A life-altering secret has been kept from the rest of the world by data scientists, analytics managers and financial departments.
Hidden behind a smokescreen of spreadsheets, bar graphs and pie charts, the sector has persuaded us all that data is boring. It is best avoided.
However behind that smokescreen the experts spend their time digging into large data sets, spotting trends and catching anomalies in business data. All this, it turns out, is actually quite fun and rewarding.
The co-founders of Sheffield-based virtual reality firm Slanted Theory could be the ones to finally expose the myth and reimagine the way data is explored through immersive tech.
“People generally don’t see the potential until they put the headsets on – and then they understand,” is how Mark Burkitt, one the two co-founders, explains the firm’s first product to BusinessCloud.
Slanted Theory’s visualisation and analytics tool ALAIRA works with VR headsets, allowing its users to immerse themselves in a 3D world of complex business data, represented as physical objects.
The difference between this and a screen is a matter of dimensions, explains Burkitt’s fellow co-founder Laura Smith, who serves as CEO. “With 2D visualisations, you’re shown four dimensions of data. With 3D technology, you’ve got so many extra dimensions,” she says.
The pair hope that a future with ALAIRA to the fore means large sets of business data will rarely make their way on to a tiny office computer screen, where they say it doesn’t really belong. Instead, they hope to see people literally stepping into and walking around a world of representative sculptures, which can represent any business data imaginable.
“We want data to be engaging. We want to make it sexy. If you can make it more in line with the way that people think, then you’re going to boost everybody’s productivity,” says Burkitt.
Smith adds: “You never actually lose sight of how the data is connected every time you drill down. It’s great not just for analysing, but also for the storytelling aspect.”
The approach does away with numbers in the conventional sense. Instead the firm’s experiences are built around our understanding of size, shape and distance – and our need to pick things up when we inspect them.
The hope is that it will democratise data and allow everyone to become an analytical expert. “You can find an insight by drilling down, and then go back to your manager and say ‘this is what I found. These are the steps that I took to find that’. You can walk them through that visual language, which crosses a lot of different barriers,” says Smith.
The futuristic vision of office workers in VR headsets pinching at the air may seem novel at first, but its founders are certain the technology will outlast VR’s image as a fun novelty. “Businesses are still a little bit unsure of what the technology can offer,” says Smith, who believes this will change as it is trialled by more people.
“We have a natural ability to look for trends and patterns in things. Our brains are still generally better than most computers, so if you display data in a visual format, you are likely to make discoveries and see trends a lot quicker.”
She says the firm, founded in 2017, has both educated the market and tried to sell to it at the same time. Some sectors, such as healthcare, are already seeing a return on investment, while the team is working closely with researchers at Leeds and Sheffield Universities to explore data in areas such as rainfall and air pollution.
Last year ALAIRA was selected by Facebook for its Oculus Independent Software Vendors (ISV) programme, which looks to accelerate customer adoption of VR solutions built for Oculus enterprise products.
The firm also has tech giant Cisco on board. Slanted Theory worked with the tech giant to develop HR analytics which can be explored in VR. The Organisational Network in Virtual Reality (ONVR) product they created allows Cisco’s Chuck Shipman to explore the collaborative potential of Cisco’s employees. Shipman is quoted as saying his first experience of it almost brought tears to his eyes.
The system visualises each employee and a connected ‘influence flow’, including individual and team strengths, and their relationship to specific projects. “HR analytics was not an approach we had even thought about. It was a really interesting piece of work that we did with them,” says Smith.
The firm is now looking for more companies to come forward with their specific data problems, so that the firm can help find a solution in three dimensions.
“With 2D software and data you perhaps have a notebook, or copy and paste information somewhere,” says Smith. “With our system, you can have it all open – all the branches of interest – and then move them next to each other to compare them and annotate them.”
But not content with breaking down data’s association with Excel sheets, Smith says ALAIRA is also a natural alternative to video calls and presentations. “I essentially see this replacing PowerPoint in a way, not only by allowing people to explore the role of data but as an analytics tool and a presentation tool all in one.
“We could start to get rid of reports. Instead just put a headset on, welcome people into the environment and you can show them what you’ve done and how you found it.”
Any two people with a VR headset can step inside the same data experience, regardless of where they are in the world.
“Everybody has issues, especially with Skype and Google Hangouts, as they try to share screens and pass controls to each other,” continues Smith. “When you’re in the VR world, it’s just like being in a natural office. It doesn’t matter where you are in the world, you can come together and look at different aspects of the same data.
“This can be done anywhere. It facilitates people being able to work remotely at home. You can be travelling to conferences, you can be sitting on the train or you can be at the airport, projecting our visualisations and still collaborating.”
Smith says this scenario could become reality within three years, but that in 2020, the dream of a VR office is just beginning. As the technology matures, the opportunities only improve. “There is a lot in terms of hardware and in terms of service software that we will be developing,” she says.
One of the new features on the firm’s roadmap is the introduction of mixed reality, meaning these objects, maps, and networks can be “embedded into your real office as opposed to a virtual service”.
The technology will allow the same 3D representations of data, presented as layer on top of the real world, be that a home office or boardroom table. Smith predicts the mixed reality technology is seven to eight years away.
“The ultimate goal is to make it so that it’s commonplace for everybody,” she says. “Whenever you see data, anywhere from on a piece of paper, to an infographic, all the way through to 3D visualisation – if you can represent it in a way that is going to create impact, then you’re going to walk away and remember it.”