List of Physical Visualizations

A refactored version of this list will be online soon, and updated with many more entries. Follow us on twitter to be notified!

This page is a chronological list of passive (no electronics included) physical visualizations and related artifacts. For active physical visualizations, see this list.

This collection is maintained by Pierre Dragicevic and Yvonne Jansen and is regularly updated with new information. Thanks to Fanny Chevalier and our other contributors. If you know another interesting physical visualization, please e-mail us!

This collection is CC-BY-SA. If you reuse or adapt it please reference this page. Short URL: http://tinyurl.com/physvis [ BibTeX ]. See also our paper on the topic.

Recent additions:

1839 - Théodore Olivier's String Models
1951 - Microtiter Plates

5500 BC - Mesopotamian Clay Tokens

The earliest data visualizations were likely built by arranging stones or pebbles, and later, clay tokens. According to an eminent archeologist (Schmandt-Besserat, 1999):

"Whereas words consist of immaterial sounds, the tokens were concrete, solid, tangible artifacts, which could be handled, arranged and rearranged at will. For instance, the tokens could be ordered in special columns according to types of merchandise, entries and expenditures; donors or recipients. The token system thus encouraged manipulating data by abstracting all possible variables. (Harth 1983. 19) [...] No doubt patterning, the presentation of data in a particular configuration, was developed to highlight special items (Luria 1976. 20). "

Clay tokens suggest that physical objects were used to externalize information, support visual thinking and enhance cognition way before paper and writing were invented.

Sources:

Added by Pierre.

2600 BC - Peruvian Quipus

Quipus were complex assemblies of knotted ropes that were used in South America as a data storage device and played an important role in the Inca administration. Only a handful of specialists could use and decipher them. Their meaning mostly remains a mystery but it seems that color, relative position of knots, knot types and rope length were used to encode categorical and quantitative variables.

The oldest known Quipu is 4600 years old. In the late 16th century quipus were still being used by Peruvians until the Roman Catholic church decreed they were "the devil's work" and had most of them destroyed.

Sources:

Added by Pierre.

1862 - Marshall Islands Stick Charts

These physical visualizations show ocean swell patterns, and were built by native Micronesians from the Marshall Islands to facilitate canoe navigation. They were memorized before trips. The Western world remained unaware of the existence of these artifacts until 1862.

The photo below is a stick chart from 1974. Straight sticks represent regular currents and waves, curved sticks represent ocean swells, and seashells represent atolls and islands.

Sources:

Added by Pierre.

1839 - Théodore Olivier's String Models

Between 1839 and 1853 the French mathematician Théodore Olivier created string models to teach and demonstrate descriptive geometry, some of which were interactive. He was a student of French mathematician Gaspard Monge, who invented descriptive geometry and was already illustrating his ideas with rudimentary string models. Photo below: intersection of two cylinders.

Sources:

Added by Pierre.

1875 - Maxwell’s Thermodynamic Surface

A physical visualization by Irish physicist James Maxwell, constructed over the course of about seven months, from November 1874 to July 1875, based on the descriptions of thermodynamics surfaces described in two 1873 papers by American engineer Willard Gibbs. The "water sculpture" as it has been called was constructed in Cambridge and famously sent to Gibbs in 1875 as a gift of appreciation for his graphical work.

Source: Hmolpedia. Maxwell’s Thermodynamic Surface.

Sent by Fanny, added by Yvonne.

1885 - Ammassalik Wooden Maps

These three-dimensional maps were carved by inuits from the Ammassalik Fjord in Greenland, and used as eyes-free guides for sailing. The left one shows coastline, the right one shows a sequence of offshore islands. These inuit communities had had no direct contact with Europeans before a Danish explorer met them in 1885 and was shown the wooden maps.

Sources:

Added by Pierre.

1900-2006 - Solid Terrain Modeling Techniques

The Institute of Cartography ETH Zurich published an interesting review of past and present techniques for doing solid terrain modeling. Although terrain models are not physical visualizations per se, the techniques could be in principle used to convey data. Physical terrain models were already being built in 16th the century, and the review covers modern techniques from the early 20th century to today's digital fabrication.

