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Collaborative Exploration of Scientific Datasets using Immersive and Statistical Visualization


Abstract and Figures

We discuss the value of collaborative, immersive visualization for the exploration of scientific datasets and review techniques and tools that have been developed and deployed at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). We believe that collaborative visualizations linking statistical interfaces and graphics on laptops and high-performance computing (HPC) with 3D visualizations on immersive displays (head-mounted displays and large-scale immersive environments) enable scientific workflows that further rapid exploration of large, high-dimensional datasets by teams of analysts. We present a framework, PlottyVR, that blends statistical tools, general-purpose programming environments, and simulation with 3D visualizations. To contextualize this framework, we propose a categorization and loose taxonomy of collaborative visualization and analysis techniques. Finally, we describe how scientists and engineers have adopted this framework to investigate large, complex datasets.
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Authors’ addresses: Nicholas Brunhart-Lupo,; Brian Bush,; Kenny Gruchalla,;
Kristin Potter,, National Renewable Energy Laboratory, 15013 Denver West Pky, Golden, CO, 80401; Steve Smith,, Los Alamos
Visualization Associates, 3 Bundy Rd, Otowi, NM, 87506.
Brunhart-Lupo et al.
Fig. 1. Le: In traditional collaborative visualization users share common imagery. Right: We propose linking dierent types of imagery of the
same data, facilitating analysis by providing to stakeholders visualizations customized to their tasks and expertise, while directly linking and
coordinating the data and actions of the team.
these sets. The technical progress in collaborative visualization has been likewise advancing; however, the challenges in creating
compelling, useful, and accessible visualization environments hold ubiquitous collaborative visualization still at arm’s length.
These obstacles include technical challenges relating to factors like a limitation of network bandwidth [
], trade-os between
centralized or disparate data management [
], and the targeting of dierent types of display hardware. Several surveys have
addressed the evolution of these challenges throughout the years [
]; however, many of the software tools
and environments have become outdated. Similarly, there has been research on human issues relating to how people operate in
immersive spaces [69] and how they use shared visualization [68].
Experimentation and practice at NREL have revealed myriad considerations for designing workows to explore datasets using
collaborative, immersive visualization. A primary concern is whether collaborators are physically present in the same room and,
if so, whether they jointly use the same immersive display or individually use separate displays. If they jointly use a display,
then the collaborators may share the point of view with a single, privileged collaborator or have their own points of view for the
shared display. (Multiple points of view for the same display pose technical challenges for walk-in immersive spaces, but not for
individual AR or VR headsets.) Furthermore, with the joint use of a display, either a single collaborator or multiple collaborators
might have control, being able to manipulate the view with user-input devices such as gamepads, joysticks, gloves, or wands. For
display hardware that supports multiple points of view, each collaborator can be presented with a customized rendering of the
model. For instance, some collaborators might view a simpler rendering of the dataset whereas others might see richer renderings
that include uncertainty information or high-density details, but the basic geometric skeleton of the renderings likely would be
common to all of the collaborators.
In situations where collaborators do not jointly use the same display, each collaborator might see and manipulate radically
dierent renderings and subsets of the underlying raw dataset. For example, some renderings might be scatterplots, others might
be maps, and still others might be abstract statistical graphics. Selections or highlighting of data records by one collaborator might
Collaborative Exploration of Scientic Datasets using Immersive and Statistical Visualization
automatically propagate to the views of the other collaborators; this linkage of data records across views might be total, targeted,
or absent. Collaborators might work on subsets of the data, each having their own scene graph. The combination of disparate views
with linked selections or highlights enables simultaneous, coordinated exploration among collaborators probing dierent aspects
of the same dataset, essentially combining the insightfulness of the team and opening dialogs scrutinizing patterns, correlations,
and hypotheses regarding the dataset.
Immersive collaboration can extend beyond the connes of a single room and a particular time. Moreover, recording, annotation,
and bookmarking of visualization sessions allows for their revisiting and replay at later times, perhaps by dierent subsets of
the collaborative team. These techniques further extend the exploratory dialog beyond single sessions and allow supplemental
“oine”, asynchronous exploration between the immersive sessions. Moreover, collaborators might be geographically distributed,
so all of the aforementioned interactions can occur at distant locations.
