Visualizing Graphs in Three Dimensions


It has been known for some time that larger graphs can be interpreted if laid out in 3D and displayed with stereo and/or motion depth cues to support spatial perception. However, prior studies were carried out using displays that provided a level of detail far short of what the human visual system is capable of resolving. Therefore, we undertook a graph comprehension study using a very high resolution stereoscopic display. In our first experiment, we examined the effect of stereoscopic display, kinetic depth, and using 3D tubes versus lines to display the links. The results showed a much greater benefit for 3D viewing than previous studies. For example, with both motion and stereoscopic depth cues, unskilled observers could see paths between nodes in 333 node graphs with less than a 10% error rate. Skilled observers could see up to a 1000-node graph with less than a 10% error rate. This represented an order of magnitude increase over 2D display. In our second experiment, we varied both nodes and links to understand the constraints on the number of links and the size of graph that can be reliably traced. We found the difference between number of links and number of nodes to best account for error rates and suggest that this is evidence for a “perceptual phase transition.” These findings are discussed in terms of their implications for information display.


Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping

Publication Date


Journal or Conference Title

ACM Transactions on Applied Perception (TAP)


5, Issue 1


Article 2, pages 1-15

Publisher Place

New York, NY, USA


Association for Computing Machinery (ACM)

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)


Document Type

Journal Article