a complete chapter excerpt from:
Tron had it right. Data is a vast, towering world to be explored. End of Line.
“Underlying Data” -an exploration from my Datascrapers data art series
Storytellers are expert at creating vast, captivating landscapes for their tales to inhabit. To me, there’s no place more vast and captivating than New York City, with its gigantic, gleaming skyscrapers and endless spaces to explore. When seen in person, the scale of those buildings is truly humbling. It’s with that sense of scale in mind that I created a “data art” series called Datascrapers in 2016.
This work evolved from me exploring U.S. census data sets in a visualization tool. The data set contained information about level of education, income, and geographic region, among many other facets. As I visualized data in various ways three-dimensionally, the imagery became very reminiscent of skyscrapers in my beloved NYC.
Overlaying the data constructs onto the NYC skyline aligned my approach
The more I looked at the data from different camera angles and with various color palettes applied, the social implications of the data’s foundation began to seep through. I was seeing thematic statements of inequity and struggle within the thousands of data points. Socially-tinged messages bled from the artwork (at least to me). There was a story of struggle that needed to be told through data in the form of artwork, at least to me. It was very moving at the time I was working on it, and remains one of my favorite envisioning pieces.
But, it wasn’t until after I had completed the series that I realized the better way to get the social themes within Datascrapers across to people — they needed to be experienced firsthand. These data forms should exist as giant, looming holograms that you could walk through to see and feel the impact of the thousands of individual stories represented by those census datapoints.
Data wants to be free they say. I think it also wants to reflect its own magnitude.
Reflecting on Datascrapers recently, it became clear that I was overlooking some other key design insights from that series in my current work of creating holographic experiences.
Datascrapers evolved from data being cast in a new light, onto a giant canvas. The scale of the data became the design center, which drove the magnitude of the pieces. And the familiarity of the shapes (skyscrapers) made a connection with people when first viewing the pieces.
That last point, familiarity, really stuck with me. In our rush to leap forward, we often create things that are foreign looking, sometimes confusing our audience at first.
Familiarity is not the enemy of innovation.
So, rather than spending all my time trying to imagine completely new constructs to bring to life as holograms, why wasn’t I starting with the familiar?
Good question. The answer of course is that familiarity is somewhat counter to breakthrough thinking, which encourages us to leap forward, shattering the envelope. Focusing on today’s familiar things seems counter to innovation. Yet, we already have so many ways to create and consume today, why not leverage them?
Applying that thinking to the subject of data, we could spend from now until forever converting that common language of business (data) into incredible holograms. Maybe looking at the familiar representations of data more openly, we can unlock countless new possibilities.
By using productivity tools like Microsoft Office, or more sophisticated business intelligence services like Power BI and Tableau, we can leverage our data as inspiration for holograms. This isn’t new-to-world or unexpected. People have been (poorly) imagining 3D versions of our business data for decades. The difference is that now we have the mixed reality medium to better support this type of exploration with data.
Data-inspired holograms (perhaps “datagrams”) have been right in front of us all along. Hidden in plain sight. Waiting for someone to free them from their incredibly ordinary containers. It just didn’t occur to me how easy it was to achieve. By taking a new approach, we could be the masters of our own holographic destiny, not merely spectators beholden to mysterious wizards of code and cinematic special effects.
Clearly, you don’t have to use high-end 3D modeling and animation software to create compelling holograms that are composed of or inspired by data. You don’t need to be a data scientist either. We can just leverage the things that create and consume data in completely new ways. Whether its text, photos, videos, numbers, or audio clips, the output of our daily routines can be seen as the new inputs of holographic data generators.
Data insights are not always revealed through conventional visualization
To be clear, I consider “data” anything from a single bit of information, to a collection colors in a striking image, or even the sound of notes in a majestic symphony. Data certainly is not just exabytes of numbers. It’s whatever we consider the output of creation and existence. We are awash in data, yet we only tend to see it in traditional ways.
What if that didn’t have to be?
For example, think about how you regularly generate and analyze your business reports in Excel today to convey key information. There are insights to be found just by looking through the data in the spreadsheets or by going over the charts you generate. By carefully looking for things that pop out as trends, we increase our understanding. Pretty standard today. Now, think about a very real future where artificial intelligence works in the background to help surface insights for us and renders those in holographic form for us to explore. It’s already happening. Just not with holograms.
