A landscape generated from silence

So a few weeks ago, before he went surfing in Morocco, m’colleague Alper reported in an elaborate fashion on the project he and I did for the artist Sarah van Sonsbeeck. If you’re into data visualization and information design and you haven’t read it already, I encourage you to do so right now. I thought I’d post some additions and comments to Alper’s post here, going into some details related to working with 3D graphics in Processing, aesthetic considerations, and some other bits.

Final rendering of the silence landscape

Dealing with 3D in Processing

As Alper writes, part of what we were doing involved generating a 3D landscape from the sound volume and location data Sarah had gathered. What I found was that working with 3D in Processing can be cumbersome, especially with regards to camera controls. I had a hard time getting a sense of the 3D model we were generating, since the camera controls I had at my disposal were limited and a hassle to use. I can imagine that if you do this kind of work a lot, you have a kind of container Processing sketch that has all the camera controls in place. I didn’t, so ultimately I decided to go to a tool that had all the camera controls already: Google SketchUp. I could have gone to a more professional tool such as 3ds Max or Maya, but SketchUp is freely available and suited me fine. Using Marius Watz’s unlekkerLib, I exported the geometry of our landscape to a DXF file and imported it to SketchUp and that was that.

An early Processing sketch attempting to generate a shape from the data


SketchUp is fine for manipulating and exploring a 3D model, but its rendering left something to be desired. It had been a while since I dabbled in 3D graphics (back in art school, making games) but I did recall that global illumination rendering yields pretty pictures. Sarah had told us from the outset that above everything else, it was important for the output of our exercise to be aesthetically pleasing. According to her, in the art world, beauty is paramount. So I did some Googling (as one does) and bumped into Sunflow. Karsten Schmidt had experimented with using Sunflow as a renderer directly from Processing, but this library turned out to be outdated for the current version of Processing. There is however, a Sunflow exporter for Sketchup. So I used Sketchup to set up the basics of the scene I wanted to render (camera angle and such) exported and then manually edited the resulting Sunflow file. The Sunflow wiki was a great help for understanding the anatomy of the Sunflow file format. In addition, this page, which shows examples of many shader settings, was very helpful when it came to figuring out the materials we ended up using. A snow-like material with a “sun sky” light, which makes the whole thing look like Antarctica, seemed like a good fit for the subject; silence.

An intermediate rendering of the landscape done with SketchUp


Alper rightly points out neither of us is a graphic designer. But this does not mean certain aesthetic considerations came into play during this project. For instance, towards the end, we had renderings of the landscape floating above an infinite plane, as if it’s an object of sorts. I felt this did not do justice to the concept we were pursuing, so we eventually decided to merge the mesh with the underlying plane. We achieved this by simply adding a band of average noise level around the datascape and regenerating it. Optically, thanks to the nice illumination in Sunflow, there is no border between the landscape and the plane that recedes to the horizon.

A Sunflow rendering of the landscape, still floating above the ground

There’s more to be said about this project but I feel like wrapping up. A few final words with regards to the utility of this piece as data visualization then. I think from this perspective it is practically useless. As a piece of graphic art that provides a visceral sense of the data gathered by Sarah during her walks however, I think it is quite successful. Keep in mind she’s used this as part of another publication, where a set of annotations is overlaid on it.

I would also love to do an interactive version of this, allowing for free movement through the 3D space, as well as additional information layers with annotations by the artist and geographic context. Who knows, we might come around to this some time.

But for now, this is it: a picture of a landscape, generated from silence.

Work now so you can play later

There’s a lot going on at the Leapfrog studio, which explains at least in part why things have gone quiet around here. However, I wanted to take the time to alert you to some upcoming events that might be of interest.

An urban game in the Rotterdam city center

On Sunday September 27 around 50 young people will play an urban game I designed for Your World — Rotterdam European Youth Capital 2009.1 It is part of a two-day event called Change Your World, which enables groups of youth to set up a new ‘movement’ with financial support and advice from professionals. You might want to hang around the Rotterdam city center during the day, to witness what is sure to be an interesting spectacle. More info should show up soon enough at the Your World website.

A pervasive game in the Hoograven neighborhood of Utrecht

Around the same time, from September 18 to October 11, you’ll be able to play Koppelkiek in the Hoograven area of Utrecht. This is a game I’ve created for the Dutch Design Double program.2 To play, you take photos of yourself with others in a range of situations and upload them to the game’s website. It’s designed to subtly permeate your daily life. With the help of our players we’re hoping to create a collection of photos that provide a unique look into life in the neighborhood. Do join in if you’re in the area. Also, we’ll have a playtest on September 16. If you’re interested in playing a round or two, drop me a line.3

Data visualizations of silence

I’m wrapping up some data visualization work I’ve done for the artist Sarah van Sonsbeeck.4 Sarah’s work revolves (amongst other things) around the concept of silence. Alper and I took a dataset she generated during a few of her ‘silence walks’ using a GPS tracker and a sound level meter and created a number of static visualizations in Processing. Some of the output can be seen at the exhibition Een Dijk van een Kust. More will probably be on display at another occasion. Also, I’ve learnt some new tricks that I intend to share here soon.

