List of Physical Visualizations
and Related Artifacts
With tag “cartographic”

1500 – Plans-Reliefs

The first terrain/city models date back from the 16th century and were created for military purposes. Left image: a plan-relief of Bayonne, created by Sébastian Vauban (1633–1707), a famous fortification engineer of King Louis XIV. Right image: a plan-relief of Grenoble from 1848. These scale models were highly prized for the tactical advantage they brought, and they were also shown around for dissuasive purposes. “Il y a […]

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1862 – Marshall Islands Stick Charts

These physical visualizations show ocean swell patterns, and were built by native Micronesians from the Marshall Islands to facilitate canoe navigation. They were memorized before trips. The Western world remained unaware of the existence of these artifacts until 1862. The photo above is a stick chart from 1974. Straight sticks represent regular currents and waves, curved sticks represent ocean swells, and seashells represent atolls and […]

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1885 – Ammassalik Wooden Maps

These three-dimensional maps were carved by inuits from the Ammassalik Fjord in Greenland, and used as eyes-free guides for sailing. The left one shows coastline, the right one shows a sequence of offshore islands. These inuit communities had had no direct contact with Europeans before a Danish explorer met them in 1885 and was shown the wooden maps. Sources: Bill Buxton (2007). Sketching User Experiences. […]

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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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1907 – Pin Maps

Left image: residence of Harvard students 6 years after their graduation (1907); made with beads, pins and wires. Middle image: Sources of the 3,000 first letters of appealsent to Mrs. E. H. Harriman (1912); eight different kinds of pins were used to represent different kinds of appeals. Right image: collection of pins and beads made for maps. Sources: Willard Cope Brinton (1914) Graphic Methods for Presenting Facts pp. 227-253. John […]

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1913 – Frankfurt Streetcar Load

Strips of woods glued on top of each other convey the average number of passengers carried between two stops. Each strip corresponds to 4,000 passengers. Shown at the 1913 International building trade exhibition in Leipzig. Source: Willard Cope Brinton (1914) Graphic Methods for Presenting Facts pp 224-226.

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1934 – Ford’s Globe

A large rotating relief globe showing Ford company's industrial sites around the word, exhibited at the Chicago World's Fair in 1934. Sources: Willard Cope Brinton (1939) Graphic Presentation, p. 160. The Henry Ford Blog (2013) Ford at the Fair. More photos from the Henry Ford Online Collection.

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1934 – Hayward’s Moon Model

Illustrator and model-maker Roger Hayward (1899-1979) working on a model of the lunar surface for the Griffith Planetarium, 1934. Sources: Kevin Kidney (2009) Mr. Hayward's Moon Model. Photo from Keven Kidney's blog, textual description courtesy of Klaus Hentschel. For more, see Klaus Hentschel (2014): Visual Cultures in Science, Technology and Medicine, pp. 217-226.

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1939 – Map of Great Britain’s Marine Trade

A physical World map made of copper and glass showing the size of Great Britain's merchant marine and the main trade routes as 9,000 miniature ship models. Exhibited at the New York World Fair in 1939. Sources: Willard Cope Brinton (1939) Graphic Presentation, p. 207. Life Magazine (1939) New York Opens the Gates to the World of Tomorrow. Vol. 6, No. 20, May 15 1939.

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1949 – Mississippi River Basin Model

As a response to devastating floods of the Mississippi river in the early 1900s, the US Army Corps of Engineers built a large-scale hydraulic model of the entire river system. The model, 2.5 times the size of Disneyland, allowed them to design better flood control infrastructures and to eventually save millions of dollars. In 1973, the physical model ceased to be used and was replaced by computer models. Nevertheless, mathematical equations […]

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1979 – Great Polish Map of Scotland

The "Great Polish Map of Scotland" is a 50 x 40 m concrete terrain model of Scotland. It was built by a Polish sergeant who stationed in Scotland during WWII and ended up living there. It is claimed to be the world's largest terrain model, although the Chinese built a 900 x 700 m model in 1999. Source: Atlas Obscura. Great Polish Map of Scotland.