Another area to consider is visualizing what’s happening within large-scale datacenters. It always seemed inevitable that we’d be able to see inside those thousands of server blades and warehouses full of equipment racks to see what the current state of affairs really was. Our dashboards do a fine job of showing us the numbers and trendlines. What they don’t show us is the same thing in the form we crave – bounded by the physical containers the unparalleled feats of computing take place within.
Storage capacity data taking the form of server racks in a virtual datacenter
Finding the places where we have lots of data or even just a few datapoints that are critically important metrics can be springboards for ideas about making the familiar extraordinary.
The future of holographic experiences has everything to do with channeling the output of today’s productivity tools into AI-powered, interactive holograms.
Use any productivity or data tool available to you as an idea generator for holograms. If you make a 3D chart and think it’s a hologram, please stop. That’s not it. Re-read this book from chapter 1 then try again. The form holograms take doesn’t need to be recognizable as characters or creatures, but they should represent familiar concepts from your data that has come to life digitally.
The steps of the Datascrapers technique listed in Table 15-1 are a bit more involved than others, but also map onto the envisioning flow we outlined earlier. The ideation phase is longer than other techniques because its where all the heavy lifting is done.
Table 15-1. A technique for creating data-inspired holograms.
The following sections show this process step-by-step. Let’s work through creating data-inspired holograms using the Datascrapers technique.
Step 1. IDEATE
Start by choosing a subject you know well to ideate over for a limited amount of time. Don’t spend more than ten minutes thinking about it. That should be enough time to get your best ideas out into the open. For example, there must be a few important aspects of your business or career that rely on data to measure or report progress. You probably deal with them in email, spreadsheets, meeting presentations, mobile dashboards, or raw numbers. Regardless, consider the impact and importance of that data on your thinking and actions. We’re looking for a place to leap ahead in our use of this, creating a breakthrough data experience.
Identify data type
Let’s start by choosing an activity or point in time where you collect data for some purpose, or rely on data to guide decisions or communicate key metrics. That situation requires the use of a particular type of data – numeric, textual, graphic, etc.
Think about the data itself in that instance, and the form that data takes when it’s being looked at by people. I don’t mean what kind of chart or graph. That’s an artificial mapping. Think about the data’s pure form – is it numerical, graphical, auditory, tactile? Simple or complex? Is it static or dynamic? Historical, evolving, or real-time? Knowing how to answer all those questions will help with the next part – transferring the essence of the data into a more usable form.
For example, you may need to analyze census data to figure out how to distribute funds to communities for better social programs. That data is typically in a spreadsheet with many columns of text and numbers that represent individuals who live in specific areas, who reported different levels of education and income.
That data’s form is columnar text and numbers. Pretty straightforward. Once you have isolated the form of the data you’re most interested in, its time to unleash it as a hologram.
TIP – Don’t overthink this step. We’re just trying to be clear what the starting form of the data is so we can compare it to the holographic form.
Free the data
Now comes the interesting part (and the most difficult it turns out). We’re going to convert the existing data from its current form into a new holographic container that provides something you don’t get currently. The hope is that transformation reveals a leap forward in the ability to understand or work with the data. But, to do that, we have to free the data from its current form and container.
Ask questions – This doesn’t require any fancy tools, just thinking through a few things.
- What’s the most logical conversion from current form to a 3D shape? Why?
- Would the new form convey the important aspects more clearly?
- Would it be quicker to understand?
- What new kinds of actions could you take?
I’m not saying these answers will come easy, or that converting a traditional media form to a three-dimensional holographic representation is a straightforward thing to do. In fact, if we’re being completely honest here, it’s actually quite advanced on the design thinking and conceptualization scale. But, I know you’re up to it.
Sketch ideas – To answer some of things questions you’ll want to sketch out how the data transformation might play out.
Try sketching out a few quick transitions from current form to released
In my example, I took census data in columnar format and converted it into a map of the region that the data represented. Then I looked at what additional value we could add now that we’re working in multiple dimensions. That turned out to be using the z-axis or height of data points applied to the flat map. The new form of the information is not just a table of text and numbers in columns, but an easy to recognize map of the region with data points rising above the map plane representing income from the census data. Using more dimensions to overlay information is a prime method for realizing better recognition and understanding.
Figure out the scale – Another thing to consider is the scale or size of the new form. You can easily fall into the trap of thinking that the new holographic form of your data needs to be exactly like the original form you have isolated. Not true. In fact, that’s most often the exact wrong thing to do. Familiar is always a good foundation to build upon when transitioning someone to a new experience based on existing behaviors. That said, the whole point of envisioning our data in a new form is to literally release it from its current container and let it flow into an entirely new shape, of any size, to most optimally represent it in a more malleable and understandable form.
