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 un relief de Namur dans les Tuileries, je vous demanderai d'avoir la […]
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 islands. Sources: Wikipedia. Marshall Islands Stick […]
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. page 36. Wikipedia. Ammassalik wooden maps.
1896 – James Ive's Mechanical Teaching Map
The boundaries of the United States transformed during the 19th century, often through violent means. Mapmaker James Ives created this mechanical map to help people, especially students, visualize these changes. Sources: Leventhal Map Center (2019) Tweet. Boston Rare Maps (2016) Fantastic mechanical map of United States territorial expansion. Video by the Leventhal Map Center.
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 […]
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 appeal sent 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 Krygier (2010) A Discourse on Map Pins and Pinnage. […]
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 still cannot capture all the complexity of river […]
1957 – US Army Corps of Engineers San Francisco Bay Model
A working hydrodynamic model of San Francisco Bay and the surrounding waterways, with tides. It is still open to the public as a demonstration, although it is no longer used for research. Also see our related entry 1949 – Mississippi River Basin Model. Source: Wikipedia U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Bay Model.
1965 – Stop Motion Animation of Physical 3D Map
This educational movie from the 1960s uses physical bars and stop motion animation to show the evolution of population in the Paris area between 1801 and 1961. It was made between 1962 and 1967 by the Institut des Sciences Humaines Appliquées (ISHA) and the Centre de Mathématique Sociale et de Statistique (CMSS), in collaboration with the Laboratoire de Cartographie directed by Jacques Bertin. You can see the physical visualization from all sides […]
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.
1992 – Tactile Infographics
In 1994 the American Printing House for the Blind publishes a short guidebook explaining how to convey infographics for the blind using tactile graphics (first and second images). Most of it is inspired by a 1992 book by Polly Edman. Although it's not clear when were the first tactile infographics created, (non-thematic) tactile maps already existed in the 1910s (right image). Sources: APH (American Printing House for the Blind), Inc. (1994) Tactile Graphics Starter Kit. Polly Edman […]
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 whether the right image represents the same model. Sources: Newswatch […]
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 […]
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 was easier to understand and it allowed them to discuss the issues with each other more easily […]
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.
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 […]
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.
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. In 2011, the team extends Relief (later renamed Recompose, […]
2010 – and Counting... Tattoo of War Casualties
Wafaa Bilal’s brother, Haji, was killed by a missile at a checkpoint in their hometown of Kufa, Iraq in 2004. Bilal feels the pain of both American and Iraqi families who have lost loved ones in the war, but the deaths of Iraqis like his brother are largely invisible to the American public. and Counting… addresses this double standard as Bilal turns his own body — in a 24-hour live performance — into a canvas, his back tattooed with a borderless map of Iraq covered with one dot for each Iraqi […]
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.
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.
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
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).
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 prozessagenten. Seven workshops took place so far, the first one was in Helsinki in […]
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 is to represent a problem’s data as a spatial […]
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.
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 McCune (2013) Physical […]
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, Asia on one wall, Africa on another (see also the little boy in the […]
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.
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 out of that school. Source: More pictures, a video and all the details on the project can be found on their project page.
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 and red model were prepared by Drew Thompson, the green model was printed by Jeppe Vestergaard. […]
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 (2014) Duffy London layers the abyss table to look like ocean depths.
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/)
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 60,000 data points from San Francisco […]
2015 – Rearrangeable Physical Map
Andrew Chard, an award-winning graduate student in architecture at Oxford Brookes, created this multi-layered wooden map where layers can be individually pulled out and rearranged. According to the object's legend, this map shows different cities on top of each other so that people can compare their structure. There is not much information available online but Andrew explained to us by e-mail: It was so long ago that I wouldn’t be able to remember the scale or locations I am afraid. Apart […]
2015 – Wage Islands
The "Wage Islands" installation by Ekene Ijeoma makes clever use of water as a data query device. Wage Islands is an interactive installation which submerges a topographic map of NYC underwater to visualize where low-wage workers can afford to rent. Sources: Ekene Ijeoma: Wage Islands Huffington Post: Dazzling Interactive 3-D Artwork Visualizes The Tragic Affordable Housing Crisis In New York City Creators: Turning New York's Salary Gap into an Interactive Sculpture Design Boom: […]
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 how […]
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 the others in the colony act accordingly. More details on the project can be found on the Flowing Data blog […]
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 in case you want to fashion your own box. Sources: FlowingData Peter Vojtek (2015) 3D Paper Model of Shrinking Aral […]
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
2016 – Woven Chronicles
Woven Chronicle is a cartographic wall drawing that, in the artist’s words, represents “the global flows and movements of travelers, migrants, and labor.” Kallat uses electrical wires—some of which are twisted to resemble barbed wire—to create the lines, which are based on her meticulous research of transnational flows. Wire is an evocative and contradictory material: it operates as both a conduit of electricity, used to connect people across vast distances, and as a weaponized obstacle, such […]
2016 – Topographic Jewelry
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 city along its most severe economic divides. Also see our entry 2013 – Doug McCune’s Physical Maps. Sources: Doug McCune (2016) […]
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 2016.
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. […]
2017 – Green Berlin
Tangible data visualization of green areas and water in Berlin. "Green Berlin" is a living map showing parks and forests in Berlin. The green areas on the wooden map are laser cut, with moss growing through the holes. Source: Sebastian Meier, Green Berlin
2018 – Living Map: Precipitation Visualized with Moss
Climate change is a very hot topic nowadays. We are facing extreme weather events more and more frequently. Unusual temperatures, excess rainfall or extremely strong winds, forest fires disrupt our habitual life. The LIVING MAP visualizes the change of summertime rainfall in Europe. A precipitation data comes from the European Environmental Agency. The data was derived using climate simulation model. It compares summer precipitation in the period 1971-2000 and 2071-2100. The simulation of […]
2019 – Anamorphic Data Spatialization
Data spatialization is a design technique through which data is used to create architectural spaces. It does not necessarily preserve the legibility of the represented data, but rather focuses on the spatial qualities that can be gained from the data. This research aims to introduce a method for the design of a data-driven pavilion that represents data spatially through catoptric (mirror-assisted) anamorphosis. In this work, a set of environmental datasets from North America–including […]
2019 – Hostile Terrain 94: Deaths at the US/Mexico Border
Prototype of a series of physical maps that will be exhibited across 94 cities worldwide in fall 2020. Each of the 3500 hand-written toe tags represents the recovered body of a migrant who died while crossing the US/Mexico border in the Sonoran Desert between 2000 and 2020. Coordinated by the Undocumented Migration Project (UMP). To learn more about UMP and the context of this map, listen to the Radiolab podcast series Border Trilogy. Sources: hostileterrain94.wordpress.com Left image […]
2021 – Watermap: A Physical Live Weather Visualization
Without water, nothing organic exists. This water installation visualizes - symbolically - how rain brings the whole world to life. In a very tangible way of presenting and visualizing data, rain is represented by real drops of water. The installation features a black, wooden pedestal with a recessed world map filled with sand. Technically, the realization is done by a mini-computer, which evaluates live weather data and positions a water tank in an X-Y system above the world map. At places […]