Moving Beyond Two Dimensions

Paper and screens are two-dimensional.

We live in a three-dimensional world.

For visualizing three-dimensional data we can take advantage of our visual system’s ability to reconstruct three dimensional scenes from two-dimensional images using:

Most of us have no intuition for four and more dimensions.

Some techniques that work in three dimensions but can also be used in higher dimensions:

Higher dimensions maybe up to ten; the curse of dimensionality is a limiting factor.

The lattice package provides some facilities not easily available in ggplot so I will use lattice in a few examples.

Scatterplot Matrices

A scatterplot matrix is a useful overview that shows all pairwise scatterplots.

There are many options for creating scatterplot matrices in R; a few are:

Some examples using the mpg data:

splom(select(mpg, cty, hwy, displ),
      cex = 0.5, pch = 19)

ggpairs(select(mpg, cty, hwy, displ),
        lower = list(continuous =
                              size = 1)))

Some variations:

Some things to look for in the panels:


Three Data Sets

Thee useful data sets to explore:

Ethanol Data

The ethanol data frame in the lattice package contains data from an experiment on efficiency and emissions in small one-cylinder engines.

The data frame contains 88 observations on three variables:

  • NOx: Concentration of nitrogen oxides (NO and NO2) in micrograms.

  • C Compression ratio of the engine.

  • E Equivalence ratio, a measure of the richness of the air and ethanol fuel mixture.

A scatterplot matrix:

splom(ethanol, ced = 0.5, pch = 19)

A goal is to understand the relationship between the pollutant NOx and the controllable variables E and C.

Soil Resistivity Data

Data from Cleveland’s Visualizing Data book contains measurements of soil resistivity of an agricultural field along a roughly rectangular grid.

A scatterplot matrix of the resistivity, northing and easting variables:

if (! file.exists("soil.dat"))
soil <- read.table("soil.dat")
splom(soil[1 : 3], cex = 0.1, pch = 19)

The data is quite noisy but there is some structure.

A goal is to understand how resistivity varies across the field.

Earth Quake Locations and Magnitudes

The quakes data frame contains data on locations of seismic events of magnitude 4.0 or larger in a region near Fiji.

The time frame is from 1964 to perhaps 2000.

More recent data is available from a number of sources on the web.

A scatter plot matrix:

splom(quakes, cex = 0.1, pch = 19)

Quake locations:

md <- map_data("world2", c("Fiji", "Tonga", "New Zealand"))
ggplot(quakes, aes(long, lat)) +
    geom_polygon(aes(group = group), data = md, color = "black", fill = NA) +
    geom_point(size = 0.5, color = "red") +
    coord_map() +

Some goals:

  • understand the three-dimensional location of the quakes;

  • see if there is any association between location and magnitude.

Grouping for Conditioning

For the ethanol data there are only a small number of distinct levels for C.

This suggests considering a plot mapping the level to color.

       aes(E, NOx,
           color = C)) +
    geom_point(size = 2)

A qualitative scheme can help distinguish the levels.

       aes(E, NOx,
           color = factor(C))) +
    geom_point(size = 2)

Adding smooths further helps the visual grouping:

       aes(E, NOx,
           color = factor(C))) +
    geom_point(size = 2) +
    geom_smooth(se = FALSE)

Some observations:

For the quakes data, breaking the depth values into thirds gives some insights:

quakes2 <-
           depth_cut = cut_number(depth, 3))
ggplot(quakes2, aes(x = long,
                    y = lat,
                    color = depth_cut)) +
    geom_point() +
    theme_bw() +

Conditioning Plots (Coplots)

One way to try to get a handle on higher dimensional data is to try to fix values of some variables and visualize the values of others in 2D.

This can be done with

A conditioning plot, or coplot:

For the soil resistivity data, a coplot of resistivity against easting, conditioning on northing with bins of size 0.5:

p1 <- ggplot(soil,
             aes(easting, resistivity)) +
    geom_point(size = 0.5) +
    facet_wrap(~ cut_width(northing,
                           width = 0.5,
                           center = 0))

Adding a smooth is often helpful.

With a large amount of data the smooth is hard to see.

Some options:

This uses a muted representation of the data:

p2 <- ggplot(soil,
             aes(easting, resistivity)) +
    geom_point(size = 0.5,
               color = "lightgrey") +
    facet_wrap(~ cut_width(northing,
                           width = 0.5,
                           center = 0)) +

The conditioning bins are quite wide.