Source: Institute of Cartography ETH Zurich (2006) Terrain modelling website - Production techniques.

Added by Pierre.

1907 - Pin Maps

Left image: residence of Harvard students 6 years after their graduation (1907); made with beads, pins and wires. Middle image: Sources of the 3,000 first letters of appeal sent to Mrs. E. H. Harriman (1912); eight different kinds of pins were used to represent different kinds of appeals. Right image: collection of pins and beads made for maps.

Sources:

Added by Pierre.

1913 - Frankfurt Streetcar Load

Strips of woods glued on top of each other convey the average number of passengers carried between two stops. Each strip corresponds to 4,000 passengers.

Source: Willard Cope Brinton (1914) Graphic Methods for Presenting Facts pp 224-226.

Added by Pierre.

1933 - IBM's Cosmograph

The left image below shows a physical flow chart (Sankey diagram) made of 1000 sheets of paper. It was not meant to be directly read, but to be photographed (see right image). The physical apparatus, called Cosmograph, allowed people without graphic skills to easily produce nice-looking Sankey diagrams. It was copyrighted by IBM in 1933 and sold for $50.

Sources:

Added by Pierre.

1934 - Ford's Globe

A large rotating relief globe showing Ford company's industrial sites around the word, exhibited at the Chicago World's Fair in 1934.

Sources:

Added by Pierre.

1935 - Electricity Power Demand

A large 3D physical visualization made by the Detroit Edison Company showing electricity consumption for the year 1935, with a slice per day and each day split into 30 min intervals. Two other examples from different Edison electricity companies are discussed in Brinton's book. These physical visualizations seem to have been used to better anticipate power demands.

Sources:

Sent by Samuel, added by Yvonne & Pierre.

1939 - Map of Great Britain's Marine Trade

A physical World map made of copper and glass showing the size of Great Britain's merchant marine and the main trade routes as 9,000 miniature ship models. Exhibited at the New York World Fair in 1939.

Sources:

Added by Pierre.

1947 - Electron Density Contours

Nobel prize winning crystallographer Dorothy Hodgkin-Crowfoot created a physical visualization in the mid 1940's, showing part of the structure of penicillin. An original of this artifact is in the Oxford Museum of the History of Science. This technique recently inspired artist Angela Palmer for her glass portraits.

Sources:

Sent by Jean-Baptise Labrune, added by Pierre.

1951 - Microtiter Plates

A microtiter plate is an array of chemical test tubes called "wells", invented in 1951 by a Hungarian medical doctor.

They are used in a variety of experimental designs, most typically biochemistry assays. The picture below is an example of a colorimetric assay result. Most of the time, they are not directly interpreted visually, as in this example, but are instead put into a plate reader that measure light transmission in each well and converts it to a numerical result. See an example catalog from a vendor. Liquid handlers make it possible to create these visualizations automatically.

Sources:

Sent by Jon Hill, added by Pierre.

1957 - Proteine Visualizations

Left image: The first physical model of a protein (myoglobin) built by crystallographer John Kendrew in 1957 using plasticine. The image is from a 1958 Nature article, for a more recent photo see here. In 1960 Kendrew completed a higher-resolution skeletal model known as the "forest of rods". The model was 2-meter wide, made of brass, and supported with 2,500 vertical rods, making it barely legible. Colored clips were attached to the rods to visualize electron density. See photos here and here.

Middle image: Biochemist Max Perutz working on a model of hemoglobin similar to the "forest of rods", completed in 1968. Hemoglobin is made of 10,000 atoms. Perutz and Kendrew shared the 1962 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for working out the structure of those giant molecules.

Right image: A visualization device built by biochemist Fred Richards in 1968 and known as the "optical comparator", the "Richards Box" or "Fred's Folly". This device taller than a person used a half-silvered mirror to optically combine a wireframe physical protein model with electron density maps.

Sources:

Added by Pierre.

1968 - Bertin's Reorderable Matrices

A device made by French cartographer Jacques Bertin for exploring tabular data, developed in the mid 1960s.

