On the Prospects for a Science of Visualization

Ronald A Rensink, University of British Columbia


In W. Huang (Ed.), Handbook of Human Centric Visualization: Theories, Methodologies, and Case Studies.  New York: Springer.  pp. 147-175   [pdf]  [web]



This paper explores the extent to which a scientific framework for visualization might be possible. It presents several potential parts of a framework, illustrated by application to the visualization of correlation in scatterplots. The first is an extended-vision thesis, which posits that a viewer and visualization system can be usefully considered as a single system that perceives structure in a dataset, much like "basic" vision perceives structure in the world. This characterization is then used to suggest approaches to evaluation that take advantage of techniques used in vision science. Next, an optimal-reduction thesis is presented, which posits that an optimal visualization enables the given task to be reduced to the most suitable operations in the extended system. A systematic comparison of alternative designs is then proposed, guided by what is known about perceptual mechanisms. It is shown that these elements can be extended in various ways--some even overlapping with parts of vision science. As such, a science of some kind appears possible for at least some parts of visualization. It would remain distinct from design practice, but could nevertheless assist with the design of visualizations that better engage human perception and cognition.


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