List of Physical Visualizations
and Related Artifacts
Enabling technologies

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 […]

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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 […]

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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 […]

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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 […]

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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 […]

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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 […]

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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 […]

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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 Infosthetics.com.

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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). http://www.drake-brockman.com.au/

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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 […]

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2011 – Paper Models of 3D Plots

Paul DeMarco from Maplesoft explains how to slice up 3D plots to build solid paper models. Source: Mapleprimes

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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. […]

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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).

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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. datatherapy.wordpress.com.

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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 […]

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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

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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 […]

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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 […]

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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 […]

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