Tag Archives: visualization

Chihuly: Through the Looking Glass at the MFA

Chihuly exhibit at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts

Today I visited the new Dale Chihuly exhibit at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.  It’s a breathtaking exhibit, thoughtfully staged in the basement of the museum’s new wing where the light can be carefully controlled.  For those unfamiliar with Chihuly’s work, he is an artist who works primarily with blown glass.  His breathtaking, large-scale glass sculptures can be found all over the world – in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, in Canada, in just about every state in the U.S., and in the new Palm Hotel in Dubai.  A car accident that left him with vision in only one eye brought him to painting in order to instruct his students and collaborators on glass projects.  Now his drawings, lithographs, and paintings are quite popular as well.

The MFA installation is really breathtaking.  Huge structures, artfully curated for maximum reflection and impact.  My favorite was this wooden boat, overflowing with Chihuly glass baubles, set on a glass surface that reflects back their brilliant colors.  Equally interesting was a room full of glass sculptures inspired by Native American blankets and baskets.  Just how he forms glass into that floppy basket shape, I’ll never know.

Active participants.

But I have to say that the most intriguing part of the exhibit for me was watching the visitors, watching the exhibit.  We went on a Saturday, so the place was packed, and people were snapping photos all around me.  Cameras, iPhones, cell phones, video cams – the rooms reeled with the secondary light source of theri flashes, green viewfinder lighting, and the glow of LED screens.  It was really remarkable.  What’s going on here?  Of course, it might simply be because they could (unlike most art installations, in this one, camera flashes would not hurt the art objects and so photography was permitted).  But I think there’s more to it than that.  I have noticed a marked change in our perception of an art experience.  With these amazing technology tools, always within our reach, and the ease of sharing the products we create, we have morphed from “passive audience” to producer participants.  I would wager that those cell-phone-camera images will not just sit on their owner’s cell phones.  Rather, the visitors who took them will be printing, emailing, geo-locating, uploading, mashing, soda-snapping, twitpic-ing them with all of their friends and families.  And in the process of doing that, they are evaluating, comparing, synthesizing, reporting, and connecting.  “Which was your favorite?”  “How does this compare to the piece you saw in Dallas? ” “Get a load of that blue!!” “Could we try to make something like this?”  Who knows, maybe even a few of them are blogging about their experience – right now.

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Creating Memory Palaces

Image from erinmizrahi.wordpress.com

I just read the most amazing article in the New York Times magazine – Secrets of a Mind Gamer, by Joshua Foer (thanks to my good friend, Louise).  If you haven’t read it – go there now and do it. You’ll thank me later.

If that name sounds familiar to you, Joshua is the younger brother of Jonathan Safran Foer (author of Everything is Illuminated and Extemely Loud and Incredibly Close). What a family.

Joshua Foer is a journalist who began an investigation of so-called “mental athletes” – people who efficiently and expertly memorize great volumes of information quickly – first and last names of dozens of strangers, long lists of random numbers, the precise order of a deck of cards. Apparently there are televised championship tournaments – check out the website for the USA Memory Championship, to be held next month in New York City. By now I’m sure you’re thinking what I was thinking when I started reading the article – who cares?  Who cares about the craft of memorizing long lists of random numbers or decks of playing cards?  Well, I can tell you that it all got a whole lot more interesting when I read Foer’s account of how these memory athletes accomplish their feats.

In true investigative journalist style, Foer decided to try the memorization methods himself and the NYTimes article is the story of his journey (which wound up with him winning the U.S. Championship!).  To put it in a nutshell (his article does a much better job), these memory athletes rely on a centuries old tradition from the ancient Greeks of creating “memory palaces”.  What they do is to construct a building in the imagination and fill it with imagery of what needs to be recalled.  The distinctive objects they place in these imagined rooms are like coat hooks for memories. As you walk through the imaginary edifice and see the distinctive objects (the more distinctive and wild, the better), you recall the material “stored” there. Very cool idea.

This approach to memory is recorded in a Latin book called Rhetorica ad Herennium, written sometime between 86 and 82 B.C.  You can find an outline of the book here and a complete translation of it here. The techniques described in this book were used extensively in the ancient and medieval worlds as a fundamental element of a classical education.  Our Greek and Roman ancestors trained themselves, not to memorize trivia, but to commit foundational texts, ideas, and stories to memory, to become walking indices of everything worthwhile they’d ever read or learned. And they did it by intensively reading (in order to remember) using these visual motifs.

