Emerging technologies: New ways for shared experiences

Victorian travel

Recently, Rebecca Solnit in The Guardian described the year 1995, as that old, slow world you could describe the way George Eliot described life before the railroad.

Solnit goes on to describe her stately 1995 routine: She read the newspaper in the morning, listened to the news in the evening and received other news via letter once a day. Her computer was unconnected and so, behaved like a word processor on a desk.

Nowadays, her computer is more like a cocktail party full of chatter increasingly fragmented streams of news and data, leaving Solnit to feel like an anachronism in this completely different world.

As a computer scientist in 1995, my experience was quite different. I already had my first webpage: ‘Hello World!’ and felt connected. I was a graphics programmer and HCI researcher, and I loved sharing information on newsgroups or by email. I lived in Switzerland and was thrilled when the UK newspapers went online. I no longer had to wait for day old news from good old Blighty. Technology helped my research and enriched my life daily.

Ten years on, I trained to be a journalist. During the course, we were told to read all the newspapers everyday and then pitch articles which were very similar to the ones already in the paper. Anniversaries of public events and the deaths, marriages of famous people, were always good fodder to fill up the papers. And a spot of ambulance chasing could get you that human interest story.

It did strike me as all a bit old-fashioned. So, I shouldn’t be so surprised that Solnit feels left behind. This new technology is threatening her way of life when really it could be helping her. And it is interesting that Solnit compares the rate of change today with the Victorian railroads and the fast changing world back then. It is a satisfying comparison.

Alison Byerly, in her book, Are we there yet? Virtual travel and Victorian realism recently reviewed in the TLS, compares chat rooms to railway carriages, SimCity to hot air balloons, and blog links to K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat. She also gives a lovely example of Victorian armchair travel when she describes Albert Smith’s Ascent of Mont Blanc (1851-6), which was an interactive scene of a full scale chalet exterior, a pool of water containing live fish, and ten Saint Bernards who would trot about the auditorium delivering packets to chocolate to children. Smith targeted people who would never actually go to Mont Blanc. It was too far and too expensive to travel in their lifetimes. But they could go along to his exhibition and experience the thrill of the ascent.

Today, with a click of a button, we can watch footage of people climbing Mont Blanc and eating chocolate on YouTube. Byerly mentions virtual reality (VR) as another parallel for Smith’s exhibition: but really how many people do you know have a head-mounted display and data-gloves? And really is VR what we need? After, it is a shared experience we are seeking, something we can talk about and take part in together in order to understand. Elsewhere in her book, Byerly gives examples of Victorian full-scale recreations of train crashes and other disasters.

Recently, the New York Times ran a long feature called Snow Fall online about an avalanche at Tunnel Creak, Stevens pass, Washington. There are slide shows of the deceased and their families, pictures of the history of Tunnel Pass, and a computer-generated simulation of the avalanche. It is a great piece of journalism enriched beautifully by technology. It is the modern day equivalent of the Victorian exhibitions.

According to Wikipedia, journalism began in 1400s. Italian and German businessmen wrote down the latest news and circulated it to their connections in the city. The practice grew, especially during wartime so that the people back home would know what was going on. Journalists were providing a service – informing and updating peoples’ lives.

And, now we have access to the latest news all the time. From the simple #hashtag on twitter to longer news articles which are presented in a magazine format by Flipboard. But it is not always new information that we need. Sometimes, we need in depth analysis and explanation, a shared experience, a shared understanding.

At best, journalists are recorders of our time. They bring us life changing historical events, perceived injustices, and remind us of things we should never forget. They write it down and revisit so that we don’t forget. Good journalists articulate our thoughts and connect to our minds. Now they can do this better than ever with insightful visualisation whilst connecting information to give us insight and enlightenment.

Magazine mogul, Chris Anderson, started the TED talks because he felt that television wasn’t challenging enough and he believed intellectual mobility was the future. In an article in the Guardian, Anderson talks about crowd-accelerated learning, and bringing intellectual stimulus and experience to YouTube audiences by the world’s leading thinkers.

The positive adoption of technology by broadcast media and TV networks (like OWN) and some journalists is exciting. Many broadcast and media courses now teach emerging technologies and so the potential is there to create enriching and enlightening features that educate us all.

Emerging journalism: a new way of sharing experiences.

Human-computer interaction: Can you see what it is yet?

check out the video of this interface on ted.com

The recent furore over the 2012 Olympics Logo reminds me of how people react to the user interfaces they find on everything they interact with, from websites to washing machines. If an interface, like a logo, is well-designed, no one notices or mentions it. If it is difficult or unsightly, people complain loudly and when given a choice, won’t use an interface they don’t like. Interaction designers, like IT support staff, are never thanked when all is well and severely criticised when interfaces cause users problems. Continue reading “Human-computer interaction: Can you see what it is yet?”