Real-time statistical and data-analytic tools can supplement and drive immersive explorations. When collaborators nd
interesting paradigmatic features or form hypotheses regarding some aspect of a dataset, an analyst at a workstation or laptop
might locate additional interesting features based on the paradigm or perform tests of the hypothesis, respectively, “pushing”
the statistical results into the immersive display for scrutiny by the other collaborators. One might sometimes have several
collaborators working in immersive spaces and several others working in statistical applications such as R, Python, or Julia,
but with all of the collaborators’ work linked in a common information space where results propagate among renderings. This
approach combines the power of statistics and machine learning with the intuitive interactivity of immersive visualization.
2.1 Taxonomy
While a full taxonomy of work in collaborative visualization is out of scope for this publication, we present a loose classication of
literature in the area to help establish the focus of previous works in this eld and highlight directions for future work. We have
broken our sampling of previous work into eight categories: location, imagery, viewpoint, data sources, number of display devices,
type of display devices, interaction, and epoch. These categories are meant to summarize aspects of collaborative visualization and
may not reect details of those aspects.
The rst category in our taxonomy is location, which refers to where participants are joining the collaboration. This category
is loosely divided into remote and colocated participation. However, there has been a collection of research that focuses on
mixed-presence [
], that is, support for both remote and in-person participation. Many of the challenges for remote and colocated
participation are quite disparate: remote participation requires high-bandwidth, low-latency networking in models where data and
imagery are shared from a centralized server, or for users to have high-powered computers to do that processing at each remote
location. With the advances in new web-based technologies, some of these concerns are being alleviated; however, for large-scale
scientic computing, these issues are still paramount. For colocated users, more prevalent issues include how to facilitate multiple
user inputs and interactions, how to physically locate users in a space, and how to target imagery for dierent user tasks in a single
location. There has also been work on representing remote participants as virtual avatars [
]. However, we did not capture that
work in this taxonomy as the challenges to using avatars include technical issues related to motion capture of remote users and
representational challenges of including avatars in a visualization environment, as well as issues relating to human interactions
with avatars and other human factors. While this work is very relevant to collaborative visualization, the broad scope of such
work is outside the focus of this paper.
The second category of our taxonomy is imagery: what the users are seeing while using a system. We classify the imagery as
either constant, that is all users see the same representation of data, or targeted where imagery is designed for particular types of
Brunhart-Lupo et al.
users or tasks. For example, the SAGE and SAGE2 frameworks [
] aim at providing a workspace for multiple users to present
windows from their individual machines to a powerwall. Thus, users can look at the same data but design disparate visualizations
that investigate dierent aspects of that data and share those visualizations on a single powerwall. Similarly, systems could target
volume rendering type displays for users whose main interest is the 3D aspects of the data, while also providing statistical charts
and graphs for analysts looking at general 1 and 2D summaries of a data set.
Next, we look at viewpoint, which denes where in the scene a user is looking. The two classes in this category are privileged
and independent. Privileged viewpoints constrain all users to see what the privileged user sees (WISIWYS—“what I see is what
you see”) with no support for multiple view points. Independent viewpoints allow users to individually explore the data, and
oftentimes share their viewpoint with collaborators. Thus, one can imagine privileged viewing of a a volume rendering that is
similar to a guided tour, versus allowing a user to actually navigate around the rendering. The challenges in disparate viewpoints
include the computational expense of those dierent rendering viewpoints as well as how to indicate disparate viewpoints across
all collaborators.
Interaction is related to viewpoint in that support for independent viewpoints often provides support for asynchronous interactions.
However, asynchronous interactions may also refer to actions taken on a data set such as ltering, etc., and may be reected back
to all users in a privileged viewpoint environment, possibly through a queue of interactions or through sharing of a viewpoint.
Synchronous interactions can be thought of as passing the baton such that only one user is performing an interaction and all other
users are essentially an audience.
The data sources category considers whether the virtual environment provides methods for looking at dierent data sources
simultaneously. Homogeneous environments support a single data source, while heterogeneous environments can handle disparate
data sets. For example, a materials scientist may want to look at a volume rendering of a proposed molecule, whereas a techno-
economist may want to look at cost sheets and graphs for the new material. The visualizations that support multiple data sets may
actually use constant imagery across all users or can target visualizations for data set or user type. NREL is actively looking at how
to support these sorts of heterogeneous data sets in collaborative spaces. The main challenges include how to visually connect
disparate data sets and how to manage these data sets at scale.
The number of displays category simply denes how many display devices are targeted by a system. For example, is the
collaboration environment a single cave-like immersive environment or powerwall, or is there a network of display devices, either
remotely or co-located? Much of the early work on immersive displays focused on hardware and software issues in the design of
single displays and not on the collaborative aspects of such spaces, and thus much of that work is out of scope of this taxonomy.