It would make sense to view US Census data in a map-like shape
You’ll find that often in holographic design it pays off to make the experience revolve around a room-scale set of holograms, using life-sized characters and accurate dimensions of objects. That’s not to say every experience has to be a 1:1 real-world match, but you’ll be surprised how the recognition and comfort with your experience goes up with things appear in their natural sizes. Wait, you say. Data has no real-world size – its just a bunch of numbers, right? No, actually those numbers represent things in the real world, or theoretical world, or alternate universe. No matter. Things have size. Think about using it to your advantage.
Match shape to its creator – Now that we have a rough idea of the shape of the new holographic container for our data, what type of tool creates that basic shape? Exactly. Nothing. No really, that’s not quite true. There’s probably something that can create the dimensional shape you are looking at in your sketch. Pretty certain that tool won’t export the shape directly as a hologram (few do), but you can probably figure out what type of app or tool can create that shape with particular parameters (size, shape, color, orientation, etc.). For example, I could use any search engine’s map tool to create a flat map of the areas my census data covers.
Identifying this data shape creation tool now will save us a ton of time later.
Avoid doing this – Now that you have the gist of how that works, let’s talk through a few things that might trip you up along the way to finding a new representation for your original form.
Here are some things to avoid when releasing your data from its original form.
- Don’t try to keep too closely to the original form of the data. The key to unlocking the value has to do with finding the most logical physical world representation of things that are often shown as lists of numbers.
- Resist the temptation to fit your data onto a tabletop or in a small area that resembles how you consume it on glass today. That’s wrongheaded more often than not. Go big or go home.
- Don’t reuse existing 3D charting and visualization forms for holographic data. Walking around 3D pie charts doesn’t make them any more understandable or accurate.
Now that we have a few different sketches of holographic forms that our data could be released into, it’s time to imagine how we might interact with them if they were right in front of us.
TIP – The biggest advantage of using mixed reality for representing data is that you can make it as large as is called for. Go room-scale first.
Step 2. FRAME
Some of the decisions we need to make up front lock us into a particular direction. Don’t think of that as a bad thing though. It’s going to speed up the overall workflow and get us to a testable state quicker.
Choose data set
For each new experiment with a data-inspired hologram, we need to pick a specific data set to work with so our interactions are grounded and focused in something we can test and measure. If we were to use made up data, it would be hard to know if what we’re doing is any better or worse than expected.
Having some degree of familiarity with the data set we pick ensures we will realize when it becomes unrecognizable or distorted. By using a data set that matches the original data type from the ideation phase, we’ve aligned the container and its contents.
For example, I picked a spreadsheet containing the U.S. census data for a particular year (2012) covering the continental United States.
You aren’t limited to choosing a big data set or a data feed from service. Use your own sales data charts. Get a report of your credit card spending in spreadsheet form. Download the number of steps you’ve taken this month from your fitness app. Whatever work for you. Again, the key is being familiar with the data.
TIP — Don’t try to use a gigantic data set to prototype with, unless it has been cleaned and you can visualize it quickly. We need to go fast.
Choose a generator app
To create all of the variations of the new holographic data form, we need an app that generate the shape or something close to it without too much trouble.
The best kinds of apps to choose when doing this type of envisioning are those that allow fluid exploration and rapid creation of content. In our case, being able to generate the form that we think unlocks the insights or important aspects of the data.
Programs that let you do 3D modeling and animation are great for this task if you know how to use them efficiently. We need throughput, so don’t discount more consumer-grade software. Programs like Paint 3D, SketchUp, Blocks are all good choices. For the more advanced forms you want to bring to life try out things like Maya for complex combinations or Tilt Brush for the freedom of creating flowing shapes.
Since my example deals with census data and the regions it applies to, I choose an app that can do more than generate shapes. This kind of app specializes in dealing with data sets. SandDance, a Microsoft Garage project, is a world-class data exploration web service that allows you to load just about any data set and visualize it in many different ways. It also happens to be built into Microsoft’s flagship data product Power BI.
For my purposes it’s a perfect fit since it can plot data points on a grid that would resemble a map due to inclusion of latitude and longitude in each census data point.
SandDance, a Microsoft Garage project, proved to be a great form generation app
You don’t have to use anything like SandDance for your data form generator. For example, if the shape you were thinking about using is more like a person or character, use a 3D modeler that can pose figures in any position you need. Or conversely, if your form resembles architectural spaces or furniture, use something like SketchUp to quickly generate those forms.
