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Tech craft made for politeness

16 Dec

In today’s world, we’re constantly connected.  We use our phones to constantly tweet, check Facebook, and read e-mail.  Sometimes technology is wonderfully convenient – we’re always abreast of the most current information.  Other times texting and constantly staring at your phone is just plain rude – just ask anyone who’s ever been on a date with seems to be connected to his/her iPhone via an umbilical cord.  Luckily there’s now a whimsical solution – the Phonekerchief.


The Phonekerchief combines the old-timey style of a handkerchief with new technology.  It’s made of a special fabric that shields emf  (electromagnetic fields) and blocks cell phone transmissions.  As the article on the product points out – why is this any different from simply turning off your phone?  Perhaps this Phonekerchief, with the clear message “My phone is off for you”, is more than just courtesy.  It’s not simply choosing to turn your phone off.  It’s publicly acknowledging that yes, phones interfere with quality face-to-face social interaction.  It’s also letting the other person know that, no, their date is not simply not receiving calls.   They are REFUSING calls.  For you.  It seems like such a dramatic/romantic statement, I’d almost be embarrassed if my date wore one of these.  I guess I’ve forgotten about the days of not having a cell phone!

I very much like how the nostalgic air of the Phonekerchief matches the nostalgia of a pre-cell phone society.  Maybe refusing to be constantly connected will become a hipster throwback trend.  I think I might go delete my Facebook right now…

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Ben Shneiderman and Data Visualization

18 Oct

Last Wednesday I attended a talk by Ben Shneiderman at Wellesley.  He mostly spoke about his research in the field of data visualization – basically exploring new ways to present large sets of data.  Not surprisingly, the talk was *very* well attended…I even saw a few professors from the art department which seemed random (or so I thought).

Ben showed a few examples of how powerful alternate methods of visualization can be.  He presented a set of data in tabular form and then showed the same data plotted on a graph.  Immediately obvious was that although the data sets had the same means, the actual functions that described the data were completely different!  It was pretty amazing to be able to find relationships between data points in less than 1 second.

In addition to convincing the audience that data visualization was indeed a powerful tool, Ben let us explore some of his specific projects and tools that he uses to find different patterns.  Ben developed tree maps, which are pretty awesome:

He used these tree maps to show how we can find anomalies and trend in things like stock patterns very quickly.  For example, he showed what the tree map looked like when only one group of companies (for example, the tech industry) is succeeding while others are experiencing a fall in their stock prices.

Along these lines, I really like the idea of taking a nebulous of unstructured data points and producing meaning.  Since I’ve been working on a thesis to create large interactive spaces, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about how I can use very simple sensor data to produce BIG, inspiring results within a space.  I like the idea of having an installation that can leverage a simplistic sensor network and work in conjunction with users to capture and expand upon simple patterns in data.  Much like Ben’s talk, I definitely think the way you choose to present data is directly related to how much attention the data will garner.  For example, if I keep track of traffic patterns in an academic building, I could choose to post a list of statistics on a wall.  Alternately, I could use light and color installations to ambiently highlight areas of high movement.  By exploring more innovative ways of looking at information, we can leverage the kinds of input that humans are naturally attracted to in order to draw attention to interesting occurrences.

Sandscape and Illuminating Clay in the Context of TUI Frameworks

24 Sep

Sandscape and Illuminating Clay, projects by the Tangible Media Group at the MIT Media Lab, are TUIs for landscaping and architectural modeling that allow users to mold organic materials to actively construct a model of their design.  A camera or laser detects the changes in the physical environment and models the changes on a computer display.  In addition, information such as wind flow is projected directly onto the physical model, allowing the user to dynamically see how their model will interact with the environment.

Like most TUIs, Sandscape and Illuminating Clay aspire to enhance a user’s experience behind the tired and true “WIMP” (window, icon, mouse, pointing device) interface.  While there is indeed a display screen involved in this project, these projects are more akin to playing in a sandbox than playing a computer game.  This TUI contains many of the elements of a “Reality-based Interaction” framework, which is described in “Reality-based Interaction: A Framework for Post-WIMP Interfaces”.

Reality-Based Interaction (RBI) Themes:

Naive Physics (NP):

These featured TUIS heavily take advantage of a user’s sense of naive physics- a user will be able to sense when a landscape structure is precarious or unstable rather than relying on a computer’s computation.  Much more intuitive than a CAD program, the user is able to mold, build up, and depress the material instinctively instead of searching through a library of complex extruding, sweeping, or filleting options.

Body Awareness and Skills (BAS):

The dexterity present in the human hand is much greater than the dexterity possessed by a mouse pointer.  When we mold sand and clay with our fingertips, we are able to delicately press and mold exact features.  We are much more in-tune with our fingers than features in a software program.

Environmental Awareness and Skills (EAP):

In both of these TUIs, the user is able to model environmental conditions, projecting additional information onto the organic form.  With both TUIs, users can view information about elevation, water flow, etc. designated by the color gradient projected onto it’s surface.  As the user manipulates the material, they can see how the changes they make directly influence how the landscape interacts with the environment.  In this way, users are not limited by being unable to physically model all factors they would want to consider while landscaping a space.

Social Awareness and Skills (SAS):

Rather than using one input (a mouse), multiple users are able to create a model together.  A large rectangular container allows at least 4 people to stand on each side and make their own respective changes to a model.  One user can literally “make suggestions” to a model by molding another person’s creation.  These TUIs would also allow persons unfamiliar with computer modeling software to design a landscape.  For instance, a sculpture artist that has no previous experience with landscaping but creates beautiful forms may be able to translate their art into a designer landscape.

Tradeoffs:

1)  There is no “undo” button.  While a digital representation of a model may be preserved, it may be difficult to return to a previous version of the physical model once changes have been made.  Users have to be judicious when deciding to make major changes.

2)  The physical model is most likely not permanent.  Clay dries out.  Sand degrades.  Not to mention that once you’ve created a physical model, you cannot make a different model until you destroy the first one.  Both of these TUIs are likely intended for exploratory models.  I assume permanent digital models will have to be created in any case.

3) Textures and complex shapes may be difficult to mold.  Some shapes are more easily created with a computer.  When attempting to repeat similar shapes or structures, users interacting with these TUIs would have to hand-mold the same shape over and over if they do not already possess multiple tokens resembling their design.  In addition, when it comes to “perfect” shapes, computers are better than humans.  We leave fingerprints and may frequently mold uneven shapes.