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  • CFO Magazine

Now You See It

Graphs, maps, animations, and other visual displays of information may succeed where spreadsheets fail.

Embedding such maps into software that integrates and analyzes data from many sources can be useful, and so intuitive that employees who use it may not even stop to appreciate the value that visualization brings.

“On the one hand, visualization is fighting for recognition at a time when budgets have flat-lined,” says Robert Moran, vice president and managing director for data knowledge and analytics at Boston-based consulting firm Aberdeen Group. “On the other hand, the technology tends to get built into various products and is thus taken for granted.”

Despite that, Moran believes that visualization will soon get its due, thanks largely to the need to react quickly to an expanding torrent of real-time data.

Productivity is also an issue. At LaSuisse Insurance in Laussane, Switzerland, Gabriel Fuchs, a manager in sales and marketing, says that visualization software (from Spotfire Inc.) is ideal for employees who aren’t particularly computer-savvy. “But the people who really love it,” he says, “are the hardcore spreadsheet users, because they can do in two seconds what used to take them 20 minutes.”

Visualization, it seems, has put things in a whole new perspective.

You Oughta Be in Pictures

As beneficial as it may be to see data, it may be even more helpful to walk around and touch it.

Mountain View, California-based Silicon Graphics Inc. (SGI) offers, as part of a broader line of visualization technologies, “Reality Centers,” specially equipped rooms that allow groups of employees to interact with data in a hands-on way. Powered by SGI Onyx supercomputers, special projectors display the data, in some cases as stereo graphics images, and employees don eyewear and other paraphernalia developed for virtual-reality applications.

Popular among scientists and engineers for collaborative design and decision-making, the technology may be overkill for a spreadsheet-weary CFO, but this same visualization-processing power is used by financial-services firms and stock exchanges. SGI’s “visual area networking” technology takes this visualization one step further by allowing universal access and control of the supercomputer from any device on the network, including laptops and, in the future, even PDAs.

Another corporate adaptation of virtual-reality technology comes from a San Francisco company called Pulse, which offers “Veepers,” or virtual personalities — software that brings a human element to Web sites…sort of.

The software creates a videolike three-dimensional interactive character based on a single photograph; this Veeper then becomes a customer-service rep or a corporate trainer, or plays some other role depending on the mission of the Web site. The software was initially used to bring animated versions of cartoon characters and celebrities like Jay Leno, Kermit the Frog, and Britney Spears to life on TV network Web sites. That proved a finite market, but the company saw plenty of opportunity in Corporate America.

Pulse has signed deals with IBM and Microsoft, which apparently see great potential in bringing an “emotive interface” to Web-site design. Anything that usurps the “smiley” has to be counted as a good thing.

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