TIP — The app you choose doesn’t have to output a 3D shape to be useful.
Step 3. PROTOTYPE
Our task in this portion is getting the output of the generation app into something that lets us not only show the new form, but tell the story behind it. In a perfect world, that would be done through a working prototype. Short of that, we can take some shortcuts to achieve the same end – a compelling showcase for the insights you’ve unlocked in various tangible forms.
Generate multiple examples
Now that we have a generator app picked out and are fairly comfortable flying it, time to start cranking out lots of experimental forms.
Generate at least one good example of what you’re trying to depict first. Examine it a bit critically to see if it embodies the key aspects we look for – clarity, impact, depth, ability to generate questions, and a newness that wasn’t there before.
To warm up, try adding slight variations on the basic shape, but then go radical and completely change one important element in each successive iteration to see if helps. Make copies of the base form so you can really try out big changes without worrying about losing a good path. Save lots of tries. You never know which one will be the best “take” when you look back over them.
Building on the basic form, generate several very different approaches
Elements to experiment with are the form’s shape, size, orientation, color, camera angle, lighting, overlays, or different data to fill it out. We’re looking for those moments where you know something has either locked in or gone too far in the wrong direction. Both help dial in the appearance and presentation we’re looking for.
This part of the process can be a time sink because of all this tinkering, so watch how much you invest. Speed is our friend, always.
TIP – Push hard to not fall into the trap of making slight alternations on the same basic idea. Not enough payoff for that in this kind of prototyping.
Play out interactions
One of the best things about envisioning is the ability to figure out how things will behave without writing a single line of code. We can simply use our imaginations, or better yet, our teammates and coworkers, to help act out how these data-inspired holograms respond to our inquiries, actions, or even inaction.
Having just generated a bunch of different variations of our new data form, it’s time to see if this works for people. That requires figuring out the interaction basics and then engaging with people to try out our assumptions.
Using the Acting Out technique, let’s have the new holographic form we just created by played by a person instead of a pillow or inanimate object. By using a real person, we enable a much richer set of interactions and possibilities. We may even be inspired by the way they play the part, respond to stimulus, or ad lib a funny retort. So many subtle interactions come to light when the object we’re modeling is played by a person. And in this case, how funny that a new representation of data is brought to life by a living, breathing entity.
It doesn’t take much convincing to get people acting as holograms
The things we want to learn by acting out common interactions are not complicated.
- Basic capabilities – what can the datagram do (described simply)?
- Common scenarios – what do people expect this data object to do for them?
- Pleasant surprises – are there unexpected moments that unfold to thrill people?
- Magical moments – did you unlock a new insight that was non-obvious before?
Of all the things we get to do during envisioning, this step is the most fun. You always learn a great deal from being inside the interactions with real people, no question. Yet, the lasting impression from the phase is the laughter that inevitably comes with running this type of design. Give it a try. I guarantee it’ll become a standard part of your envisioning, no matter what the subject happens to be.
TIP — Make videos of the interactions between real people and the newly envisioned data shapes. You’ll learn something or at least have a good laugh.
Package it up
Now that we have basic data form figured out and know roughly how it behaves, time to put it into a vehicle that can deliver the intended impact to our audience. The whole point of this is to get in in front of people that will (hopefully) see the value in using our new representation. We’ll have to think about the best to reach them in the natural flow of their work.
Consider the intent of this envisioning exercise when you choose the packaging. Think back on why we started doing this experiment in the first place. Was it to quickly convey a concept? Impress upon someone the need to unlock the data in this way? Show a technical proof it could be done in this way?
Quickest – Use the HoloScenes technique of combining the holographic form of the data with a photo of a physical space, like someone’s office or home. This is an easy way to depict exactly how you’d like to see this play out. You control the setup, camera angle, overlays on the data, and position of people in the scene for maximum impact. Downside is not being able to show the interactions in motion. They are implied, but left to interpretation.
Effective – Wireframing the scene and animating the key interactions can easily be done using PowerPoint or other presentation software. They have all the capabilities you need to drop in photos, drawing, models, and add your own markup over the top. By creating a clickable model that responds to someone’s touching things or issuing voice commands, you can simulate pretty well what you are going for. Downside is this technique is clearly more lofi than you’d optimally want for high impact. It will be seen for what it is – a quick and dirty interactive sketch.
