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Schmidt had experimented with using Sunflow as a renderer directly from Processing, but this library turned out to be outdated for the current version of Processing.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.

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. []