However, the utility of collaboration quickly shifted the need to connect multiple users and thus multiple display devices. This
category is not solely captured by the location category, specically because multiple displays may be used in both remote and
in-person collaborations.
The type of devices category is separated as its own category to capture targeting homogeneous or heterogeneous display
types. For example, connecting two immersive cave-like displays is homogeneous, whereas connecting HMDs and laptops
is a heterogeneous environment. This type of situation is becoming more prevalent as HMDs, table-top displays, and other
state-of-the-art displays are becoming more main stream.
Finally, the last category, epoch relates to when a user is collaborating within a system. Most often, realtime collaboration is
what is thought of in terms of immersive spaces, where people gather at the same time and supplement technological collaboration
with personal interactions such as speech. However, there is also a group of work looking at playback collaborations where users
can use the collaborative system independently, and share their work with others.
Collaborative Exploration of Scientic Datasets using Immersive and Statistical Visualization
Table 1. Collaborative visualization taxonomy of systems with default configurations. Specifically, systems in this table support remote locations,
constant imagery, privileged viewpoints, simultaneous interactions, homogeneous data sources and display types, multiple display devices, and a
realtime epoch
The categorization of our taxonomy is uid in that some categories are clearly disparate while others are closely related, but
broken out based on ndings in the literature. Some of this is due to the maturation of the technologies behind collaborative
environments. Hardware challenges of the late 1990s, including networking and compute bandwidth, have, for the most part,
been solved and replaced with challenges of new and novel display technologies, as well as expectations regarding speed of
interactions and targeted support of certain devices, such as mobile. We expect this taxonomy to evolve and perhaps combine or
divide categories along with the advances enabling this technology.
Tables 1 and 2 lay out a selection of related publications that target collaborative visualization systems. These works, for the most
part, look at software systems to support collaboration, and papers discussing the use of these software for specic applications have
not been included. Tables 1 and 2 are divided by the most common and novel categorizations. The most common congurations,
shown in Table 1, consists of systems that support collaborations with remote locations, constant imagery, privileged viewpoints,
simultaneous interactions, homogeneous data sources and display types, multiple display devices, and a realtime epoch. Many of
these systems are older and reect the state of the art for mid-1990s to mid-2000s systems. Table 2 shows a taxonomy for novel
congurations that vary across all categories. Many of these systems reect innovations in computational power and bandwidth,
visualization hardware and software, and ways of using collaborative environments. Future work for this taxonomy includes
researching applications in which collaboration systems have been used and understanding the success rate of those eorts.
In addition, it will be useful to understand which systems support newer rendering clients (see Figure 2) such as virtual and
augmented reality goggles, touch-panels, and web browsers.
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Table 2. Parallel Collaborative visualization taxonomy of novel system configurations.
Collaborative Exploration of Scientic Datasets using Immersive and Statistical Visualization
Fig. 2. Example 3D rendering clients: a) web browser with WebVR support; b) virtual reality (VR) headset; c) NREL’s immersive visualization
environment; d) augmented reality (AR) headset.
Brunhart-Lupo et al.
PlottyVR represents a collection of tools to facilitate collaborative visualization. In terms of our taxonomy, this framework provides
real-time, synchronous colocated or remote collaboration, with distinct imagery, distinct viewpoints, homogeneous data sources,
on multiple heterogeneous displays. The primary objective is to combine the qualitative reasoning and intuition of immersive
displays with the quantitative power of programming languages like R and Python. The toolset provides a bidirectional link
between the Python or R programming language environments and an immersive 3D visualization, supporting both VR HMDs and
large-scale, walk-in immersive environments. Using this software package, an analyst at a laptop can push data into an immersive
visualization environment. The representation of that data can take the form of primitives, like points or line segments, or of more
advanced objects like images and text. Developing immersive visualizations mirrors plot development in base R graphics [
but with a third dimension. For example, R users can instantiate a 3D scatter plot in a connected immersive display by issuing a
plot command with three arrays x,y,z for each data point, optionally providing point colors and diameters (scaling each point in
cardinal directions to create ellipsoids). The immersive users can then interact with the visualization by selecting or querying data
points. In our scatter plot example, textual annotations can also be linked to points so that the immersive users can, using this
immersive system’s interaction device, “click” on a point to quickly query relevant information, like a record identier or notes
about that data point. The immersive users can select regions of interest, which immediately become available to the R users for
further quantitative analysis of the selected cluster.