Sources:

More photos on the aviz website, in the flickr photo set by Jean-Baptiste Labrune, and on Page 78 of Nathalie Henry's PhD dissertation. Also see Jean-Daniel Fekete's interview on Jacques Bertin by Enrico Bertini and our interview by Data Stories, where we demo a simplified version of Bertin's matrix made by Innar Liiv.

Added by Pierre.

1992 - Tactile Infographics

In 1994 the American Printing House for the Blind publishes a short guidebook explaining how to convey infographics for the blind using tactile graphics. Part (and maybe all) of it is inspired from a 1992 book by Polly Edman.

Sources:

Added by Pierre.

2001 - Graph Board

Mathematics and geometry are often taught to blind students using a cork board with raised grid lines, push pins and rubber bands. The right image shows a teacher explaining the use of the Graphic Aid for Mathematics, a physical kit sold by the American Printing House for the Blind.

Date of invention unknown.

Sources:

Added by Pierre.

2002 - Scientific Visualization in Crystal

Since the early 2000s, artist Bathsheba Grossman has been using 3D printing and subsurface laser engraving to produce 3D physical visualizations of data from astronomy, biology, math and physics. Left image: a piece of DNA molecule. Right image: a 3D map of our nearby stars.

Source: http://www.bathsheba.com (2002 version)

Added by Pierre.

2003 - Solid Terrain Model with Airplane Trajectory

A real case study involving the use of a physical 3D trajectory visualization on top of a 3D terrain model to analyze the causes of a plane crash.

This case study is interesting in terms of cost-benefit analysis, since these models appear to be extremely time-consuming to build. The case study includes an informal comparison with animations: "The mock jurors later related that the physical model was easier to understand and it allowed them to discuss the issues with each other more easily than the animation." The company who builds these models, STM, uses a milling machine and a 3D inkjet printer.

Source: Terrain Modeling, Inc. (2013) Case Study: Aviation Accident Litigation (also see 2003 brochure)

Added by Pierre.

2003 - Physical Space-Time Cubes

Artist Marilynn Taylor created seven three-dimensional maps (one for each day of the week) in which time is the z-axis and a copper wire shows how she moved across the city during the day.

Source: Maryline Taylor (2003) Time pieces - Mapping the time and space of place (2003 version)

Found by Benjamin, added by Pierre.

2004 - Sound Sculpture

Cylinder by Andy Huntington and Drew Allan may be one of the first digitally-fabricated sound sculptures.

Source: http://extraversion.co.uk/2003/cylinder/

Sent by Fanny, added by Pierre.

2004 - Full-Color 3D-Printed SciVis Models

In 2004, the Visualization Research Lab from Brown University printed full-color 3D models of scientific visualizations. They published a poster on the topic where they discuss the technical challenges they faced. The printer used was a Zcorp Z406.

Source: http://vis.cs.brown.edu/areas/projects/rapid.html

Added by Pierre.

2004 - Modern Molecule Models

The Molecular Graphics Laboratory at the Scripps Research Institute makes heavy use of 3D-printed full-color physical molecule models, some of which are articulated, flexible, and even self-assembling (click on the right image below to see a video). They also publish augmented reality systems that use those physical models.

Sources:

Added by Pierre.

2005 - Time-Evolving Scatterplot

Unemployment rate plotted against inflation for 8 countries over 10 years. Every layer represents a year and each country is a wire of a different color. This physical visualization was built by Tim Dwyer for his PhD dissertation Two and a Half Dimensional Visualisation of Relational Networks (2005). His goal was to experimentally compare a 3-D and a 2-D data representation, and he used a physical object to emulate a perfect 3D display.

Source: Tim Dwyer

Added by Pierre.

2005 - Tactile Rubik’s cubes

An online article compares several different designs for tactile Rubik's Cubes created between 2005 and 2010.

This design uses laser cut shapes on the outside of the cube to give each side a different feel.

Source: Smithsonian.com

Sent by Fanny, added by Yvonne.

2006 - Physical Bar Charts

Participative visualization where people pick badges from tanks to vote. A lower bar means more votes.

Source: Lucy Kimbell (2006). Physical Bar Charts. http://www.lucykimbell.com/LucyKimbell/PhysicalBarCharts.html

Added by Pierre.

