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

Rendering

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

Aesthetics

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. []