Of course, I can’t help but make a connection between this idea of “memory palaces” and virtual worlds.  Is that, perhaps, one of the underlying reasons why these three-dimensional landscapes are so compelling for us?  Is that why I have such vivid, penetrating, and persistent memories of everything I’ve ever built in a virtual world?  Why I can conjure up clear-as-day mental pictures of the role-playing space I created or the building classroom that Chimera Cosmos and I built over our virtual home on Jokaydia? Relating ideas and concepts to spatial positions, walking around our mind’s eye with our avatars? Is that what we’re doing in there – creating virtual memory palaces?

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Drawing in Order to Learn

A few nights ago, I went to hear a talk given by the author, David Macauley, at the Concord Library. Macauley is the author of the very successful book The Way Things Work, among others.  I didn’t know that he had also written a book called The Way We Work – which is all about human form and function.  In writing that book he worked with biologists and spent hours and hours in a coroner’s lab, dissecting bodies (as he said, “I felt like DaVinci!”).
Anyway, he gave this mind-blowing talk about, well, the way things work…the way he works, the power of drawing, exploring visually, etc.  The talk was part travelogue, part book promotion, part exploration of the way he worked.  He was funny, charming, and just delightful.  He wrapped up his talk by explaining the basically, he draws in order to learn.  That, in order to draw a thing, he must first completely understand it.
Macauley’s approach nicely dovetails with Felice Frankel and her Picturing to Learn project.  Felice has worked with middle school, high school, and college instructors to help them get students to make pictures to explain a concept to someone else.  When students are asked to create a picture in order to explain (as opposed to just represent), t hey must make decisions that clarify their own thining.  As Felice puts it, this process tends to transcend linguistic, age, or educational barriers.
When asked what advice Macauley might have for educators, working with students, who might want to incorporate drawing into their plans, he gave a fabulous answer  – this is clearly something that he’s thought a lot about.  He encouraged teachers to have students draw every day – to make it a regular part of the routine.  His advice was that students should be encouraged to draw all the time (as they study, as they read, as they listen in class) – and draw the same things, over and over, in order to understand them, refining their drawings as they go.  He said that it was important to separate the creation of “artwork” from the process of drawing.  In other words, it doesnn’t matter what the drawing looks like, let go of perfection. Instead, think of your drawings as tools to help you better understand.

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Visualizing the World Cup

The World Cup Visualized, from the Wall Street Journal (6.11.10)

I’m always interested in new ways of looking at things – new visualizations – particularly when they illustrate something that I know very little about.  When we examine a visualization on an unfamiliar topic we get a unique opportunity to really dig into how the visualization works — and, in the process, how our brain works with the visualization.

So, imagine my delight when I saw this visualization of Soccer’s World Cup bracket in the Wall Street Journal’s Weekend Journal section (I know, hardly the place you’d expect to find in depth sports commentary – but then, that’s the World Cup for you).  For those of you not familiar with brackets – they are basically an outline of the possibilities in a given sports championship.  Which team needs to beat which team in order to win it all. You might be more familiar with them when sketched for the Super Bowl or the NCAA Basketball Tournament. Fans make their predictions using brackets, sports journalists use them to report on the proceedings, and book makers use them to give odds and track winnings.

To fully appreciate how unique this particular visualization is, you need to have a look at the usual sports bracket.  Here is a more typical bracket visualization, for the World Cup.

World Cup Soccer Bracket

Turns out that soccer, as played in the World Cup, is different than other sports – it is not single elimination.  “One and Done” is the method in the NCAA tournament, but in soccer it’s “Round Robin” play, meaning that, initially, teams gain points for wins as well as ties to earn the honor to advance to the knock-out stage.  This circuclar representation makes that twist clear. And I love the added dimensions that it affords…  The sense of moving to the middle. The nuances of the length of the rings.  The color coding of the groups that makes the progression clearer. The feeling of a labryinth.  Nice, eh?

And here’s another one for you – a Twitter visualization of the World Cup.  Roll over each circle for match results and then click on one to watch a replay of the Twitter stream on that match.  Fascinating!

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The Gulf Oil Spill On Your Desktop

Like most of us, I’ve been watching the latest developments from the Gulf of Mexico with growing alarm.  Like a blight, like a creature bent on destruction, the black slick is growing, moving ever closer to the fragile Gulf coast, threatening every living creature in its path.  The thing about oil spills (and bacteria, and galaxies, and mitochondria, and black holes) is that their scale is just too difficult to visualize. Our failure to really grasp the enormity, the complexity of the thing means that we fail to grasp its impact.

