Video displays today have great colours, can occupy a significant real estate to provide immersive feeling but they are still far from the real thing! Seeing a real object is a quite different experience from seeing it displayed on a screen, no matter how much faithful and bright its image is.
With a real object you can move around it and seeing it from an infinite number of perspectives, you can get closer to appreciate more details, even use a magnifier lens to see its surface at micro level. Besides, you can touch its surfaces, edges and feel the texture...
This was taken into consideration by two researchers at the Lincoln Laboratory at MIT that decided to use a 3D printer to create a screen onto which render data for a visualisation that matches atoms (the printed object) with bits (the data rendering).
They have shown their idea by printing a model of the MIT campus (feeding a 3D printer with data captured from laser measurement of the buildings). The model is a faithful reproduction of the campus, scaled down to fit a table top (as shown in the picture). The 3D model is made with a translucent plastic that can be illuminated from below. The illumination is controlled by a computer and it is made in such a way to represent information.
An application is crunching data of tweets generated at the MIT campus, geo-localised, and the information generated is coded in color that is being projected in that particular area on the model.
This allows the mixing of fixed data (the location and shape of a building) with data that keeps changing (the tweets).
The researchers feel that this mixing of atoms and bits can be easier to understand by us, and this is very important since the whole point of Big Data analyses is to make possible the emerge of a deeper understanding of relation among data. By using a mixed atoms and bits you are rendering data on a 3D structure and by that you are providing localised information. In turns, you brain, by seeing this information, will likely process this further creating higher order perception. So, in a way, you are not just mixing atoms and bits, you are bringing in your brain to further process what is being displayed. A winning combination according to the researchers!