The Big Connection

The complexity of extensive noble family trees poses a challenge in presenting them comprehensibly. Exploring the potential solutions, this discussion navigates through the evolution of information presentation, the limitations of static representations, and the transformative possibilities offered by three-dimensional, interactive, and immersive family tree experiences in virtual reality environments.

In the Middle Ages, family trees were a crucial instrument of power for noble families. With the help of “Aufschwörungstafeln” (oath-taking tables), they could prove their noble lineage. Consequently, family trees of noble families today are extensive and detailed. Many of these family trees contain such a vast amount of information that they become overwhelming. What options do we have to present large family trees more clearly? To explore this, let’s first take a closer look at the information within family trees using an example.

The Family Tree of the Pechmann Family

My family tree encompasses information about more than 500 individuals. Over 13 generations, it depicts the relationships among family members from the early 17th century to the present day. The family tree provides details about each person’s life, including birth and death dates, weddings, birthplaces, professions, awards, and more. This information is readily apparent upon a brief glance. However, the family tree contains additional details that are initially imperceptible. It is only when we place the data into a new context that we become aware of these details. An example becomes visible when we place the age attained by individuals into a chronological context.

New information is revealed, such as the decline in child mortality over time. Since the family tree is designed to represent relationships in a specific context, these details remain concealed. Even though they are included in the family tree, we must alter the context to make them visible.

When we add up the visible and invisible information, we obtain a significant amount of data that a static family tree encompasses. This leads us to a representation problem.

The Problem of Large Amounts of Information

We grapple with several challenges when attempting to depict large family trees on a static surface. Due to the sheer volume of data, the family tree becomes overwhelming. We have to decipher data as if it were a hidden object puzzle, making it increasingly difficult for us to extract information and establish connections. The static nature of the family tree prevents us from altering the context in which the information is placed. As a result, a significant amount of information becomes lost to us. How then can we present extensive family trees in a way that allows us to better absorb their informational content?

From Chaos to Order

It’s not a novelty that two-dimensional infographics face challenges in presenting large amounts of information, such as a family tree, comprehensively at a glance. An example of this can be found in maps. Printed maps, like an atlas, address this issue by depicting a geographical area across multiple pages. The map section remains the same, but the context and displayed information change, rendering the infographic more comprehensible. 

Filtering and organizing data within a given context assist us in absorbing information. However, with atlases, we are reliant on switching between static infographics. In contrast, newer mapping systems, like Google Maps, dynamically display relevant information on a single map. Through interaction with the map, we can alter the context and extract different information from the infographic depending on the context. We can leverage dynamic filtering and organizing of data through interaction for representing extensive family trees. Allowing the viewer to choose which information to display can enhance the clarity of the infographic. Moreover, this approach enables us to dynamically alter the context and visualize previously imperceptible information.

From Face to Space

We perceive our physical environment as a three-dimensional space, continuously absorbing information. Consequently, it’s natural for us that information is spatially situated around us, and we interact with it through our bodies. So, why do we represent family trees in two dimensions? The depiction of information on a flat surface primarily stems from historical development. Our ancestors passed down experiences to their descendants by writing or drawing events. This method of conveying information proved its durability compared to other methods. Additionally, it compelled the creator to filter the information based on relevance before recording it on a two-dimensional surface for others. Initially, this has its advantages. However, a two-dimensional representation of information limits us. We have the ability to perceive information spatially.

Yet, with a two-dimensional representation of the family tree, we confine ourselves to visual perception. By constructing family trees in three dimensions, we can engage additional modes of perception. We have the ability to interact with information as we do in the physical world. Extruding the two-dimensional surface into three-dimensional space allows us to transition from passive observers to active users and integral parts of the infographic.

How do we integrate an adaptable family tree into our room?

From a technical standpoint, today we have the capability to project information into space, made possible by devices like smart glasses. Through augmented and virtual reality methods, the computer simulates a virtual layer of information in front of our eyes. In augmented reality, we perceive both the physical world and the computer-generated information layer, with the two planes overlaying. In virtual reality, we immerse ourselves entirely in a computer-simulated virtual environment, often referred to as ‘immersion.’ Creating an immersive experience allows users to fully engage in our computer-simulated world, providing us complete control over the space for presenting the family tree. To explore a wide range of design possibilities, we can showcase extensive family trees in a virtual environment. As result we create an immersive family tree.

Our body as the center of a virtual environment

How do we design a spatial family tree? To achieve this, we need to consider several points. Let’s start with our body in the virtual environment. The body serves as the center of our perception, providing a reference for the spatial family tree. This approach offers us a range of advantages. Using our body as a focal point, we can tailor the entire virtual space around it. In doing so, we create a dynamic family tree that can adapt to our body at any time. Building on this, we optimize the presentation of information to align with our perception. We can dynamically adjust the interaction with data in the virtual environment to our body, creating a comfortable experience. To accomplish this, we divide the virtual environment into three areas.

