Learning

Why the Virtual World Will Be Like the Matrix (and Why That’s a Good Thing)

Matt Cooney By Matt Cooney November 1, 2016

As Mary Cay Kosten, Senior Vice President, Customer Service, mentioned in “Exponential Data Generation and Fishing from the Data Lake,” the world is ceaselessly generating more information at a faster pace than ever before. At Dell EMC, we’re obsessed with data: its generation, storage, analysis, and application. As a global leader in information storage and management, we have a unique perspective about the scaling of data generation, and its power to change the world around us.

We also see, along with the rest of the world, the rapid development of emerging technologies and tech platforms such as augmented and virtual reality, the Internet of Things, and their actual and potential effect on data generation and storage. Among the many questions this trend generates, the explosion of new devices and data beg a particularly intriguing one:

To what degree can we be literally surrounded by data?

The possibilities are both chilling and exhilarating.

In “Practical Applications of Virtual Reality Technology,” we considered the degree to which certain industries – such as education – will be disrupted by the adoption of virtual reality. When people consider a world in which virtual reality is commonplace, the nightmare scenario tends to be one in which the virtual world has completely eclipsed its physical counterpart. And for every example of an effective substitute of virtual technology, such as the virtual classrooms of “Ready Player One,” you’ll hear or read references to the 1999 dystopian sci-fi classic “The Matrix,” in which the world’s remaining human beings are reduced to batteries, plugged into a global semi-conductor and powering their robot overlords.

If you’re not familiar with the movie, what kept humanity submerged in this perpetual cryostasis was a neurological interface with a collective reality simulation, called the Matrix. This common, virtual platform had become our surrogate reality. One of the film’s signature moments is when the main character, Neo, awakes from his cyberslumber to view the world’s ruined landscape and the fate of humanity.

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Now, I’m not implying we’re all destined to become batteries connected to some parallel reality, as Neo awoke to discover. Another of the film’s signature moments is when he begins to conquer the Matrix and the simulation’s code begins to break as a result. Neo’s surroundings begin to dissolve into scrolling lines of binary, revealing the true framework of the Matrix. This is the far greater implication for virtual reality when it comes to big data: data visualization is about to morph into something few of us can picture.

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With the rise of Internet of Things (IoT), in which all devices are connected and a synthesized flow of data will extend from our work to our transportation, homes, and ultimately, bodies, the flow of interactions between the physical world, people, their existing social networks, and their virtual environment will provide an unprecedented trove of data about how people are living.

There’s only one problem: we can generate all this data, but don’t know how to process it yet.

Using a standard desk or laptop computer screen, human beings are limited to processing less than 1 kilobyte of data per second, or roughly the equivalent of 2 to 3 paragraphs of text. What good is an ocean of data if you’re stuck, staring at a tide pool? How can we overcome these processing limitations and increase our cognitive bandwidth?

One solution may be by scaling data into three dimensions through the application of virtual reality technology. In a recent article in Forbes, Bernard Marr suggests that by ”…immersing the user in a digitally created space with a 360-degree field of vision and simulated movement in three dimensions, it should be possible to greatly increase the bandwidth of data available to our brains.”

The article references a use case in which Goodyear engineers created a real-time virtual reality simulation of “every minor variable” of their racing tires based on their entire historical data set. The engineers faced not only the inherent difficulties in processing such an enormous data set, but the equally daunting challenge of presenting it in a way that made analysis easy and efficient. The result? Answers that could have taken months to discover were found in five minutes.

If data can be rendered in three dimensions, then the next logical step would to literally immerse ourselves in it. And that’s exactly what researchers at the EU’s CEEDS (Collective Experience of Empathetic Data Systems) have done in an “immersive, interactive virtual environment” at Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona. There, the eXperience Induction Machine uses VR to allow users to actually step inside data sets.

The goal of the researchers at CEEDS is “to help visualize data in a more “empathic” way that helps humans make better sense of numbers with a constantly adapting presentation style to avoid brain overload.” In addition to making massive amounts of data sets more accessible, other potential uses for immersive data visualization are event stream processing, data-driven audio, motion-controlled navigation, and a complete overhaul of the web browser as we know it.

Will Excel spreadsheets, pivot tables, and powerful, 2-dimensional data visualization tools like Tableau become rapidly outdated? It’s too early to tell how quickly such a fundamental shift in the way we interact with and process data will occur. We do know, as was written in the course description for our “Data Lakes for Big Data” Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), that “organizations have started to face infrastructure and platform challenges to store, manage and analyze these vast amounts of varied of data for quick turnaround.” While we’ve created MOOCs to accommodate the needs and challenges of the modern data center and learner, the rapidly-approaching future holds truly dizzying possibilities for information storage and management. And who knows? When it comes to big data, in a few short years the phrase “taking a deeper dive” may take on a whole new meaning.

Matt Cooney

About Matt Cooney


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