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1999 – World’s Largest Solid Terrain Model

In 2006, a mysterious 900x700m solid terrain model with military facilities was discovered by a German Google Earth user next to the Chinese town of Huangyangtan. It was quickly identified as a 1:500 replica of a disputed area in Tibet between China and India 2400km away, with perfectly matching orientation. Chinese authorities claimed the model was built 7-8 years earlier as a tank training facility. It is unclear […]

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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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2003 – Solid Terrain Model with Airplane Trajectory

A real case study involving the use of a physical 3D trajectory visualization on top of a 3D terrain model to analyze the causes of a plane crash. This case study is interesting in terms of cost-benefit analysis, since these models appear to be extremely time-consuming to build. The case study includes an informal comparison with animations: "The mock jurors later related that the physical model […]

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2003 – Mount Fear: Elevation Map of Crime Rates

A 3D map of East London where elevation represents the rate of violent crimes between 2002 & 2003. Corrugated cardboard, 145h x 540w x 425d cm. Source: Abigail Reynolds. Mount Fear East London.

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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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2007 – Global Cities: Elevation Maps of City Population

Large-scale physical density models where plywood forms represent the populations of 12 of the world’s major urban centres. Made by a team of designers and architects led by Professor Richard Burdett. Source: Eliza Williams (2007) Global Cities at Tate Modern. Right photo by Stefan Geens.

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2009 – Leithinger’s Interactive Shape Displays

Daniel Leithinger, PhD student at MIT MediaLab and his colleagues, are studying interaction with shape displays. The team designed two impressive shape displays made of arrays of ultra-fast motorized pins. Relief (2009-2010, first row above) is made of 120 motorized pins on top of which can be added a rubber sheet and a projected image. Each pin can be addressed individually and senses user input like pulling and pushing. […]

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2010 – Thematic Maps of Germany

Physical cartographic visualizations built by geographer Wolf-Dieter Rase with a Z650 printer. Left: average prices for building lots in Germany in 2006. Middle: unemployment in Germany in 2006; The surface represent trends, the columns represent local deviations from the trends (magenta means higher, cyan means lower). Right: travel distance to airports. Source: Wolf-Dieter Rase (2012) Creating Physical 3D Maps Using Rapid Prototyping Techniques.

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2011 – LEGO Prism Maps

Prism maps showing migration patterns between the Americas. Each Lego brick represents 10.000 people. Source: Samuel Granados. Lego Cartograms (via FlowingData and infosthetics).

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2011 – DIY United States Electoral Vote Map

This is a 3D scale replica of the United States, the state height corresponds to the number of electoral votes each state controls in a presidential election. Source: thing 11178 on thingiverse.com

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2011 – Can We Keep Up: Sponges Show Domestic Water Usage

Can We Keep Up is a a physical data visualisation that investigates the domestic need for water in cities all over the world. Source: infosthetics.com. Image from Hal Watts.

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2012 – PARM: Static Terrain Models with Projection

The PARM system is part of an ongoing research project at the University of Nottingham. A static physical relief model is augmented with top projection to display landscape details and to overlay with additional data visualizations. Sources: James Goulding's project page. Pristnall et al (2012). Projection Augmented Relief Models (PARM): Tangible Displays for Geographic Information.

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2012 – Slime Mold Imitates the United States Interstate System

Can a slime mold solve the traveling salesman problem without a digital computer? From the article's abstract: The plasmodium phase of Physarum polycephalum is a champion amongst living creatures used in laboratory prototypes of future and emergent computing architectures. A wide range of problems from computational geometry and logic can be solved by this cellular slime mold. A typical way to perform a computation with the slime mold […]

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2012 – Data Cuisine

The left image is a map that shows the differences in alcohol consumption across Finland, as well as typical local food. The right image shows the number of immigrants in Finland by nationality (rice for the Chinese, salmon for the Swedish). Many other examples of edible physical visualizations can be found on the Data Cuisine web site.  Data Cuisine is a series of workshops organized by Moritz Stefaner and […]

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2013 – NYC High School Dropouts

Ben Kauffman and Sam Brenner created this visualization as part of the ITP program at the NYU Tisch School of the Arts. It is a combination of a 3D-printed relief map of New York City with beads where each bead represents one school location. Each bead on top of the relief map is connected to a string below whose length indicates the number of students who dropped […]

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2013 – Very Pointy Elevation Map

Toronto-based startup DataAppeal, which develops Web apps for 3D geo-spatial data visualization, created this very pointy stalagmite-looking elevation map of GTA Transit volume in Toronto. Sources: Andy Kirk (2013) 3D Printing Capabilility via DataAppeal Maps. Candice So (2013) Data visualizations go from flat to 3D.

