Visualization is any technique for creating images, diagrams, or animations to communicate a message. Visualization through visual imagery has been an effective way to communicate both abstract and concrete ideas since the dawn of man. Examples from history include cave paintings, Egyptian hieroglyphs, Greek geometry, and Leonardo da Vinci’s revolutionary methods of technical drawing for engineering and scientific purposes. Visualization today has ever-expanding applications in science, education, engineering (e. g. roduct visualization), interactive multimedia, medicine, etc.
Typical of a visualization application is the field of computer graphics. The invention of computer graphics may be the most important development in visualization since the invention of central perspective in the Renaissance period. The development of animation also helped advance visualization The use of visualization to present information is not a new phenomenon. It has been used in maps, scientific drawings, and data plots for over a thousand years.
Examples from cartography include Ptolemy’s Geographia (2nd Century AD), a map of China (1137 AD), and Minard’s map (1861) of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia half a century earlier. Most of the concepts learned in devising these images carry over in a straight forward manner to computer visualization. Edward Tufte has written two critically acclaimed books that explain many of these principles. Computer graphics has from its beginning been used to study scientific problems. However, in its early days the lack of graphics power often limited its usefulness.
The recent emphasis on visualization started in 1987 with the special issue of Computer Graphics on Visualization in Scientific Computing. Since then there have been several conferences and workshops, co-sponsored by the IEEE Computer Society and ACM SIGGRAPH, devoted to the general topic, and special areas in the field, for example volume visualization. Most people are familiar with the digital animations produced to present meteorological data during weather reports on television, though few can distinguish between those models of reality and the satellite photos that are also shown on such programs.
TV also offers scientific visualizations when it shows computer drawn and animated reconstructions of road or airplane accidents. Some of the most popular examples of scientific visualizations are computer-generated images that show real spacecraft in action, out in the void far beyond Earth, or on other planets. Dynamic forms of visualization, such as educational animation or timelines, have the potential to enhance learning about systems that change over time.
Apart from the distinction between interactive visualizations and animation, the most useful categorization is probably between abstract and model-based scientific visualizations. The abstract visualizations show completely conceptual constructs in 2D or 3D. These generated shapes are completely arbitrary. The model-based visualizations either place overlays of data on real or digitally constructed images of reality, or they make a digital construction of a real object directly from the scientific data. Scientific visualization is usually done with specialized software, though there are a few exceptions, noted below.
Some of these specialized programs have been released as Open source software, having very often its origins in universities, within an academic environment where sharing software tools and giving access to the source code is common. There are also many proprietary software packages of scientific visualization tools. Models and frameworks for building visualizations include the data flow models popularized by systems such as AVS, IRIS Explorer, and VTK toolkit, and data state models in spreadsheet systems such as the Spreadsheet for Visualization and Spreadsheet for Images