models were already being built in 16th the century, and the review covers modern techniques from the early 20th century to today's digital fabrication. Source: Institute of Cartography ETH Zurich (2006) Terrain […]

Added by: Pierre Dragicevic. Category: Enabling technology  Tags: cartographic, cartography, terrain model, terrain modeling

1968 – Charles Csuri's Numeric Milling Sculpture

Csuri's wooden sculpture Numeric Milling is one of the few early computer sculptures created with a computer-driven milling machine... This work made use of the Bessel function to generate the surface. The computer program then generated a punched tape to represent the coordinate data. Included were instructions to a 3-axis, continuous path, numerically controlled milling machine. Sources: Csuri Project: Plotter Drawing, 1966 - 1970: Numeric Milling Photo of Numeric Milling Sculpture courtesy […]

1970 – Byron's Bender

In the early 1970's, crystallographer Byron Rubin invented a tool that bends wires to make proteins models. The tool was popular until the 1990s. Byron Rubin became an artist who builds large-scale molecular sculptures. Eric Martz and Eric Francoeur explain how such physical models yielded important scientific insights: An example illustrating the importance of models from Byron's Bender occurred at a scientific meeting in the mid 1970's. At this time, less than two dozen protein structures had […]

Added by: Pierre Dragicevic. Category: Enabling technology  Tags: chemistry, molecule, protein, science, wire bender

1977 – Graphical Waterfall

   A graphical waterfall is a display where images are formed by water droplets falling from computer-controlled nozzles. It was invented in 1977 by Stephen Pevnick, an American artist. Graphical waterfalls can be used with regular lighting (as on the left video) or with a stroboscope (as on the right video), depending on the desired effect. It is unclear whether such devices have been already used to display data. Sources: Pevnick Design (2018), Invention of […]

Added by: Pierre Dragicevic. Category: Enabling technology  Tags: display, water

2000 – A Shape Display Appears in a Movie

An imaginary ultra high-resolution 2.5D shape display appears in the 2000 movie X-Men. The rendering and animations are visually quite appealing. Notice how impossible overhangs appear at 0:27 (the bridge) and 0:33 (the torch of the Statue of Liberty). This movie scene has prompted a company to design and build an actuated solid terrain model for military customers, see our entry 2004 – XenoVision Mark III. Also see our entry 2009 – Leithinger’s Interactive Shape Displays for a much […]

Added by: Pierre Dragicevic. Category: Enabling technology  Tags: cartographic, movie, pop culture, sci-fi, shape display

2000 – Graph Boards

Mathematics and geometry are often taught to blind students using a cork board with raised grid lines, push pins and rubber bands. The right image shows a teacher explaining the use of the Graphic Aid for Mathematics, a physical kit sold by the American Printing House for the Blind. Date of invention unknown. Sources: Suzan Osterhaus (2001) Teaching Math to Visually Impaired Students. Youtube video series explaining the traditional cork board: APH Graph Board with Susan Osterhaus. McGookin et […]

Added by: Pierre Dragicevic. Category: Enabling technology  Tags: blind, pin board

2004 – XenoVision Mark III: A Dynamic Solid Terrain Model

The XenoVision Mark III Dynamic Sand Table by the company Xenotran is a self-reconfigurable solid terrain model with military applications. There is little information on this device but it seems well ahead of its time. Michael Schmitz and coauthors explain how this high-resolution shape display with 7000 actuators was originally inspired by a scene from the X-Men movie (see our entry 2000 – A Shape Display Appears in a Movie). Sources: Directions Magazine (2004) Interview with Xenotran […]

Added by: Pierre Dragicevic. Category: Enabling technology  Tags: cartographic, military, movie, solid terrain model

2008 – BMW Kinetic Sculpture

The Kinetic Sculpture is a metaphorical translation of the process of form-finding in art and design. 714 metal spheres, hanging from thin steel wires attached to individually-controlled stepper motors and covering the area of six square meters, animate a seven minute long mechatronic narrative. In the beginning, moving chaotically, then evolving to several competing forms that eventually resolve to the finished object, the kinetic sculpture creates an artistic visualisation of the process of […]

Added by: Yvonne Jansen. Category: Enabling technology  Tags: 3D, data sculpture, self-actuated

2009 – S-XL CAKE: Irregular Cake Mold

A cake mold that creates pieces of cake in different sizes. Although not a physical visualization, it could in principle encode data. Source: Ding 3000 via

