Presenting data in 3D

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The way in which researchers can present their data in online publications has been revolutionised thanks to a new software technique.

The way in which researchers can present their data in online publications has been revolutionised thanks to a new software technique developed by staff at Swinburne University.

Dr David Barnes and Dr Christopher Fluke from Swinburne’s Centre for Astrophysics and Supercomputing developed the new technique to allow interactive three dimensional visualisations to be embedded into Adobe Portable Document Format (PDF) files.

In recent years there has been a dramatic change in how research articles are published, with a steady trend away from physical, paper-based journals to fully online digital publications. Despite this, data sets in published papers have remained two dimensional, incorporating a series of static views.

This new technique allows researchers to present their papers so that readers can interact with 3D data. Readers can easily rotate and explore 3D models, and can even highlight particular elements from a data set. This has been highly useful for astronomy data sets, such as representing the dark matter halos that surround galaxies. These complex structures can only be fully appreciated via interactive 3D visualisations.

While the software was originally developed for astrophysicists, it is a technique that can be applied across all disciplines.

Presenting findings in this way also gives readers the opportunity to scrutinise research data themselves, rather than having to rely on the conclusions of the paper’s author. 'This gives other researchers the opportunity to confirm your own findings. It even gives readers the potential to make discoveries that you didn’t even know were there,' said Dr Fluke. 'Readers can now engage with your research and use your data to do their own science, rather than just reading your paper in a passive way.'

The new technique was developed using the S2PLOT programming library, a tool developed by the researchers to simplify the creation of 3D science visualisations. Dr Barnes and Dr Fluke were able to take these visualisations and embed them into the PDF format.

The astrophysicists have already had two papers accepted for publication that not only discuss this new technique, but also use it. ‘Incorporating interactive 3-dimensional graphics in astronomy research papers,’ has been accepted for publication in New Astronomy and ‘The interactive astronomy textbook’ will be in an upcoming edition of Astronomy Education Review.

The papers can be viewed at: