EU-funded virtual reality tool aims to help us get better at digesting big data

Profile picture for user ddpreez By Derek du Preez August 11, 2014
An immersive system is being developed that changes the presentation of large datasets constantly so that the human brain can find what it is looking for, more easily.

Sixteen countries in the EU are putting their heads together to create an immersive, virtual reality system that aims to help us simple human beings get

Big Data
better at digesting large datasets by presenting us information that we want to see, through the monitoring of 'signals of surprise in subconscious processes'.

Whilst there is an ongoing debate about what the hell big data is or whether it is even a thing, it can't be denied that companies are facing an influx of data that is unprecedented – with some estimates suggesting that with every day that passes another 2.5 billion gigabytes of data are generated.

How these estimates are created, I'm not sure - but with the Internet of Things threatening to go mainstream, the 'data deluge' is set to get even worse for those trying to use information to create a competitive advantage.

One of the main things I hear from customers that are attempting to tackle the 'big data' challenge is that they often don't really know what they are looking for. Companies often invest in skills and kit and then just start wading around in the data, with the hope of stumbling across those all important golden nuggets.

The EU CEEDS (Collective Experience of Empathic Data Systems) project hopes to help people with this task. By building a system that allows people to 'consciously experience' properties of large data sets and then by tapping into their unconscious mind, CEEDS hopes to present users with information that is tailored to them, based on their reactions when they examine the data.

Although all still in its early stages, the Barcelona-based project could prove to be useful for data scientists that spend their days immersed in large datasets.

Jonathan Freeman, Professor of Psychology at Goldsmiths University in London and coordinator of CEEDS, said:

The system acknowledges when participants are getting fatigued or overloaded with information.  And it adapts accordingly. It either simplifies the visualisations so as to reduce the cognitive load, thus keeping the user less stressed and more able to focus. Or it will guide the person to areas of the data representation that are not as heavy in information.

A group of neuroscientists are the first group to have tried the machine out, where huge datasets containing complex scientific information were animated with visual and sound displays. For example, the neuroscientists were presented with subliminal clues by the machine, which guided them to areas of the data that were potentially interesting to each person.

But how does it work? CEEDS claims that it will develop and use a wide range of 'unobtrusive multi-modal wearable technologies' to measure people's reactions to visualisations of large datasets. The variables being measured via the wearables will include:

  • heart rate
  • skin conductance
  • eye gaze
  • observable behaviours (such as where people point or reach to, or navigate towards)
  • speech characteristics
  • brain activity

CEEDS said that by monitoring these measures it can identify users' implicit, or subconscious, responses to different features of visualisations of mammoth datasets. These subconscious responses will then be used to guider users' discovery of patterns and meaning within the datasets.

Professor Freeman added:

Anywhere where there’s a wealth of data that either requires a lot of time or an incredible effort, there is potential. We are seeing that it’s physically impossible for people to analyse all the data in front of them, simply because of the time it takes. Any system that can speed it up and make it more efficient is of huge value.

The project team is currently in discussion with several public, charity and commercial organisations to further customise a range of CEEDS systems to their sector needs – including some in retail and travel. Some €6.5 million of EU funding is being invested in the initiative, which is being taken out of the Future and Emerging Technologies scheme. 

Businessman accessing modern social networking interface


Cool idea and according to the EU the project has had significant interest from across a number of sectors – indicating that there is an interest in innovative ways in getting some use out of 'big data'.

I'm always a bit sceptical of these EU-backed projects, however, as I can't really think of an example where a project has led to products on the shelves and commercial opportunities. But only time will tell...