2006 - Nathalie Miebach's Woven Sculptures

Woven sculptures of weather data.

Source: Nathalie Miebach. http://www.nathaliemiebach.com/weather.html (TED Talk)

Sent by Fanny, added by Pierre.

2007 - City populations

Large-scale physical density models where plywood forms represent the populations of 12 of the world’s major urban centres. Made by a team of designers and architects led by Professor Richard Burdett.

Source: Eliza Williams (2007) Global Cities at Tate Modern. Right photo by Stefan Geens.

Added by Pierre.

2007 - More Sound Sculptures

Sound keeps being a source of inspiration for data sculptures. Examples include Binaural by Daniel Widrig & Shajay Bhooshan (2007), Sound/Chair by Plummer Fernandez (2008), Sound Memory by Marius Watz (2008), Reflection by Nicolas Fischer & Benjamin Maus (2008) and Benga - I Will Never Change by Us (2012).

Sources: click on the images above to see the project pages.

Sent by Fanny, added by Pierre.

2008 - Harry Potter's Social Network

At the 2008 science fair (fête de la science), we had kids build physical node-link diagrams of Harry Potter's social network using magnets and rubber bands.

Source: Aviz. http://www.aviz.fr/old/fetedelascience08/

Added by Pierre.

2008 - Scientific Visualization in Crystal

Paul Bourke proposes to use sub-surface laser engraving for communicating about scientific findings at conferences.

Source: Paul Bourke (2008) Presenting Scientific Visualisation Results as 3D Crystal Engravings.

Paul Bourke also has seminar slides and a poster discussing the use of 3D-printed models.

Sent by Yvonne, added by Pierre.

2008 - Andreas Fischers' Data Sculptures

Andreas Nicolas Fischer is a Berlin-based artist. Below are four of his 3-D data sculptures: fundament (world GDP and derivatives volume), indizes (finance data over time), a week in the life (cellphone communications), reflection (FFT of a music piece). Each image links to the corresponding project Web page.

Source: http://anfischer.com via infosthetics.

Added by Pierre.

2008 - Joshua Callaghan's Physical Graphs

Physical 2-D charts.

Source: http://www.joshuacallaghan.com/Graphs.htm

Added by Pierre.

2008 - Justin Stewart's Data Sculptures

A 3-D graph and a time series visualization.

Source: http://thesocietypages.org/graphicsociology/tag/r-justin-stewart/

Added by Pierre.

2008 - Interactive Wooden Model of 3D MRI Data

A selection of MRI data glued on 60 wooden blocks which allow to physically dig into cross sections. More details on infosthetics.

Source: infosthetics.com

Added by Yvonne.

2008 - Activity Logging with LEGO Bricks

A visualization and logging method for personal work activity. Every tower is a day of the week. A layer is one working hour, horizontally subdivided in four quarters of an hour. Different colors are different projects. The constant availability of this interface makes it easier to log personal activity data on-the-fly, before entering it in a PIM software (an automatic method involving computer vision is being considered).

Source: Michael Hunger (2008) On LEGO Powered Time-Tracking. Jexp.de blog.

Added by Pierre.

2008 - Bug Tracking with LEGO Bricks

LEGOs again, this time for bug tracking.

Source: Takeshi Kakeda (2008) Tangible Bug Tracking using LEGO bricks. Agile 2008 conference.

Added by Pierre.

2009 - Iohanna Pani's Tableware

This set of tableware by designer Iohanna Pani conveys personal statistical data.

Source: designboom

Sent by Fanny, added by Yvonne.

2009 - Nadeem Haidary's Tableware

Tableware conveying world statistics. This fork shows calories consumption for the US and three other countries.

Source: Nadeem Haidary

Sent by Fanny, added by Yvonne.

2009 - More Democratically Divided Cake Mold

A cake mold that creates pieces of cake in different sizes.

Source: Infosthetics.com

Added by Yvonne.

2009 - Collection of 10 Distribution Plushies

This is a commercial offer for a set of 10 plush distributions.

Source: web shop

Sent by Fanny & Jean-Daniel, added by Yvonne.

