RESEARCH: Adding 3D to online journals

The world's researchers now have a startlingly novel method of presenting their data as interactive, three-dimensional visualisations in online publications. Developed only this year by Melbourne-based astrophysicists Dr Christopher Fluke and Dr David Barnes from Swinburne University of Technology's centre for astrophysics and supercomputing, the system enables researchers - and any other writer or publisher - to embed 3D illustrations into their PDF files.

The development opens the way for online publications, from academic journals to textbooks, to present 3D images to readers without them having to log on to another website to see a movie or view a CD. Students studying astronomy, chemistry, biology or any of the other sciences can see illustrations of the planets, a benzene molecule or human cells in 3D and be able to rotate and explore them in a way not possible with the usual two-dimension drawings.

A simple example of how the technique works is shown by a 3D illustration of why the Earth has seasons - see here* - although the computer must have Adobe Reader V8.0 or higher installed (Adobe Reader).

Quoting from the television series Star Trek, where Mr Spock observes in The Wrath of Khan, "His pattern indicates two-dimensional thinking", Fluke contrasts the age-old restrictions of the print media with the potential of the new technique to overcome the limits publishers have long experienced in trying to represent three-dimensional objects in two dimensions.

"This is an enhancement to the usual method of presenting static, two-dimensional views, or "comic strip" sequences, to indicate changes in viewpoint," he says. "Interactive figures provide opportunities for students to undertake active learning while reading a textbook: they are able to explore and uncover the connections between viewpoint, orientation, and the 3D nature of models and data sets for themselves.

"As astronomy researchers we were initially interested in the field of astronomy but we have done some work in other areas such as looking at how the technique might be used for molecular simulations. David [Barnes] is working with a group in Germany on a type of 3D scan of seashells and they have found this technique to be very helpful."

Fluke says he and his Swinburne colleagues are excited by the opportunities digital publications provide that are impossible with the more traditional media. One of the motivators in developing the idea was that in using PDF "everything is self-contained". A problem with many research publications, he says, is that researchers go to a lot of trouble to include movies or other interactive devices by linking them to a website; but websites are transient whereas in a PDF format the text and 3D illustrations are all in the one file - "and we think that's important".

He says there has been a dramatic change in how research articles are published, with a steady trend away from physical, paper-based journals to fully online digital publications. Despite this, data sets in published papers have remained two dimensional, incorporating a series of static views.

Adobe introduced extensions to the PDF format in May last year. But, as Fluke says, the company was mainly concerned with what engineers could do with their CAD/CAM style diagrams. The Swinburne astronomers had a related problem with researchers trying to display data sets such as representing the dark matter halos that surround galaxies - complex structures that can only be fully appreciated via interactive 3D visualisations.

"Presenting findings in this way also gives readers the opportunity to scrutinise the research data themselves, rather than having to rely on the conclusions of the paper's author," Fluke says. "This gives other researchers the opportunity to confirm your own findings and it even gives readers the potential to make discoveries they didn't even know were there."

The astrophysicists have already had two papers published in the online academic journals New Astronomy and Astronomy Education Review. The reports not only discuss the new technique but also utilise it. (See

The method was created from a programming library at Swinburne called S2PLOT ( - an advanced three-dimensional plotting library with support for standard and enhanced display devices. It was developed by the researchers to simplify the creation of 3D science images and embed them into a PDF format. Fluke points out that S2PLOT is not public-domain software although it is freely available to researchers and education institutions.

* The changing seasons illustration was provided courtesy of Dr Fluke and Dr Barnes, Swinburne University of Technology.