1. The Infographic Area

VR goggles create a virtual environment within a space defined by us (Guardian). Within this Guardian, our immersive family tree generates an infographic area. This area maximizes the square space within the Guardian. We perceive this area as having four walls, serving as reference points in the virtual environment. Information can be presented within this infographic area. However, it is at a certain distance from our physical body. Without moving through the virtual space, we can only visually absorb information presented here.

2. The Interaction Radius

The interaction radius resides within the infographic area, defining the space where we can interact with virtual objects through our body. Forming around us with our body as the center, this radius accommodates objects placed within it for interaction. The close proximity of objects to our body allows us to visually touch and grasp them, providing information through interaction. Automatically adjusting to our size, the interaction radius measures our body circumference and average arm span. Consequently, it adapts to individual sizes, ensuring a slightly different infographic experience for each person. This approach guarantees that everyone can interact effectively with the spatial family tree.

3. The Comfort Zone

The immersive family tree is intricately tied to our body, emphasizing the importance of considering the body’s needs in a virtual environment. The comfort zone serves as a sanctuary for our body within this virtual space. Devoid of any information or interactive elements, this area prevents overwhelming experiences by maintaining a reasonable distance between our body and displayed information. In the physical world, this distance is naturally established as objects are viewed from various distances. However, in a virtual environment, users rely on the deliberate creation of this distance. Rendered objects must maintain a minimum distance from the user during their creation. Situated firmly in the center of the virtual environment, the comfort zone allows us to step out when interacting with the family tree and retreat into it when seeking a momentary escape.

By dividing the virtual environment into these three zones, we enable a direct one-to-one interaction between our physical body and the virtual space. This design allows unrestricted movement without encountering physical obstacles. There is no reliance on functions like “artificial locomotion,” which often pose risks to user-friendliness and comfort. Additionally, all information within the designated family tree area remains easily accessible, contributing to a more immersive and user-friendly experience.

Information Representation in the Virtual Environment

Having clarified how the virtual environment of the spatial family tree is structured, let’s now examine the presentation of information. First, we consider where to position information in the space. Similar to two-dimensional family trees, we align information about family members along axes. On two-dimensional surfaces, we often align data in a Cartesian coordinate system. In a three-dimensional environment, we utilize a spatial coordinate system. Combining the comfort zone and interaction radius from the previous section results in a ring-shaped area.

In this interaction ring, we can depict the spatial family tree. For this, we use a cylindrical coordinate system. This coordinate system provides us with various options to represent information from the family tree. Following the axis assignments, we position family members in the form of figures in the coordinate system. An essential advantage of a computer-generated environment is its dynamic adaptability.

This way, we can alter the context of information from extensive family trees. For instance, the axis assignment may vary depending on the context. This aids us in representing previously unclear information from family trees.

Regardless of the chosen context, time plays the most crucial role in family trees. Therefore, it is present as an axis in every representation form. In the examples, time is always aligned with our body height, occupying the vertically extending axis. This gives us the advantage of traveling forward or backward in time by altering our head height.

The absorption of information through interaction in the virtual environment

After arranging the family members in the interaction ring, we can now interact with them. By interacting with a figure, the family tree filters. When we tap on a person, all other figures recede into the background. The focus is now on this family member. Tapping provides us with more detailed information about the person, such as name, lifespan, and connections to parents and children.

Once we select two figures from the family tree, the pedigree tree shows us how these individuals are related through their ancestors. Additionally, it displays the relationship designations for the individuals.

This way, we can explore the information contained in the family tree. If we are specifically looking for a person, we can find them by name using voice control. When the family tree locates the relevant family member, it is highlighted. If multiple individuals respond to the same name, they are also highlighted.

What advantages does this type of representation offer us for extensive family trees?

By spatially arranging information in a virtual environment, we can present large amounts of information in a clear and organized manner. Through VR goggles, we can experience the information immersively, similar to how we perceive information in the physical world. This allows us to interactively explore the family tree and acquire information. Since the spatial family tree is related to our body, we perceive information directly, thereby enhancing the user-friendliness of the immersive experience. In the design process, we can draw upon familiar paradigms from our physical environment. The vast amounts of information in an extensive family tree can be dynamically organized and filtered. This enables us to selectively display visible and invisible information depending on the context. Through interaction with the data in the spatial family tree, we can exploratively learn about the information. This method of information uptake offers an alternative approach to targeted searches. In this way, we can present large amounts of information from extensive family trees in a more manageable manner.

Get a look of the prototype

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