One of our primary guiding design principle was to reduce the friction of incorporating an immersive space into statistical
analyses. We have noticed that when the cost (even just the perception of cost) of using VR or other technologies is too high
(whether that be nancial, intellectual, or technical), researchers will not make use of it. This principle itself is expressed in
several forms: (1) Critically, we cannot demand that analysts discard their existing workows. Because of this, we chose to avoid a
stand-alone, foundational framework. A common complaint for existing visualization solutions, such as ParaView or other large
software packages, is that the researcher must then answer the question “how do I get my data and decision ow into there?” and
re-engineer their entire pipeline. The user must now gure out the acceptable formats for the package, possibly write scripts to
translate data, and then gure out how to extract features in the data and translate that back into discoveries. This is in addition
to the challenges of learning to navigate an immersive space. In light of this, we chose to integrate with the existing analysis
pipelines, i.e., to augment, not replace. (2) This augmentation must also be friction-free. Even if the package does not require
replacing a researcher’s workow, it can still be excessively intrusive; researchers may quickly become disaected when required
to spend tens of minutes setting up a run-time environment on a server, verifying connections, and copying data for ve minutes
of exploration. Turnaround and setup times must be kept to a minimum.
To meet the aforementioned requirements, we provide PlottyVR to users as a library for R, Python, and Julia
. All that a
researcher must do is to download and install these libraries for the environment of their choice, using the language’s standard
package manager
, and issue a plot command. If, for example, the user is at a cave-like installation (such as the one at NREL), the
server will already be running and the time from setup to use is on the order of seconds. If they are on their own private system,
there is the additional step of launching the server rst (automatic launching is currently being explored).
These libraries connect via WebSocket to the immersive platform. To reduce friction further, we also provide the most common
plot types in a form that mirror the base graphics in R (see Fig. 3). 3D scatter plots and 3D line plots are direct and straightforward.
From just the point (an ellipsoid in 3D) and the line (a tube in 3D) primitives, we can construct a wide variety of complex plot
1These are the most common environments in use at NREL. There is, however, no technical limitation to supporting other languages or systems.
2These packages are currently internal-only. They will be published in the future; see Section 5.
Collaborative Exploration of Scientic Datasets using Immersive and Statistical Visualization
Fig. 3. R-code listing that generates the inset immersive visualization.
types, such as plot trajectories and 3D parallel coordinate plots, such as parallel planes [
]. We support images and text, providing
context like geospatial plots and custom annotations. These API function calls are transmitted to a server application, running
an interface to the graphics engine that is on the immersive platform. For the immersive environment at NREL, this engine is
Isopach, a custom immersive scene graph library. For HMDs, we have developed a server application in the Unity engine. The
server library is tasked with transforming the WebSocket messages to the engine’s graphics representation, and relaying selection
and other manipulation back to the client-side.
By integrating into environments in this way, not only are researchers given easy access to immersive plotting, but they are
also able to make use of the space as a primitive for larger compositions. An example of this is that researchers can link together
the immersive space and Shiny R [
] webpages, either for using a tablet as a companion in large immersive environments to
Brunhart-Lupo et al.
Fig. 4. Cities-LEAP analysis exploring a high-dimensional data set of city energy profiles. Foreground: real-time analysis in R-based Shiny web
application. Background: immersive visualization.
furnish supplemental 2D plots and provide more accessible control over what is being seen, or for providing views for other remote
analysts. In a more operational context, streaming data can be pulled in and joined with the immersive space for real-time analysis.
Using this toolset, we have achieved workows such as synchronous, collaborative hypothesis testing where a statistician pushes
data into the VR space, a scientist constructs a hypothesis by manipulating plots in that space, and the statistician applies statistical
tests to the hypothesis, all in real-time. This workow combines the power of statistical analysis with the insightfulness of rich,
multidimensional data visualizations, and we have used this workow to support both static datasets and on-demand simulations.
PlottyVR has been used at NREL to meaningfully explore multidimensional time-series in as many as twenty dimensions by
teams of as many as six persons, allowing collaborative identication of features, anomalies, and patterns in datasets that would
be dicult and tedious to explore in 2D displays that limit collaborative interaction. Workows combining real-time statistical
analysis in R-based Shiny web applications [
] with immersive visualization by PlottyVR have been the most popular, allowing
rapid, interactive statistical exploration of the output of complex dynamic simulation models. We briey describe three examples,
but PlottyVR continues to be employed regularly for varied applications at NREL.
