Thursday, 16 August 2012

"He's got dimples!": making sense of visualisations

Laura's baby is due in 2 months, so time to get a 3D scan... and the first thing that Laura told me after the scan was that "he's got dimples!" I'm sure that if there had been any problem detected, that would have been mentioned first, but no: the most important information is that he has dimples, just like her. But for the radiographer doing the scan, it's likely that dimples came way down the list of features to look out for (after formation of the spine, whether the cord is around his neck, how large his head is...). Conversely, when her uncle looked at pictures from the scan, his main comment was about the way it looked as if there was a light shining on the baby. And I wanted to know what the strange shape between chin and elbow was (I still don't know...).

3D image of baby in womb

People look at scenes and scans in different ways, and notice different features of them. They "make sense" of the visual information in different ways. Some are concerned with syntactic features such as aspects of the image quality. Some are more concerned with the semantics: what it means (in this case, for the health of the child, or what he will look like). Yet others may be more concerned with the pragmatics: how information from the scene can inform action – this might have been the case if the scan were being used by a surgeon to guide them during a live operation.

Scanning technology has come on in leaps and bounds over recent decades: the ultrasound scan I had before Laura was born was difficult to even recognise as a baby as a still image: a naive viewer could only make sense of the whole by seeing how the parts moved together. Advances in technology have meant that what used to be difficult interpretation tasks for the human have been made much easier. And they have made more information potentially available (I didn't even know whether Laura was a boy or a girl until she was born, never mind whether or not she had dimples).

New technologies create many new possibilities – for monitoring, diagnosis, treatment, and even for joy. In this case, they've made the user's interpretation task much easier and made more information available. The scan is for well defined purposes, and the value of the visualisation is that it takes a large volume of data and presents it in a form that really makes sense. There is lots of information about the baby that the 3D scan does not provide, but for its intended purpose it is delightful.

No comments:

Post a Comment