Added by: Yvonne Jansen. Category: Enabling technology  Tags: food, pie chart

2010 – Shanghai Spheres

For the 2010 World Expo at Shangai, Japanese firms ADK and Murayama and Las-Vegas firm Fisher Technical Services, Inc. created an array of 1,008 15cm diameter actuated spheres, each suspended by its own micro winch. The show does not include data visualizations. Kinetic sculptures made of arrays of suspended spheres abound. An early one is Joe Gilbertson's (2007). More recent ones include Kinetic Rain (2012) and Triptych (2014). Also check BMW's Kinetic Sculpture (2008) on this list. Source: […]

Added by: Pierre Dragicevic. Category: Enabling technology  Tags: large-scale, self-actuated, shape display

2010 – Headspace: Array of Actuated Bars

Artist Geoffrey Drake-Brockman created Headspace, a matrix of 256 motorized bars (total size 150 x 150 x 80cm) to display the faces of over 700 schoolchildren. Not a data visualization, but could be used as such. Source: Geoffrey Drake-Brockman (2010).

Added by: Pierre Dragicevic. Category: Enabling technology  Tags: shape display

2012 – A Soft and Transparent Handleable Protein Model

This report demonstrates the viability of a new handleable protein molecular model with a soft and transparent silicone body similar to the molecule’s surface. A full-color printed main chain structure embedded in the silicone body enables users to simultaneously feel the molecular surface, view through the main chain structure, and manually simulate molecular docking. The interactive, hands-on experience deepens the user’s intuitive understanding of the complicated 3D protein structure and […]

Added by: Pierre Dragicevic, sent by: Fanny Chevalier. Category: Enabling technology  Tags: 3d printing, chemistry, proteine model

2012 – Large-Scale Drone Swarm

Floating spheres again, but this time there is no wire. An outdoor demonstration of 49 quadrocopters in a synchronized motion, by Ars Electronica Futurelab and Ascending Technologies GmbH. Sources: The Blaze (2012) Also watch another demonstration involving 20 small quadrocopters indoors by the GRASP Lab at the University of Pennsylvania (2012).

Added by: Pierre Dragicevic. Category: Enabling technology  Tags: drones, quadrocopters

2012 – Hypermatrix: Animated Matrix-Walls

2012 Yeosu EXPO HYUNDAI MOTOR GROUP created by media artist group : Jonpasang. Hyper-Matrix is a kinetic landscape installation created for the Hyundai Motor Group Exhibition Pavilion in Korea, the 2012 Yeosu EXPO site. The installation consists of a specially made huge steel construction to support thousands of stepper motors that control 320x320mm cubes that project out of the internal facade of the building. The foam cubes are mounted to actuators that move them forward and back by the […]

Added by: Yvonne Jansen. Category: Enabling technology  Tags: data sculpture, exhibition

2013 – Programmable Matter Stars in a Movie

Programmable matter with levitation capabilities is a key visual element in the 2013 movie Man of Steel. The (slowed down) segment above reveals what appears to be a 3D node-link diagram. This display technology is employed by an advanced civilization on Krypton and is referred to as Liquid Geometry or Liquid Geo by the movie team. Visual effects supervisor Dan Lemmon explains that it consists in: a bunch of silver beads that are suspended through a magnetic field, and the machine is able to […]

Added by: Pierre Dragicevic. Category: Enabling technology  Tags: movie, network, pop culture, programmable matter, sci-fi

2013 – Quickly Authoring Physical Visualizations

Rahul Bhargava animates workshops where he has participants quickly build physical visualizations using raw material. One of the workshop's goals is to develop people's visual literacy. Source: Rahul Bhargava (2013) Activities for Building Visual Literacy.

Added by: Pierre Dragicevic. Category: Enabling technology  Tags: authoring, visual literacy

2015 – Create your own Sound Sculpture

This Rhinoscript/Grasshopper procedure creates a 3D printing of an audio file by translating the waves into 3D curves instead of displaying them in 2D, thus elabling the user to "feel" the sound. Also see our other entries on sound. Source: 3D Sound representation

Added by: Jean Vanderdonckt. Category: Enabling technology  Tags: sound, sound sculpture

2017 – Fabricating Physical Globe Visualizations

Geospatial datasets are too complex to easily visualize and understand on a computer screen. Combining digital fabrication with a discrete global grid system (DGGS) can produce physical models of the Earth for visualizing multiresolution geospatial datasets. This proposed approach includes a mechanism for attaching a set of 3D printed segments to produce a scalable model of the Earth. Two models have been produced that support the attachment of different datasets both in 2D and 3D format. Also […]