Using rounding and keeping only points within 0.05 of the rounded values reduces the variability:

soil_trm <-
           nrnd = round(northing * 2) / 2) %>%
    filter(abs(northing - nrnd) < 0.05)
p1 %+% soil_trm +
    facet_wrap(~ cut_width(northing,
                           width = 0.1,
                           center = 0))

p2 %+% soil_trm +
    facet_wrap(~ cut_width(northing,
                           width = 0.1,
                           center = 0))

For the quakes data a plot of latitude against longitude conditioned on three depth levels:

qthm <- theme(panel.border = element_rect(color = "grey30", fill = NA))
ggplot(quakes2, aes(x = long, y = lat)) +
    geom_point(color = scales::muted("blue"),
               size = 0.5) +
    facet_wrap(~ depth_cut,
               nrow = 1) +
    coord_map() +

The relative positions of the depth groups are much harder to see than in the grouped conditioning plot.

Adding the full data for background context, and using a more intense color for the panel subset, helps a lot:

## quakes does not contain the depth_cut
## variable used in the facet
ggplot(quakes2, aes(x = long, y = lat)) +
    geom_point(data = quakes,
               color = "gray", size = 0.5) +
    geom_point(color = "blue", size = 0.5) +
    facet_wrap(~ depth_cut, nrow = 1) +
    coord_map() +

Switching latitude and depth shows another aspect:

quakes3 <-
           lat_cut = cut_width(lat,
                               width = 5,
                               boundary = 0))
ggplot(quakes3, aes(x = long, y = depth)) +
    geom_point(data = quakes,
               color = "gray", size = 0.5) +
    geom_point(color = "blue", size = 0.5) +
    scale_y_reverse() +
    facet_wrap(~ lat_cut) +

Coplot for the ethanol data:

ggplot(ethanol, aes(x = E, y = NOx)) +
    geom_point() +
    facet_wrap(~ C)

Adding muted full data for context:

ggplot(ethanol, aes(x = E, y = NOx)) +
    geom_point(color = "grey",
               data = mutate(ethanol, C = NULL)) +
    geom_point() +
    facet_wrap(~ C)

Contour and Level Plots for Surfaces

A number of methods can be used to estimate a smooth signal surface as a function of the two location variables.

One option is the loess local polynomial smoother; another is gam from package mgcv.

The estimated surface level can be computed on a grid of points using the predict method of the fit.

These estimated surfaces can be visualized using contour plots or level plots.

m <- loess(resistivity ~ easting * northing, span = 0.25,
           degree = 2, data = soil)
eastseq <- seq(.15, 1.410, by = .015)
northseq <- seq(.150, 3.645, by = .015)
soi.grid <- expand.grid(easting = eastseq, northing = northseq) <- predict(m, soi.grid) <- mutate(soi.grid, fit = as.numeric(

Contour Plots

Contour plots compute contours, or level curves, as polygons at a set of levels.

Contour plots draw the level curves, often with a level annotation.

Contour plots can also have their polygons filled in with colors representing the levels.

A basic contour plot of the fit soil resistivity surface in ggplot using geom_contour:

p <- ggplot(,
            aes(x = easting,
                y = northing,
                z = fit)) +
p + geom_contour()

Neither lattice nor ggplot seem to make it easy to fill in the contours.

The base function filled.contour is available for this:

cm.rev <- function(...) rev(cm.colors(...))
filled.contour(eastseq, northseq,,
               asp = 1,
               color.palette = cm.rev)

Level Plots

A level plot colors a grid spanned by two variables by the color of a third variable.

Level plots are also called image plots

The term heat map is also used, in particular with a specific color scheme.

But heat map often means a more complex visualization with an image plot at its core.

ggplot provides geom_tile that can be used for a level plot:

p + geom_tile(aes(fill = fit)) +
        colors = rev(cm.colors(100)))

Superimposing contours on a level plot is often helpful.

p + geom_tile(aes(fill = fit)) +
    geom_contour() +
        colors = rev(cm.colors(100)))

Level plots do not require computing contours, but are not not as smooth as filled contour plots.

Visually, image plots and filled contour plots are very similar for fine grids, but image plots are less smooth for coarse ones.

Lack of smoothness is less of an issue when the data values themselves are noisy.

