Screen shot 2014-11-14 at 13.35.04

In Paris last Sunday for IEEEVIS, the main international gathering for academics working in the area of data visualisation. The field is dominated by computer scientists who are unashamedly techno-centric and seem to know little and care less about meaning, cultural context, nuance or connotation. Definitely a place where artists and designers can make a contribution. I was presenting in a workshop all about visualisation beyond the desktop – a good fit with my work on browser history comics and social network models. The workshop was organised by Yvonne Jansen from the University of Copenhagen. She put together this brilliant list of physical visualisation methods and pointed out during the workshop that many of them are from profoundly embedded cultural practices. Future casting on the topic of visualisation thus runs the risk of assuming wide cultural understanding of techno-social systems.

There were some interesting responses to the main questions posed in this workshop:

1. How do we envision visualisation systems in the next 5, 10, 25+ years?

2. Is it possible that desktop systems will indeed die out and that visualizations will be primarily used through off-desktop technology?

3. What would be the consequences of a concerted community focus on non-desktop visualisation?

Lots of people had based their ideas around two main axes. Firstly, science fiction films inspired ideas of transparent screens, mid-air gestural interfaces, brain computer interfaces, and interactive surfaces. Steven Drucker and I agreed the problem is that in science fiction films when data is depicted on screens, or characters are shown interacting with computers, it’s in the service of story rather than data. For example, this would mean that the main reason for having transparent screens in films isn’t that they represent the radical future of HCI but so that we can see the actor through the content, or as a simple signifier of futurity. That old chestnut Minority Report came up a few times (sigh) as an example of gestural interface dynamics. My favourite story from the movie is that Tom Cruise had to take a break from shooting every 5 minutes as waving his hands in the air constantly was so exhausting.

Secondly, the concept of reactive surfaces was very popular. Jason Dykes proposed the idea that in the near future all information would be portable so could be liberated from the desktop computing environment and beyond mobile devices. In this vision, all everyday surfaces would be displayable from the kitchen counter to the toilet lid. My questions here include: how will these surfaces indicate that they are displayable or will everyone just know that they are? Will they all have sleep settings and a whole range of alerts and on/off switches? Where will all the energy come from to run them all? I particularly liked this submission from Roberts et al. describing the future nightmare scenarios and etiquette requirements of a data and information saturated society surrounded and permeated by personal data auras.I guess a conference about visualisation can be reliably expected to prioritise the visual but I do think other modes of display and communication will be important in any vision of how information will be delivered to people.

Throughout the workshop there was surprisingly little discussion about design, and I suspect design is seen by those at the CS end of visualisation either as a kind of procedural magic best left to experts, or as a slightly suspect set of instinctive practices. It was acknowledged that in order to remain a relevant and well attended event IEEEVIS would have to make more effort to include non-academic voices or at least make room for academic work from other disciplines, such as art and design. While there remains much important research at the forefront of the discipline being done in universities, lots of the ground-breaking work in visualisation is done in design schools and studios beyond the reach of research institutes or computer science university departments.

On that note; for, I think only the second time, IEEEVIS orgnised a parallel exhibition of art and design work featuring our own Kate Mclean and Will Fairbrother among others. The work looked great but the setting was a demoralising reminder of how the academic visualisation community views this kind of work. A carpeted hotel basement room with fixed ceiling lights and textured walls was made available with print, screen, and projected pieces expected to work together. The door is wide open in these international conference settings for a more considered approach to showing creative work.

Overall I found the conference both interesting and important, and the workshop provocative but feel an argument for the place of creative design in academic visualisation is yet to be coherently made.

Image: Peter Orntoft

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