But with this oil spill we have a few, new visualization tools.  And they’re not just in the hands of the experts – they are on our own computers and cell phones.  Just this week, video was released of the actual source of the Gulf oil – spewing out of a broken well, nearly a mile below the ocean’s surface.  Let me say that again.  Video from a mile underwater.  Whoa.  Representative Edward Markey (Chair of the Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming) has posted a live feed of the spill (spill cam) on his web site. In addition to that we have amazing photographs, artfully portraying the scope and scale of the disaster.  NASA satellite images, readily downloadable with a click give you a clear view of the spill – and you can watch it play out over time.  Google Earth has now made NASA’s MODIS imagery available as a downloadable overlay for Google Earth. But to really give you a personal sense of scale – use Google Earth’s “Places of Interest” layer to look at the spill in situ, as it changes over time, and then place it over your own region of the globe.  And here’s a nice one – “ifitwasmyhome“, where you can instantly overlay the spill on a map anywhere.  See how far the slick stretches over landmarks that you know.

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Immersive Education Summit (Day 1)

Wonderful first day (out of three) of the Immersive Education Institute, 2010 Boston Summit at Boston College.  I attempted to tweet the conference – so you may also want to find those (twitter ID:  rheyden). You can follow any of the feeds from the conference with the hash tag (#iED).

The conference opened this morning with organizer, Aaron Walsh (Director of the Grid Institute) setting the stage with historical context featuring video tours of previous immersive environments.

Then we moved on to Nicole Yankelovich, director of Project Open Wonderland (originally developed at Sun Microsystems). Open Wonderland is a completely open source java toolkit for creating virtual worlds.  It is not a destination (like Second Life), rather it is a toolkit for creating federated, specialized virtual worlds, according to a modular architecture.

With Sun’s recent acquisition by Oracle, Wonderland was cancelled.  In a fascinating move, the original (now laid-off) Sun team has spun off a non-profit foundation to continue the work – Open Wonderland. With the move from Sun, all of their code, tools and support mechanisms were transferred to outside, open tools.  For example, their code base is now on Google Code; their forum is on Google Groups; the old Sun Wonderland blog is now a blog on WordPress; they have a community wiki, and they have open developers meetings every week. Interesting, eh?  Remains to be seen how Open Wonderland will be financially supported.

Yankelovich showed us some amazing examples of builds using Wonderland code.  For example, a virtual academy from Lockhead Martin for training mechanics and technicians; Greenphosphor’s virtual data visualizations; a dynamic 3D blog from Siemens, Ngee Ann Polytechnic’s virtual warehouse to teach accounting, MiRTlE from University of Essex (method for bringing remote students into a live classroom), the Wonderland Bicycle Game (featuring a wii remote on a bike) to help rehabilitate cerebral palsey patients, plus educational work by St. Paul College and the Birmingham City University.

She also talked us through the basic features of Open Wonderland – application sharing, immersive (CD-quality audio), telephone integration, ability to import Collada 3D files, drag and drop just about every file type (pdfs, jpgs, pngs, gifs), and something I found very intriguing – the ability to set permissions on individual objects and places in order to carefully and differentially control security.  So, for example, when you open an object, you can specify who (avatar names) can see it.  They also have this interesting “cone of silence” ability to set a private area for conversations that cannot be heard by anyone else. I’m hearing more and more about these security concerns from my clients and collaborators.

Next up was Julian Lombardi (Duke University), talking about Open Cobalt. This is a free and open virtual worlds platform and construction tool kit, developed at Duke University, built on Open Croquet. Lombardi did a good job of walking us through the basic features and capabilities of Cobalt – I was definitely intrigued – and we’ll learn more about that platform tomorrow.

Following that, John Belcher (MIT) gave a great talk, describing the way he’s teaching physics to undergraduates at MIT.  He’s designed a series of simulations to teach electricity and magnetism which are used at MIT, in a specially designed classroom.  He’s now working to import those simulation objects into Wonderland.   He chose Wonderland over Second Life because it’s open source (SL is proprietary), multi-user, immersive, and collaborative.  It was critical for their project that they owned their build (he needed to control it completely).  Also he explained that the Wonderland Toolkit is easier to work with than Linden scripting.  Apparently OpenSim wasn’t available when they started the proejct 10 years ago.

John’s goal here is to use the virtual world to show students the things that are all around them that they can not see (electromagnetic waves, in this case). He showed us a video of student avatars manipulating the simulation, displaying the field lines (and moving through them!).  Very cool.

