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. []