Added by: Hessam Djavaherpour. Category: Enabling technology  Tags: 3d printing, cartographic, digital fabrication, globe, rearrangeable

2018 – Landscaper: 3D Printing and Assembling of Terrain Models

Landscape models of geospatial regions provide an intuitive mechanism for exploring complex geospatial information. However, the methods currently used to create these scale models require a large amount of resources, which restricts the availability of these models to a limited number of popular public places, such as museums and airports. Landscaper is a system for creating these physical models using an affordable 3D printer in order to make the creation of these models more widely […]

Added by: Hessam Djavaherpour. Category: Enabling technology  Tags: 3d printing, assembly, digital fabrication, terrain model

2018 – Multimaterial Printing of Volumetric Scientific Visualizations

Researchers from MIT Media Lab and Harvard University have developed a method for accurately physicalizing scientific visualizations using multimaterial 3D printers: To fabricate an item on conventional 3D printers, one must make calculations regarding the object’s digital description, and then convert the resulting numeric description to geometric shapes which can be used to 3D print it. But the research team has developed a new technique to 3D print multimaterial data sets as physical […]

Added by: Pierre Dragicevic, sent by: Arnold Platon. Category: Enabling technology  Tags: 3d printing, multimaterial

2020 – The Anatomical Edutainer

Physical visualizations (i.e., data representations by means of physical objects) have been used for many centuries in medical and anatomical education. Recently, 3D printing techniques started also to emerge. Still, other medical physicalizations that rely on affordable and easy-to-find materials are limited, while smart strategies that take advantage of the optical properties of our physical world have not been thoroughly investigated. In our paper, which received the Best Short Paper Award […]

Added by: Renata Raidou. Category: Enabling technology  Tags: anatomy

2020 – Slice and Dice: A Physicalization Workflow for Anatomical Edutainment

During the last decades, anatomy has become an interesting topic in education—even for laymen or schoolchildren. As medical imaging techniques become increasingly sophisticated, virtual anatomical education applications have emerged. Still, anatomical models are often preferred, as they facilitate 3D localization of anatomical structures. Recently, data physicalizations have proven to be effective and engaging—sometimes, even more than their virtual counterparts. So far, medical data […]

Added by: Renata Raidou. Category: Enabling technology  Tags: anatomy

2020 – Venous Materials

. A team of researchers at the MIT Media Lab developed physical user interfaces based on fluidic channels that can interactively respond to mechanical inputs from the user, without any electrical power. Above, line charts that are activated and animated by pressure input. Also see our other artifacts involving mechanical interaction and physical computation. Source: Hila Mor, Yu Tianyu, Ken Nakagaki, Benjamin Harvey Miller, Yichen Jia, and Hiroshi Ishii (2020) Venous Materials: Towards […]

Added by: Pierre Dragicevic. Category: Enabling technology  Tags: fluidic channels, mechanical interaction, physical computation

2025 – Digitally-Fabricated Visualizations of the Future

These images have nothing to do with physical visualizations: they are not data-driven but abstract, and they are not even physical but instead photo-realistic computer-generated images. However, these images from digital artist Lee Griggs give an idea of what physical visualizations may look like in the near future once we overcome the limitations of today's digital fabrication technology: they will be visually and haptically elaborate, colorful, rich, and beautiful. Make sure you look at the […]

Added by: Pierre Dragicevic, sent by: Benjamin Bach. Category: Enabling technology  Tags: future

2033 – Cetonia: Drone Swarm Visualizations

As part of the VIS'14 Workshop Death of the Desktop, infovis researcher Wesley Willett imagines how nano drone swarms may be used in 2033 both to capture and visualize data directly in the real world: At barely 1.5 centimeters across, each Cetonia scarab is a marvel of precision engineering. Designed from the ground up for agile flight, their integrated hydrogen chambers and a high-efficiency hover mode permit 15+ minutes of air time between charges. The hueSHIFT carapace is capable of […]

Added by: Pierre Dragicevic. Category: Enabling technology  Tags: future, nano drones

2060 – Programmable Matter

In 1965 Ivan Sutherland already mentioned programmable matter as the ultimate computer display: The ultimate display would, of course, be a room within which the computer can control the existence of matter. A chair displayed in such a room would be good enough to sit in. Handcuffs displayed in such a room would be confining, and a bullet displayed in such a room would be fatal. With appropriate programming such a display could literally be the Wonderland into which Alice walked. Several […]

Added by: Pierre Dragicevic. Category: Enabling technology  Tags: claytronics, future, programmable matter, radical atoms