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2013 – Population Density Emerging from Walls

Two Yale architects created a room-sized physical visualization of world population density folded into itself: Hsiang and Mendis then turned that spatial visualization into a physical installation at the 2011 Chengdu Biennale in China. They modeled the population distribution of the entire world in a kind of inverted map that visitors could walk into, inside a 10-by-10-by-10 foot room, with North America on the ceiling, […]

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2013 – Doug McCune’s Physical Maps

Doug McCune is a programmer turned artist, and he is obsessed with maps. In 2013, he got bored with screens and started to build physical thematic maps. He specializes in turning "horrible data" such as murders and natural disasters into beautiful objects. Above on the left is an artwork titled "stalagmite crime" that shows elevation maps of crime rates in San Francisco: narcotics-related crimes (green), prostitution (blue) and vehicle theft (orange). Sources: Doug […]

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2014 – Water Works: Maps of the San Francisco Water Infrastructure

“Water Works” is a 3D data visualization and mapping of the water infrastructure of San Francisco. These consist of three large-scale 3D-printed sculptures, each generated by custom C++ code. The concept behind the project is to make visible a small portion of an invisible network of pipes underneath our feet.  The three physical data visualizations are: "San Francisco Cisterns", “Imaginary Drinking Hydrants” and "Sewer Works". "Sewer Works" uses […]

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2014 – Blaue Blumen: Handcrafted Offline Data Visualization of Population Density

Physical visualization of the population density of the world. Handcrafted with toothpicks and a styrofoam ball. Based on data taken from this map. Source: Ewa Tuteja, (http://tuteja.info/blaueblumen/) 

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2014 – Abyss Table: Scale Model of Deep Sea as Furniture

This table created by the furniture design company Duffy London is a geological cross-section of the sea shown with layered wood and glass sheets. Designer Christopher Duffy got the idea while visiting a glass factory and noticing that glass sheets darken as more layers as added, as does the sea. You can have this piece of furniture at home for £9,800. Sources: Duffy London (2014) Abyss Table. Nina Azzarello […]

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2014 – Mount Saint Helens – Pre and Post Eruption

Mount Saint Helens is an active volcano located in the north-west of the United States. In an eruption in 1980, the upper section of the volcano was destroyed, reducing the peak's elevation from 2950 m to 2549 m. This two-part 3D printed model of Mount Saint Helens visualizes the dramatic change that occurred over a very short period of time.  The digital data for 3D printing and the white […]

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2015 – Paper Cut Terrain Models

Paper models of terrain/landscape. Mapquest Elevation API is used to gather the elevation isolines and the paper layers are cut on a blade cutter machine. Source:  Peter's DIY Blog

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2015 – 3D Paper Model of Shrinking Aral Sea

The Aral Sea in Uzbekistan, formerly one of the largest lakes in the world, has been drying up since the 1960s and is currently 10% its original size. Peter Vojtek made a 3-D paper model that shows the shrinkage — from 1957 on top, down to 2007. Each layer represents the surface outline during the corresponding year on the right. Vojtek also provides his paper template […]

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2015 – Beeswax Maps Crafted by Bees

Artist Ren Ri uses beeswax as his medium for making geographical maps and a bee colony as the builder. This original project results in beautiful data visualizations collaboratively crafted by a human and a bee colony! Here's how it works: Because a colony will follow the queen bee and build a hive based on the pheromones that she releases, Ri is able to move the queen such that […]

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2015 – Passim: Visual Reconceptualisation of Spatial Theories

The master thesis of Paul Heinicker, Passim, visually reflects the humanistic discourse about space. The research of spatial theory led to four major notions how to think space from a sociopolitical perspective. The installation explores the relationship of these four spatial notions by projecting visualisations of geopolitical data from the Heidelberg Institute for International Conflict Research onto the physical sculpture. Eventually, different world-views are created, that show […]

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2016 – Actuated Prism Map of Italy

This actuated prism map was created by Alessandro Masserdotti in the OpenDot Fablab in Milan, Italy, for the SOD16 meeting and invites people explicitly to Touch That Data. OpenDot Fablab (Milan) project with Arduino and 3D printing visualizes regional statistics changing the height of each region. In the picture there's the building count from the regional extracts. Sources: Open streetmap wiki, 2016. Video from a demo at OSMIT […]

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2016 – Housing Prices Ripping San Francisco Apart

This data sculpture depicts a map of housing prices in San Francisco. It’s a map of the city, torn at the seams. The height of each area represents the average price per square foot for recent home sales. Where neighboring areas are close in value they are connected, but if neighboring areas are too far from each other I allow them to split, tearing the […]

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