What else, what else…

  • I’m still meaning to write something up about the work that went into Mega Monster Battle Arena™ but it will have to wait. I attended two of the three shows and enjoyed both throughly. There’s some photos up at the opera’s website.
  • We’re in the process of finishing up the This happened – Utrecht #3 videos. Once they’re all done we’ll add them to the event’s page on the .org site along with the slides. Planning for our fourth event has already started. Mark your calendar for October 26 and subscribe to our newsletter so you won’t miss the registration’s opening.
  • And finally, I’m slowly but surely giving shape to a new venture which will focus on the use of play in public space to effect social change. Its name is Hubbub. The crazy designers at BUROPONY are developing a sweet brand identity and a first placeholder site is up. Stay tuned for more news on that.

That’s about it for now, thanks for your attention. I promise to provide content with more meat and less self-promotion in upcoming posts.

  1. Karel Millenaar, game designer extraordinaire at FourceLabs and a fellow resident of the Dutch Game Garden, has helped me out on this one. []
  2. I’ve asked Tijmen Schep of PineppleJazz, NetNiet.org and the new Utrecht medialab to be my partner on this one. []
  3. Around the same time a lot of other interesting stuff related to design and society will be going on, such as the third edition of Utrecht Manifest, the biennial for social design. []
  4. I was turned on to this gig by the ubiquitous Alper Çuğun. []

Download my travel-time map

I am a bit nervous about doing this, but since several people asked, here goes: You can now download the travel-time map of the Netherlands I made in Processing. I have exported applications for Linux, Mac OS X and Windows. Each download includes the source files, but not the data file. For that, you will need to head to Alper’s site (he’s the guy who pulled the data from 9292 and ANWB). I hope you’ll enjoy playing around with this, or learn something from the way it was put together.

Some notes, in no particular order:

  • Please remember I am not a programmer. The vast majority of this sketch was put together from bits and pieces of code I found in books and online. I have tried to credit all the sources in the code. The full write-up I posted earlier should point you to all the sources too. In short; all the good bits are by other people, the bad code is mine. But who cares, it’s the end-result that counts (at least for me).
  • Related to the previous point is the fact that I cannot figure out under which license (if any) to release this. So the usual CC by-nc-sa license applies, as far as I’m concerned.
  • If this breaks your computer, offends you, makes you cry, or eats your kittens, do not come knocking. This is provided as is, no warranties whatsoever, etc.
  • Why am I nervous? Probably because for me the point of the whole exercise was the process, not the outcome.
  • I can’t think of anything else. Have fun.

Playing With Complexity — slides and notes for my NLGD Festival of Games talk

When the NLGD Foundation invited me to speak at their anual Festival of Games I asked them what they would like me to discuss. “Anything you like,” was what they said, essentially. I decided to submit an abstract dealing with data visualization. I had been paying more and more attention to this field, but was unsuccessful in relating it the other themes running through my work, most notably play. So I thought I’d force myself to tackle this issue by promising to speak about it. Often a good strategy, I’ve found. If it worked out this time I leave for you to judge.

In brief, in the presentation I argue two things: one — that the more sophisticated applications of interactive data visualization resemble games and toys in many ways, and two — that game design can contribute to the solutions to several design issues I have detected in the field of data visualization.

Below are the notes for the talk, slightly edited, and with references included. The full deck of slides, which includes credits for all the images used, is up on SlideShare.

Hello everyone, my name is Kars Alfrink. I am a Dutch interaction designer and I work freelance. At the moment I work in Copenhagen, but pretty soon I will be back here in Utrecht, my lovely hometown.

In my work I focus on three areas: mobility, social interactions, and play. Here is an example of my work: These are storyboards that explore possible applications of multitouch technology in a gated community. Using these technologies I tried to compensate for the negative effects a gated community has on the build-up of social capital. I also tried to balance ‘being-in-the-screen’ with ‘being-in-the-world’ — multitouch technologies tend to be very attention-absorbing, but in built environments this is often not desirable.1

I am not going to talk about multitouch though. Today’s topic is data visualization and what opportunities there are for game designers in that field. My talk is roughly divided in three parts. First, I will briefly describe what I think data visualization is. Next, I will look at some applications beyond the very obvious. Third and last, I will discuss some design issues involved with data visualization. For each of these issues, I will show how game design can contribute.

Right, let’s get started.

Continue reading Playing With Complexity — slides and notes for my NLGD Festival of Games talk

  1. For more background on this project please see this older blog post. More examples of my recent work can be found in my portfolio. []