Visualisation: Information is power – just avoid drowning in data

 Map of Great Fire of London Copyright © The British Library Board.
(The Great Fire of London map at the British Library website)

In the 1530s when Henry VIII realised that dissolving the monastries would get him much needed assets, he commissioned a map of London, paying particular attention to ‘lawless’ Southwark. He wanted to see if the borough had any money he could take off them. Henry VIII was a smart man, he knew that the right sorts of information bring wealth and power.

I saw the resulting map last year at the British Library exhibition London: A Life in Maps along with many others – maps of wills and estates, Victorian cab fare maps, cycling maps and tourist maps. Each map was primarily motivated by the need to learn more about an area of London in order to make or save money, especially when making your way around the ever growing London.

In part, this was because travelling around London has always been a daunting thing to do and if you don’t know your way around, you can waste a lot of time and money on convoluted travel. Visualising how everything was connected was impossible to do until Phyllis Pearsall personally pounded the streets, all 3 000 miles of them and put together the world’s first A to Z. She realised that London had to be presented as a cohesive system of streets, buses, and tubes. Like all fantastic ideas, it is so obvious – but back then no one had ever thought of it.

This wasn’t the first time cross referencing different types of data could help people. In 1830’s Dr John Snow used a map of London on which to plot water pumps next to cases of cholera in order to identify how the disease was being spread. He concluded that it was an infected pump near where the outbreak had occurred, and not an airbourne miasma which was the hysterical masses feared. Once he had identified and closed the infected pump, it was easier for Joseph Bazalgette to get the support he needed to build sewage systems which are still used to this day.

Breaking news infographic style

Many online journalists have adopted the same visualisation techniques to present breaking news. They have maps which plot events and eye witness accounts either by video or audio. This information is put up online, as it happens. People get an immediate insight to events good and bad and can make informed make decisions that may save lives.

Techniques range from sophisticated virtual reality programs to simple line graphs. Sometimes this is done well as in the Dr Snow example, other times techniques can be badly employed. Edward Tufte has written extensively about the way to avoid chart junk so that more meaningful graphics can be produced either by hand or as in the case of scientific visualisation by harnessing the power of computers.

In meteorology, molecular modelling, and medicine, computers show us things we could never have seen otherwise: the inside of a bone, or a hairline fracture not detected on an x-ray but visual in a 3D rendered pelvis.

Even football is given a helping hand. Redbee’s Piero software uses live footage from football matches and ties it to a virtual stadium to calculate the exact coordinates of players and the ball during those crucial moments not seen by the referee or caught on camera. Piero creates new virtual camera angles (or viewpoints) and approximates what happened so that the right decisions can be made.

Recognising and reading the patterns

Previously we thought that the field of artificial intelligence would produce systems which could crunch through the numbers alone and present the solution to us. Now we know this is still for the future. We humans are adept at recognising patterns and making links in an almost intuitive manner which is impossible to replicate in a computer. Cognitive scientists try to crack the secrets of the brain and our minds to understand how we reason. Until the time when we can let our machines reason with us, we need to stick with and have control over what we want see.

Football technology is an ideal application for visualisation as there are a limited number of rules to represent and a field of play to be modelled which gives us all of our constraints and the context within which to search. Other applications such as monitoring bridges or the people/traffic flow through a town can be without boundaries so we are left just to literally stare at the waves of data as they happen.

To counter this feeling of being deluged, we need good systems which we as the viewers can interact with and which we, the users, can fix constraints and context. In this space we can then explore and search, using interactions which are translated into algorithms. We exploit and manipulate new viewpoints (like Piero does), we fixate on a viewpoint, we apply analogies and metaphors to find different ways of interpreting what we see and then we transform or combine our data, again to find different viewpoints. The problem is, we sophisticated humans can do this automatically, computers can’t yet, they can only flag up certain patterns that we have told them about.

Maps: Ideal information systems

Exploration is difficult to support, often because the visualisation aspects of software often dominates to such an extent that basic functionality is compromised. Information is presented to the user in a potentially misleading manner and the wrong conclusions are drawn. To counter this, there needs to be a direct correspondence between the human perception of the physical world and the abstract computer-internal representation. Maps are a perfect example of this correspondance and have worked well for centuries. Henry VIII obviously knew how to manage his data.

Google Maps allows you to look at the abstraction of the map and superimpose it on the photographic representation. You can zoom in and look at the trees and houses and still be aware of the street names. This is an accessible form of augmented reality which would have been difficult for the man in the street to imagine on such a widescale i.e., the whole world, even ten years ago. Imagine what Henry VIII would have done with such information at his fingertips, whilst sat in his palaces. He would have zoomed in on Southwark borough and had a magpie’s view of the rich pickings.