The grid for the volcano data set is coarser and illustrates the lack of smoothness.

vd <- expand.grid(x = seq_len(nrow(volcano)), y = seq_len(ncol(volcano)))
vd$z <- as.numeric(volcano)
ggplot(vd, aes(x, y, fill = z)) +
    geom_tile() +
    scale_fill_gradientn(colors = rev(cm.colors(100))) +

A filled.contour plot looks like this:

               nlevels = 10,
               color.palette = cm.rev,
               asp = 1)

A coarse grid can be interpolated to a finer grid.

Irregularly spaced data can also be interpolated to a grid.

The interp function in the akima or interp packages is useful for this kind of interpolation.

(interp has a more permissive license.)

Three-Dimensional Views

There are several options for viewing surfaces or collections of points as three-dimensional objects:

Fixed Views

The lattice function cloud() shows a projection of a rotated point cloud in three dimensions.

For the soil resistivity data:

cloud(resistivity ~ easting * northing,
      pch = 19, cex = 0.1, data = soil)

For the quakes data:

cloud(-depth ~ long * lat,
      data = quakes)

A surface can also be visualized using a wire frame plot showing a 3D view of the surface from a particular viewpoint.

A simple wire frame plot is often sufficient.

Lighting and shading can be used to enhance the 3D effect.

A basic wire frame plot for the volcano data:

wireframe(z ~ x * y,
          data = vd,
          aspect = c(61 / 89, 0.3))

Wire frame is a bit of a misnomer since surface panels in front occlude lines behind them.

For a fine grid, as in the soil surface, the lines are too dense.

The use of shading for the surfaces can help.

wireframe(z ~ x * y,
          data = vd,
          aspect = c(61 / 89, 0.3),
          shade = TRUE)

A wire frame plot with shading for the fit soil resistivity surface:

asp <- with(soi.grid,
            diff(range(northing)) /
wf <- wireframe( ~
        soi.grid$easting * soi.grid$northing,
    aspect = asp, shade = TRUE,
    screen = list(z = -50, x = -30),
    xlab = "Easting (km",
    ylab = "Northing (km)")

Both ways of looking at a surface are useful:

lv <-
    levelplot( ~
                  soi.grid$easting *
              cuts = 9,
              aspect = asp,
              contour = TRUE,
              xlab = "Easting (km)",
              ylab = "Northing (km)")
print(lv, split = c(1, 1, 2, 1),
      more = TRUE)
print(wf, split = c(2, 1, 2, 1))

  • The level plot/contour representation is useful for recognizing locations of key features.

  • The wire frame view helps build a mental model of the 3D structure.

  • Being able to interactively adjust the viewing position for a wire frame model greatly enhances our ability to understand the 3D structure.

Interactive 3D Plots Using OpenGL

OpenGL is a standardized framework for high performance graphics.

The rgl package provides an R interface to some of OpenGL’s capabilities.

WebGL is a JavaScript framework for using OpenGL within a browser window.

Most desktop browsers support WebGL; some mobile browsers do as well.

In some cases support may be available but not enabled by default. You may be able to get help at

knitr and rgl provide support for embedding OpenGL images in web pages.

It is also possible to embed OpenGL images in PDF files, but not all PDF viewers support this.

Start by creating the fit surface data frame.

soil <- read.table("")
m <- loess(resistivity ~ easting * northing, span = 0.25,
           degree = 2, data = soil)
eastseq <- seq(.15, 1.410, by = .015)
northseq <- seq(.150, 3.645, by = .015)
soi.grid <- expand.grid(easting = eastseq, northing = northseq) <- predict(m, soi.grid) <- mutate(soi.grid, fit = as.numeric(

This code run in R will open a new window containing an interactive 3D scene (but this may not work on FastX and is not available on the RStudio server):

bg3d(color = "white")
par3d(mouseMode = "trackball")
surface3d(eastseq, northseq,
 / 100,
          color = rep("red", length(

This will work in the RStudio notebook server:

options(rgl.useNULL = TRUE)
bg3d(color = "white")
par3d(mouseMode = "trackball")
surface3d(eastseq, northseq,
 / 100,
          color = rep("red", length(

To embed an image in an HTML document, first set the webgl hook with a code chunk like this:

knitr::knit_hooks$set(webgl = rgl::hook_webgl)
options(rgl.useNULL = TRUE)

Then a chunk with the option webgl = TRUE can produce an embedded OpenGL image:

bg3d(color = "white")
par3d(mouseMode = "trackball")
surface3d(eastseq, northseq,
 / 100,
          color = rep("red", length(