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The Art and Science of Visualization: Metaphorical Maps and Cultural Models

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Abstract

The author has collaborated in research teams to visualize supercomputer simulations and real-time data. She describes these collaborative projects that employ advanced-technology graphics and novel digital displays that include large-format IMAX film, high-definition television productions, and a museum digital dome at the American Museum of Natural History. The popularity of these images and the function that they provide in popular culture are discussed. She also describes two key technologies that she was part of designing: IntelliBadge(tm), a real-time visualization and ‘smart’ tracking system; and Virtual Director(tm), a virtual camera choreography and remote collaboration system. The process of data-visualization involves the mapping of data from numerical form into an iconic representational form in the attempt to provide humans with insight and understanding of a phenomenon. This is discussed in the context of metaphor, cognition, and postcolonial theory. Because data-visualizations carry the ‘weight of scientific accuracy and advanced technology’, most general audiences confuse these visualizations as ‘real’; however, it is argued that data-visualizations are models and metaphors, not reality. In metaphor theory, the mapping of attributes from one domain of information into another is how humans understand, create, and engender new meaning. Data mapping is correlated with this theory. The author explores how the use of mapping information is culturally contingent. In the spirit of scientific inquiry, she deconstructs the very professional activity for which she is most famous.

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