2009 - 3D printed weather bracelet and measuring cup

Weather data is another interesting choice for creating data jewelry. Below to the left is a bracelet created by Mitchell Whitelaw based on one year of weather data from Canberra. The right image shows a measuring cup where each ring represents monthly average temperatures in Sydney over 150 years.

Sources: click on the images above to get to the project pages with detailed information on how those were made.

Sent by Mitchell, added by Yvonne.

2010 - Data Sculptures in Class

The two data sculptures below have been created by undergraduate students as part of a design class given by Andrew Vande Moere at the University of Sydney. A 2010 article he coauthored with Stephanie Patel (link below) provides many other examples of these. Andrew Vande Moere has published several articles on data sculptures since 2008.

Sources:

Added by Pierre.

2010 - Mount Fear

A 3D map of London where elevation represents crime rate.

Source: Abigail Reynolds. Mount Fear Statistics for Crimes with Offensive Weapon South London 2001-2002. Corrugated cardboard 2.3m x 1.85m x height 1.85m. http://www.abigailreynolds.com/.

Added by Pierre.

2010 - New York Times articles

From Over Here is a physical representation of articles from the New York Times from 1992-2010. Each card represents a month of articles about, or related to Ireland. The people and topics mentioned in the articles are etched on each card.

Source: Flickr via infostetics http://www.flickr.com/photos/paulmmay/sets/72157626087196057/

Added by Jean-Daniel.

2010 - Gundega Strautmane's Relational Ornaments

Textile art based on the network maps of Valdis Krebs

Source: Flickr.

Sent by Fanny, added by Jean-Daniel.

2010 - Keyboard Frequency Sculpture

Source: Michael Knuepfel. Keyboard Frequency Sculpture.

2010 - Brain slices

A neuroscientific physical visualization made by an artist and a neuroscientist. Exhibited at the at the VisWeek 2011 art show.

Source: David Paulsen and Pinar Yoldas. Photo by Samuel Huron.

Added by Pierre.

2010 - Germany Thematic Maps

Physical cartographic visualizations built by geographer Wolf-Dieter Rase with a Z650 printer. Left: average prices for building lots in Germany in 2006. Middle: unemployment in Germany in 2006; The surface represent trends, the columns represent local deviations from the trends (magenta means higher, cyan means lower). Right: travel distance to airports.

Source: Wolf-Dieter Rase (2012) Creating Physical 3D Maps Using Rapid Prototyping Techniques.

2010 - Hans Rosling Adopts Physical Visualizations

Hans Rosling communicates about population growth and income inequalities using stacks of plastic boxes (left image, 2010) and pebbles (right image, 2012).

Sources: TED talk and Youtube. Click on the image to see the video. Left image from infosthetics.

Added by Pierre.

2011 - LEGO Prism Maps

Source: Samuel Granados. Lego Cartograms. http://www.samuelgranados.es/handmade.html (via FlowingData and infosthetics).

Added by Pierre.

2011 - Seismographic Readings

A 30cm x 20cm piece on display at London's Jerwood Space that depicts nine minutes of seismographic readings during the 9.0 earthquake.

Source: Gizmodo http://gizmodo.com/5855077/british-artist-remakes-nine-minutes-of-japans-destruction-as-something-beautiful

Added by Pierre.

2011 - Paper Models of 3D Plots

Source: http://www.mapleprimes.com/maplesoftblog/125512-Paper-Models-Of-3D-Plots

Added by Pierre.

2011 - United States electoral vote map

This is a 3D scale replica of the United States, the state height corresponds to the number of electoral votes each state controls in a presidential election.

Source: thing 11178 on thingiverse.com

Added by Yvonne.

2011 - Domestic Water Usage Visualized with Sponges

Can We Keep Up [halwatts.co.uk] is a a physical data visualisation that investigates the domestic need for water in cities all over the world.

Source: |infosthetics.com

Sent by Romain, added by Yvonne.

2011 - DataCoaster

DataCoaster is a re-imagining of the classic waiting room toy. But instead of arbitrarily loopy lines, DataCoaster's lines are generated by data, essentially transforming a simple, kinetic toy into a graph of information.

If you're interested in getting one of these for your data, have a look at the source for this entry and contact Bobby - he is planning to offer this service.

