When graphics are the real deal

IT IN THE CITY; Elaborate images could soon make stockbroking as exciting as playing Doom, says Andrew Orlowski
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Indy Lifestyle Online
When the stock market crashed in October 1987, an abiding image was of rows of computer screens filled with bright red figures. Rows of figures still dominate the screens that sit on City desks, but they may not do so for much longer. When the next crash comes, one trader says, "it will look more like a video game".

Sophisticated graphics will take the place of figures, enabling traders to see at a glance whether prices are moving up or sideways, and at what speed. The breakthrough came with the advent of digital feeds, instead of the traditional video feeds, explains Matthew Frost, of Sun Microsystems. "People soon realised that with data in a much more flexible format, you can do a whole lot more than just number-crunching."

In the Eighties, City terminals were "dumb", simply a way of conversing with a mainframe. Now, as in other offices, powerful but inexpensive personal computers are finding their way on to the desks. Reuters, one of the main financial information providers, markets its PC-based RTW workstation to over 20,000 users in the UK. The package requires only a 486 computer with 16 megabytes of memory, and as Mark Hunt, marketing manager of Reuters, explains, "you don't need a rocket ship to run it on."

The path from little numbers to fancy graphics was started by the traders themselves. Using spreadsheet packages on their PCs, they found they could easily convert figures into graphs. By setting these up as live links, they could sit back and watch the market as a live linear graph. A more formal relationship developed as the benefits of performing technical analysis graphically became apparent. Now a trader can click on a price and drop it into an Excel spreadsheet.

In such areas as risk management and the derivatives market, however, the problems are more complex.

Ian Green, product development manager at Sunguard Capital Investments, describes how a customer, even after paring data to the minimum, is still left with "about six or seven dimensions". A simple graph will give you two dimensions, a third dimension can easily be added by perspective and others can come from movement. For example, one screen demonstrated by Fusion Systems recently showed different-shaped "chess pieces" spinning at varying angles: the shapes and the angles all provided information on different aspects of a financial asset. Beyond this, different windows on a screen can allow you to compare further variables: you can click on one picture and jump to another to provide further information. In the future, virtual reality will enable to you to "move" through the screen, finding information as you go. Hence the "video game" of the next crash.

But these graphics may also help to prevent people being caught out by the crash. "Correlations between figures which might not have been visible can now be identified, and users have the tools to query them," says Bernice Rogowitz at IBM's Yorktown complex in New York. "You can get a lot of information from this pretty, blobby picture." The techniques are not new, she says, but we are only now beginning to use them. "Such is the computing power of the new workstations, users aren't penalised for exploring."

Silicon Graphics, which has already brought advanced animation to projects such as the Met Office's long-range weather centre in Reading, announced it was entering the financial services market last week. The graphics card on Silicon Graphics' new Indigo2 workstation contains 18 million transistors, which the company claims perform the equivalent work of hundreds of Pentium chips.

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