For my Visualizations class the first project was to use screen scraping to get some set of usable data and make a very simple visualization using Many Eyes. I chose to scrape the Archinect Salary Poll for unknown, probably masochistic reasons. The data can be found in its very messy raw state here, and a simple scatter plot with substantially cleaner (but US only) data can be found here, or can be seen below. And yes, I doubt those 23 year old six figure incomes as well. I really wanted to get different colors for men and women, but unfortunately the software doesn’t do that. If someone wants to come up with a better looking plot have a blast.
Well, it’s official – my team project (with Arseni Zeitsev, Dena Molnar and Otto Ng) has been selected to be part of the MIT 150th anniversary celebration! The installation, similar to our project for Augmented Architecture last semester, will involve a large flexible grid of LED lights that respond interactively. I’ll keep you posted as to the progress…
Spoiler alert – in the next few months, you’re going to see a lot of noise from my corner about visualization, user experience, and games, as this is increasingly the concern of my thesis. Put very briefly, the current state of digital design environments are poorly situated to deal with both the overload of contextual and internal data involved in a project, and the interplay between flexibility and specificity that is necessary to explore the intersections and opportunities in that data. We have tools that can look at data (mostly with three-letter acronyms), and we have tools that are friendly to design (usually with fun, clever names), but very little that allows a bridge between the two. Autodesk is attempting to go a bit down this road with Vasari (as I mentioned a few weeks ago) and I feel that other, similar tools are not far off.
These kinds of tools, with immediate (hopefully real-time) feedback, clear metrics, and open interfaces, actually resemble games more than drawing or modeling interfaces. Actually, if you go by Chris Crawford’s definition, they are more accurately called toys or puzzles. This kind of interface is becoming increasingly familiar, whether it is an interactive graphic for the NYTimes or some kind of physics or geometry based puzzle. Many of these games (Tetris, for example) can actually be seen as a kind of human-based optimization algorithm, where people’s natural curiosity and competitiveness combines with an entertaining interface to incentivise the solving of a certain problem. Underscoring this trend would be Autodesk’s new game, Tinkerbox, for the iPad, which is a physics-based puzzle/toy/game (that appears to include some fancy stuff like linkages and inverse kinematics). It only takes a little creativity to imagine how this sort of interface could get applied to solving problems with bearing on real life:
The application of games to “real world” tasks has already been achieved in fold.it, where protein folding (a complicated geometrical problem that is difficult to solve computationally) has been turned into a game – like some sort of massively complex combination of tetris and a rubik’s cube:
This has been lauded as the “crowdsourcing” of science, but I think that’s actually pretty inaccurate. Crowdsourcing to me implies that they are tapping into a latent resource, but what is actually happening is much more clever. The first thing you have to do after installing fold.it is to go through a series of training tutorials – a common task at the beginning of every game. This particular set of practice games introduces you to the rules of protein folding, as well as the very clever interface (which I will cover in a later post). The game requires not only a fierce competitiveness, but also substantial three-dimensional visualization skills. I would argue that what is happening here is not crowdsourcing (which has actually been attempted with some success with Rosetta@home) but rather a search for people with the particular skills for this task, and a tool to allow them to show off their skills (and help cancer research in the process). In fact, in this Wired article it’s pretty clear that that was their goal from the start – the makers outright claim that they are “looking for prodigies.” What this highlights is that a well-designed game interface can allow for an incredible symbiosis between user and computer to produce results that would be impossible without such dedicated nuanced communication both ways. It’s not crowdsourcing- it’s some incredible new combination of translation and HR.
I have two conclusions to draw from all of this. One is that there is a whole world of puzzles that can draw from physical reality that haven’t been tried yet. What about a game based upon spring models? Or reticulation? Or thermodynamics? I’m no expert, so some of this probably has been tried, but it seems to be a wide field begging for exploration.
The other conclusion is that game environments are actually ideally suited to the design process. They provide an open-ended way to search through very complex and unpredictable problem domains, while allowing the user at every point to balance between quantitative and qualitative values. And while using some sort of “click and wait” or optimization process divorces the user from the problem, gaming your way to a solution keeps the user in constant direct interaction with the problem at hand.
It seems to me that in a few years, interacting with a model by moving sliders or modifying a matrix or table are going to seem hopelessly antiquated and slow, not to mention horrifically boring. It’s time to get physics, geometry, and the rest of the things we’re trying to compute out from behind the screen and poke at them in realtime, and see how they poke back.
A quick look into the future: here are some screenshots of some material density maps I made today playing around with topostruct, a tool made by Panagiotis Michalatos and Sawako Kaijima (they have also made other structural analysis and design tools that you should check out – educational versions are available on their website). I made these with a crowd of other GSD students, and we were all having a blast. Topology optimization is not a priori a thrilling topic, but the way this tool is put together makes it engaging. I, for one, am looking forward to a future where structural analysis can be as intuitive and innately enjoyable as sketching.