Does 3D and Visualization Matter?

Does 3D and Visualization Matter?




By Jeff Thurston
Posted 22 Set 2015 | 10:37 GMT

A few short years ago, it was very difficult to understand why and how 3D and visualization mattered. This lack of awareness contributed to misunderstanding in terms of design, modeling, mapping and visual representation of spatial data. In some respect, the entire geospatial industry was limited in moving forward. 3D is an integral part of locating objects and places in real-world coordinates, and visualization is the outcome that people see, connect with and use to understand and learn.

All of this has changed. Building information modeling (BIM) today is being legislated into law in many places around the world and is necessary in many cases where infrastructure projects are moving forward. Urban planning has shifted into 21st century thinking where 3D models of buildings, often displayed in high resolution reality, are being used for urban planning decision making. Global positioning systems (GPS, GNSS) are poised to play an integrated transportation role on roads and highways that will see an understanding of 3D (topography) linked to vehicle movements, road surfaces and driver-less vehicles.

Today we see high resolution 3D visualizations, based on spatial data, displaying animations of hurricanes, smoke and volcanic dusts. 3D spatial data drives seismic operations and newly developed software not only maps where mining operations will become successfully, but also serves to emerge geophysicists, literally, into 3D underground environments for the purposes of exploration.

For many years we previously described our world using computer-aided and design software (CAD) and geographical information systems (GIS). These tools have now expanded into the manufacturing sector with 3D printers enabled through 3D CAD-based design technologies while GIS have shifted to include more 3D and causing us to question ‘what defines a map?’ Are all maps 2D? Are animations maps? Thos working in 4D (time) would quickly point out that visualization over time is an integral and valuable aspect for this data.

This switch to 3D and visualization is being realized due to numerous factors.

  • Advances in computational graphics 
  • Cheaper data storage 
  • Advances in cloud computing 
  • Improved demand for more integrated workflows 
  • Data capture tools in 3D 
  • Improved visualization technologies

For example, light detection and ranging (LIDAR) is perhaps one of the most used 3D technologies today, and is a good example of a technology that has taken a long time to reach its current level of use. In fact, I can remember working with and writing about lidar 20 years ago. A similar cycle of development and use has happened with 3D technologies, 3D modeling and 3D visualization. Many readers can point to high quality 3D models developed decades ago or visualizations from high quality satellite imagery decades ago. They know about all of the research concerning geoids and map projections – due in large part to meet the challenges of 2D mapping. While we might think these technologies are new, they are not. What is new, and important to understand, is that the pieces now connect to the application processes. Decisions concerning engineering, health, environmental issues and economic growth are now becoming dependent on 3D and visualization.

In terms of visualization, the entire concept of crowd-sourcing and sharing information is largely oriented around imagery and visualizations. The distinguishing factor behind ordinary pictures and value-added products lies in the data supporting the visualization. Many images connect to cameras – but more valuable ones connect to databases, whose data can connect with models, analytics and design.

As 3D and visualization continue to develop and innovate, they are changing the way we work with software. Many of these tools and technologies are applicable to cloud computing environments. In addition, they are beginning to explore the idea that performance issues and options surrounding decisions can be included into their workflows.

Examples of this are surfaces or styles of manufactured products that begin as raw 3D data, expand into 3D models and are them printed. Along the line, someone might consider a change in design or to monitor a model more closely thereby adding performance elements into the design. Engineering of materials in building structures is another example of working with design-prototyping at the model level using spatial data.

In Europe we see the development of new legislation connected with volcanic dusts in the environment. This arose due to volcanic activity in Iceland that shut down the European airspace due to floating particles – a 3D measurement activity. Many issues involving flooding today that involve insurance are dependent upon 3D spatial data. That data is used to determine flood prone areas and hydrological risks.

Agricultural producers and farmers working with precision and variable rate farming today know about the importance of 3D and visualization. Their farm land is measured using 3D tools and land elevation can often be connected with water use efficiency and nutrient use and application. For these applications, farmers depend upon maps and cartographic products.

So – do 3D and visualization matter? The short answer is yes. And they will matter more in the future as the real-world is monitored, measured, mapped and managed. Young minds are at the very beginning of the next wave of spatial data revolution. The future will see whole new sectors involving 3D and visualization sensors, robotics, gaming, education, research and computing.


Jeff Thurston is founder of 3D Visualization World and has written globally about spatial data and associated technologies and applications for many years. He holds a Master of Science Degree in Geographic Information Systems where his thesis was based on 2D-3D visualization. Jeff has a sound and comprehensive understanding of spatial data applications across GIS and CAD-based technologies. A Canadian, Jeff now lives in Berlin, Germany.