Highest Impact – A slightly polished video production of the scene playing out with the interactions you figured out through acting is going to win people over. They may know right away you used slick video compositing to drop the holograms into the scene, but being able to show the richness of the presentation and interaction aspects provide a value that’s hard to get in other forms of envisioning. Downside is you need at least some rudimentary video editing and compositing skills on the team.
Most Impressive – Working prototypes using real data sets are without question going to make the biggest impression on people entirely because they are real. The old saying “Code wins” is apt here. Being able to demonstrate the concept with working models, data, and code will excite people’s imaginations and have them telling you exactly what needs to be better. Mission accomplished. Downside is this is expensive time-wise and requires resources to get working.
TIP – The way you first show these ideas to people will impact their perceived viability and value. Pick well by understanding your audience.
Step 4. TEST
As with other envisioning techniques, trying it out on someone will surprise you in some way. It always does. The things we see clearly as the envisioners of these new forms are not always as clear to other people right away. Doesn’t mean it isn’t good or valuable. Does mean we need to listen carefully to why.
Show it around
This is where your narrative and storytelling skills come in. You could construct a good test for the data form where you do a before and after type of comparison.
Start with telling the story to someone about how you normally work with the type of data you choose originally. Show them how you’d normally consume or work with it. Quickly run through the difficulties. Conjecture about the opportunities to improve it. Then reveal the new data form. Stop talking.
What people should immediately jump to is how it can be improved or how its more clear, understandable, or actionable. What you hope to not hear is silence, denoting you missed the mark. Of course, hearing this doesn’t make sense is a good indicator you may want to try another one of your explorations out on them. Either way, the idea is moving forward.
TIP – It’s normal for people to reject a new form of something they are used to. Don’t let that dissuade you from exploring its value to them.
Step 5. REFINE
Based on the feedback from your tests, there are probably some areas that need attention. Being more clear about what the data is, how the form represents it, and what actions are possible most commonly get refined during this phase. This is also a great time to add in your secret weapons to assist with persuasion.
Apply special effects
Now that we have the basics down, there are several things you can apply to the presentation vehicle you choose to show off the holographic data form in its best light.
Lighting – The key to any great rendering of 3D objects is how they are lit. Using convincing light takes away some of the resistance and lets the viewer focus on the substance. You can bring still frames or individual elements into Photoshop to touch them up quickly. Don’t have to use a full-blown 3D modeler to get this done.
Sound – More impactful than visuals in many ways, spatial sound (or any sound for that matter) will punch up the important moments in the consumption or interaction. Try using any sounds as placeholders just to get the timing right for its intended purpose. Then find the right one. Nothing is worse than using the wrong sound.
Atmosphere – One of the most visually interesting things to experiment with is adding cinematic effects to your holographic data forms. Placing the elements into a real world scene is a way to convey the scale of the data it represents. Atmosphere like fog, rain, clouds, or bright sun illicit a particular feel that can work to your advantage. Experiment here with focus.
Affordances – There are typically widgets that we use to manipulate digital objects that sometimes are left as part of the surrounding chrome or interface of the programs we use. There are times when we can embed those within our holograms to assist with actions. The key is inserting them in natural and straightforward ways so they don’t district from the data and insights themselves. An example of that is a “datablade” that cuts through the data set to focus on one particular slice.
TIP – Don’t underestimate the importance of using sound to make your holographic data come to life. It’s almost always overlooked in normal data.
Step 6. RESTART
It’s logical to just continue testing the refined ideas out on people once you’ve gotten them to a point where it’s a plausible evolution of the current data form (which is no small feat in itself). I’d suggest that when you reach that point of being comfortable with the exploration, it’s a clear indicator that you’ve done enough on that tack. Good time to take stock of what you learned and accomplished, because it’s time to move on.
Find new data
The best way to prove out whether you really hit on something valuable or even a breakthrough experience is to “reload” your new hologram with new data. Maybe its from a different year or completely different region. Perhaps you try to fit a whole new type of data into your container to see if it still holds up. Whatever you decide to try will help you learn more about the original idea you had for this particular form.
A great way to tell if you should dig deeper with this prototype is getting a new data set to almost work. That last bit that didn’t is your new area of exploration. Why was that? The form or data set? What if there was a ton of data that needed to be visualized and worked with in this way – would it work?
We can’t possibly anticipate all the different kinds of actual data people will want to use your holographic container for, so pushing ourselves to try data that’s non-obvious is always an eye-opening experience.
Using holographic containers to free data from its current confines is an extremely promising area of exploration. We need your thinking here to unlock the potential.
Learn more about the author M. Pell at FuturisticDesign.com
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