see conference videos – Ben Fry, Bruce Sterling

I’ve been watching the videos from the see conference #3.

Ben Fry

Ben Fry takes a whirlwind tour through his Masters thesis ‘Organic Information Design’ and PhD dissertation ‘Computational Information Design’ and then looks at his current projects and those of his students.

I like his description of the data visualisation process as moving from Data to Understanding through the following actions:

aquire -> parse -> filter -> mine -> represent -> refine -> interact

He showed a good diagram of this from his PhD thesis and explained that one of the problems is that these steps have been spread across different disciplines.

During his PhD he developed some software that combined all the types of representation (at that time) of human genome project genetic data and let you interactively explore the different ways of seeing the same data. (Available on his website – isometricblocks). He demonstrated a visualisation of a genetic search algorithm (a version is available at MIT – genome valence).

Recently he has been working with a friend of his, John Underkoffler, who developed the gestural interface animation used in the film Minority Report. After the movie, John decided to try to make a real interface that works with gestures. The software is called G.Speak and the company he founded is Oblong Technologies. Ben has used the software for a project visualising the traffic data from Los Angeles. He gave a demonstration of his software, although without the gestural interface. The gesture interface lets people collaborate on the information and move around a lot of data easily on the large screens.

He describes his development process as starting with a sketch to see what sort of patterns there are in the data. He then looks for what is interesting, and tries to mine out the most interesting bits. He expands on this during the question and answer session at the end of his talk – “Do several dumb things first and then try to be a bit smarter about it”.

He likes using Processing because it lets him develop sketches quickly – it can’t handle quite as much data as C++ could, but the trade off for the development speed is what he thinks is important.

Another comment that he makes to support the importance of rapid development is that refining the visualisation requires stripping out the less interesting/useful bits, which means that you will have to discard a lot of the work that you have done along the way.

Bruce Sterling

Bruce Sterling discusses when is it better to have a visualisation than the thing. His first example is money, a symbol of wealth. Much easier than having to barter. Other examples are medical scans, house buying via internet, stock certificates instead of an assembly line. He runs through his book “Shaping Things”. The images of the diagram he uses are available on Flickr.

He talks about SPIMES “A theoretical object that can be tracked precisely in space and time over the lifetime of the object.” and how ubiquitous computing and lifecycle tracking of SPIMES can help sustainability.

In the question/answer session he says that one of the big impacts of SPIMES is to be able to do a time and motion study of your stuff. He thinks that would make it easy to get rid of lots of stuff – press the F1 key and put everything you haven’t used for two years onto eBay.

He thinks that we would find that many of the things we think we value really don’t have utility for us – they would be amongst the things we don’t use. You use your bed for about 1/3 of your time so “why do you have family silverware and a bed that hurts your back?”

He thinks that this lifecycle tracking will start in small places like a hospital or a ship and then if it is useful it will spread in the same way that the internet spread. The ‘internet of things’.

Asked about optimism or pessimism he says “you need to become the change you want to see – this should be a fulfilling thing.”

He highly recommends visiting the Design and the Elastic Mind exhibition at MoMA (there is an online exhibition as well). He says “it will turn your head right around” “it is one of the coolest ones I’ve ever seen”.

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