John’s collaborator on a new NSF proposal, Jennifer George-Palilonis (from Ball State University) is a journalist, designer, and professor of multimedia – she talked about the importance of storyline.  To help the students connect these physics simulations to each other and to the line of reasoning.  She also talked about the importance of considering the instructional design, right along with the environmental design and the graphical design (the “look”) of the whole thing, so that it all works together to maximize the learning.

Next up were Melissa Carrillo and Emily Key from the Smithsonian Institution’s Latino Education Center and their Latino Virtual Museum (LVM) in Second Life.  Carrillo and Key started their talk with this prediction from Gartner Research Group:  80 % of internet users will be in a virtual world by 2011. These women see this as the next phase of the internet and, therefore, the place where libraries and museums need to be. They have a build in Second Life (three islands) that is open to the public. They feel that SL offers shared experiences, a feeling of presence, visual immersion, and real time collaboration. But there are problems – security issues and including children in the experience.  They are now planning to expand their builds to Open Sim and the Grid Institute – they are not giving up on Second Life (they’ll maintain that) but  will add these new experiences to their repertoire.  In these virtual world builds, they want to explore the relationship between culture and the environment. They showed a nice machinima video, explaining the LVM eco-explorers design – immersive yourself, play and learn. They are using gaming strategies in their LVM build (based on national standards) – students go on a quest, immerse themselves in the environment, and play (as opposed to the first thing a curator has to say to you in a museum – “don’t touch!”).  This is not to say that real life museums will no longer be needed – it is always important to be able to see the actual artifacts – but the virtual world offers the museum curators a way to extend their visitors’ experience to provide interactivity at the level of the object.

Carrillo introduced us to their new project – Tales from the Blue Crab – a collaboration with the Grid Institute.  They showed us a QT movie of a spectacularly rendered, photo-realistic, anatomically correct blue crab (rendered in Blender).  The crab was a high resolution, scalable object. You can see the crab move, swim underwater (a constructed immersive underwater scene), and watch its feeding and defense strategies.  You can observe it in isolation or place it in its environment.  Very cool.

At that point, I switched over to the K-12 track to hear Richard White, Immersive Education Developer for Greenbush Southeast Kansas Education Service Center. They have build spaces Open Sim (Snowglobe), Edusim, in Cobalt, and using Moodle.

The day concluded with a panel discussion featuring Al Meyers (Saisei Consulting), Richard Gilbert (Professor of Psychology, Loyola Marymount), Ian Lamont (Immersive Education Initiative), Diane Ketelhut (Temple University), and Wesley Williams (Boston Public Schools, Founder RIT Immersive Education High School). The title of the panel was “Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘n Roll:  Videogames as Learning Tools?” and it was a good, lively discussion…here are a few highlights:

– what would we say about a child who was reading novels 5 hours a day?  would we say they are “addicted to novels”?

– there is no reliable research on transference to demonstrate that anything we’re doing in schools is sustained in later life for our students – so transference isn’t an argument either way

– surgeons playing videogames for 30 minutes prior to surgery in order to enhance their hand-eye coordination and dexterity

– don’t forget the military – they have been succesfully using this technology for 30 years.

– for all the good that comes out of games, there will be bad things – just as with anything…  main stream media will continue to emphasis the disturbing and violent

– creativity – these are worlds that inspire creativity as kids design, build, and select

Whew!  That was a looong one (sorry about that!).  If you can stand it – more tomorrow!

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Tagxedo: A New Word Picture Tool

My Blog on Tagxedo

I just discovered a new tag cloud creator (or word-picture tool) – Tagxedo.  This is a free online application that allows you to make word pictures (or clouds) where the most oft-used words appear largest.  This is a good way to get a visual “feel” for a particular text chunk, document, or web site.

Tagxedo is similar to Wordle, but much more powerful with many additional capabilities. First off,  as you roll over the online Tagxedo with your mouse, the words come to the front and you can make them live links.  You can also spin your cloud, choose different themes (many available), select different colors & fonts, and constrain the word-picture by shapes (hearts, ovals, circles). The cloud to the right (made up of my blog’s contents), is made from the same words as the cloud at the top of the page – this time in the shape of a flower. You can structure it so that you skip words (removing unimportant words, like “the”). Apparently, you can also use photos to create the shapes – like this one of Abe Lincoln.  I haven’t tried that yet, but it certainly presents some interesting possibilities. Once you’re created your Tagxedo cloud, you can save it as an image – in both jpg and png formats – at a range of resolutions.  What fun.

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