The Cities Leading through Energy Analysis (Cities-LEAP) [
] project has developed city energy proles for over 23,400
U.S. Cities. We combined an R-based Shiny dashboard that allowed cities to be compared on a range of metrics with immersive
Collaborative Exploration of Scientic Datasets using Immersive and Statistical Visualization
Fig. 5. R-based Shiny web application (le) and immersive visualization environment (right) for controlling and exploring self-organized maps of
ensembles of simulation output [13].
3D scatter plots that revealed correlations, trends, stratication, and outliers in the data (see Figure 4). An analyst seated at the
desktop would choose the metrics of interest, specifying the three axes, color, and size for the scatter plot. A second analyst in the
immersive environment would identify and select cities or clusters of interest. Those selections would automatically update on the
R desktop. The two analysts would iterate, hypothesizing on relationships, generating new metrics, and applying those metrics to
the scatter plot to test the hypotheses.
In another application, the R program running on an analyst’s laptop pushes ensembles of simulation output to the immersive
environment displayed as 3D scatter plots. Working in the immersive space, analysts use a handheld tool to select regions of
interest on the scatterplot and send that selection back to R on the laptop. The R program then performs Monte-Carlo ltering
], which is a sensitivity analysis technique that infers which input variables most signicantly inuence whether data records
fall inside versus outside of the selected region. The web application then displays (sometimes via a standard 2D projector on a
wall next to the immersive environment) a ranked list of input parameters sorted in order of their inuence on the output in the
selected region. This enables rapid, interactive sensitivity analysis on ensembles of simulations: users can formulate, test, and
discard hypotheses sequentially, gradually rening their understanding of the correlations and inuences of input parameters on
output results over ensembles of simulations. Interspersed with the hypothesis testing, analysts use the system to verify simulation
behavior by scrutinizing input-output relationships and trends that might be present in the model.
We have deployed similar applications that combine Shiny web applications with immersive visualizations of self-organized
maps (SOMs) of ensembles of high dimensional simulation output [
]. The web interface allows analysts to manipulate the
parameters of the dimension-reduction algorithm and to view 2D projections of the SOMs on their laptops, but simultaneously to
push the SOMs into 3D renderings in the immersive environment (see Figure 5). The user with the laptop can be in a location
distant from the immersive environment. For this application, we have developed a parallel coordinates plotting WebVR client,
specically supporting multiple, simultaneous remote collaborators to view and jointly manipulate the same 3D scene of SOMs of
simulation output.
Brunhart-Lupo et al.
The most immediate improvement for the PlottyVR system is the publishing of server and client libraries to public-facing package
While PlottyVR has regularly proven useful, there are some limitations to the current implementation and protocol. First, the
protocol originally was designed for a single client and a single server; while useful for a single researcher or a small team working
in the same room, this has proven limiting in common situations at NREL, such as distributed analysis where many participants
are not in the same locale (i.e. remote locations in the nomenclature of the taxonomy), and so is sub-optimal for multi-client
or multi-server collaborative congurations. In order to share data outside of the single client and server model, the researcher
must build their own methods of distributing data, updating that data, or coordinating clients or servers. Further, it was initially
envisioned that only the server would be graphically based, and that there would be a library client.
In response to these limitations, NOODLES (NREL Object Oriented Data Layout and Exploration System) is a work-in-progress
replacement for the protocol and data representation presently used in PlottyVR, updating the model to a single server with
multiple clients. It functions closer to the scene-graph level, where a synchronized 3D scene can be shared across many clients
with support for customizations for dierent form factors, as well as providing database-like access to the protocol to support
of any form factor (a more heterogeneous environment). Note that this would not change the interface for the user; they
would still be supplied with a library to provide a low-friction path to simple plotting. Other clients can now join the session and
register simple callbacks or software hooks to automatically watch for data changes from collaborators or add their own data and
plots to the mix. Additional generalized primitives permit more applications to be developed beyond the domain of simple 3D
plotting and statistics, all while still fullling the PlottyVR goals. An initial demonstration of the system can be found in [11].
This work was authored in part by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), operated by Alliance for Sustainable
Energy, LLC, for the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) under Contract No. DE-AC36-08GO28308. This work was supported by the
Laboratory Directed Research and Development (LDRD) Program at NREL. The views expressed in the article do not necessarily
represent the views of the DOE or the U.S. Government. The U.S. Government retains and the publisher, by accepting the article
for publication, acknowledges that the U.S. Government retains a nonexclusive, paid-up, irrevocable, worldwide license to publish
or reproduce the published form of this work, or allow others to do so, for U.S. Government purposes.
A portion of This research was performed using computational resources sponsored by the Department of Energy’s Oce of
Energy Eciency and Renewable Energy and located at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
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