Sent by Bobby, added by Yvonne.

2011 - Laser-Cut Time Series

Temperature measurements in Helsinki from May 2009 to May 2010. Each row is one week long.

Source: Miska Knapek, see flickr photoset.

Sent by Petra, added by Pierre.

2012 - General Motors' 3D LEGO Visualizations

LEGOs help business executives log and explore data.

Sources:

Sent by Fanny, added by Pierre.

2012 - Juan Manuel Escalante's Microsonic Landscapes

Microsonic Landscapes [realitat.com] by Juan Manuel de J. Escalante represents music in a physical form by way of an algorithmic translation process from sound to form. Seemingly, a series of spectrum-based soundwaves are swooped around to create tangible, circular shapes.

Source: Infosthetics.com

Added by Yvonne.

2012 - Steel Feynman Diagrams

These are stainless steel sculptures of Feynman diagrams created by Edward Tufte. They are currently (opening Sep 12, 2012) exhibited at Edward Tufte's gallery in Chelsea.
Free 16 page catalogue.

Added by Yvonne.

2012 - Thesis LEGO Board

A design exploration of LEGO-based physical visualizations for project management by educational scientist Daniel K. Schneider.

Source: Daniel K. Schneider (2012) Lego-compatible thesis project board. Edutech Wiki.

Added by Pierre.

2012 - Data Jewelry

A company lets you enter in cities you've been to and generates a physical mesh to order as a necklace, earrings, or cufflinks.

Source: http://meshu.io/

Sent by Moritz Stefaner, added by Pierre.

2012 - Matthijs Klip's Data Sculptures

Left image: data sculpture by Dutch designer Matthijs Klip showing life expectancy of the Netherlands population. Each bar maps to an age; the bar's height represents life expectancy while its length represents the amount of people having that age. Right image: other designs by Matthijs Klip.

Sources:

Added by Pierre.

2013 - Testing Physical Visualizations

These physical bar charts, showing the evolution of country indicators over time, were used to conduct the first empirical study showing that physical visualizations can outperform their on-screen counterparts for data retrieval tasks.

Sources:

Added by Pierre.

2013 - Solid Statistics

Left image: A 3D printed version of the "Forbes 2000" list showing the 240 largest companies, by Volker Schweisfurth. Market value is mapped to surface area, sales volume is mapped to volume, and the continent from which the company originates is mapped to color (America (blue), Europe (green), Asia (yellow)). The picture illustrates how a physical model of this 3D visualization gives a better impression of perspective than the printed perceptual cues in the original paper visualization.

Right image: Other physical visualizations from Volker Schweisfurth showing showing city and country indicator data. They were all 3D-printed using a multi-color 3D printer.

Sources:

Sent by Volker, added by Yvonne.

2013 - Network of the German Civil Code

A room-filling visualization by Oliver Bieh-Zimmert (Visual Telling) that illustrates the patterns of references within the German civil code. Each red thread stands for a reference to another paragraph.

Source: you can find more info and images on the visual telling website.

Found by Pierre and Benjamin, added by Yvonne.

2013 - NYC high school dropouts

Ben Kauffman and Sam Brenner created this visualization as part of the ITP program at the NYU Tisch School of the Arts. It is a combination of a 3D-printed relief map of New York City with beads where each bead represents one school location. Each bead on top of the relief map is connected to a string below whose length indicates the number of students who dropped out of that school.

Source: click on the images for a higher resolution. More picture, a video and all the details on the project can be found on their project page.

Sent in by Ben Kauffman, added by Yvonne.

2013 - Layered 2D plots

A series of stacked 2D plots showing changes in energy sources for different countries by PhD student Simon Stusak from University of Munich. All plots are cut from acrylic and hold together in one corner to facilitate alignment of the layers. The y-axis is mapped to countries, the x-axis to different energy sources, and the z-axis to time.

Sources:

Found by Pierre, added by Yvonne.

2013 - Rearrangeable 3D Bar Chart

A modular physical visualization like this rearrangeable 3D bar chart allow people to sort, filter, compare and examine data by direct physical manipulation.

Sources:

Added by Pierre.