Reflection after the Latest Visualization Effort

I am always surprised at the things I learn or appreciate when working little side projects.

My most recent project consisted of more than thirty interactive visualizations to explore various preattentive attributes, all created with d3.js.

Slow to Launch - Perseverance

It took me a while to get any momentum on actually starting to implement this thing. I hadn't seen that a site existed with a bunch of interactive visualizations that demonstrated preattentive attributes, I figured one was needed, and I didn't want to abandon the idea. I had a vague notion of what I wanted, but for some reason I wasn't hitting on anything that got me really moving. I had to keep circling around for a week or so, reading the literature, before I hit a point that I realized that I needed to start moving up the little mountain. Things then starting clicking as momentum built up, and the form started to reveal itself. Whew.

Robert Floyd's Algorithm Pops Up Again

All of the visualizations required picking a random set of points on a grid. It's not a hard problem, but I had to think about it for a second after seeing a stackoverflow post about it. The basic idea is to treat the grid of points as a single list of points, and then randomly pick without replacement using Robert Floyd's beautiful (tiny!) algorithm, which I have written about before. I had first come across this when implementing the "When Will I Win the PowerBall" interactive visualization.

Prior to this visualization, I had not used much of the animation capabilities "built-in" to the svg spec. The magic word here is animateTransform, and it turned out to be a simple way to get the animation I wanted: the animation itself is nicely and powerfully customizable, too.

Workflow: WebStorm, yeoman, bower, grunt...

I was already a WebStorm devotee, but had only recently been making use of the maturing javascript toolchain of yeoman and friends. This time I included the deployment itself as a grunt task, and became more familiar with the workflow in general. Despite new little bottlenecks to deal with at some point (such as the change/build/see-result-of-change delay), it feels pretty good.

Bootstrap Rocks

Gawd, the beautifully designed twitter bootstrap makes page layout/arrangement so easy and nice. Love it.

Ain't This Fun?

I have done a good bit of programming in my life, both server-side and front-end. Every now and then I would find myself doing visualization-ish stuff, but it hasn't been until the last couple of years that I have been slowly finding a comfortable "home" pursuing various visualization efforts, situated at the confluence of awesome browser features and the staggering capabilities of javascript and javascript libraries.

This stuff is great fun.

Motion-Induced Blindness - Our Brain and Hidden Reality

Yesterday, I came across something called motion-induced blindness.

You can experience it yourself by staring at the blinking green dot in the middle of the image below.

Stare at the blinking green dot for a while. Notice anything that happens?
(image created by Mlechowicz, from Wikipedia Commons;
Michael Bach has an interactive example of this and
lots of other illusions as well)

What should happen, and what happens to me, is that some or all of the yellow dots will randomly disappear from sight.

They will be gone.

The wikipedia article says that "The illusion catches the brain ignoring or discarding information," and suggests that we don't really know why our brain does this.

The example above is a case of our brain intermittently hiding something from us. But the startling effectiveness of this hiding makes me wonder: what else out there in reality is our brain always hiding from us?

A World of Enchanted Objects - Avoiding a Cacophonous Internet of Dings

Last night I learned of David Rose's book Enchanted Objects, and watched his fascinating talk at Google from last month. Highly recommended, and I plan on getting the book.

His examples are subtle, often with warm and positive emotional impacts. The hooks on your wall gently reminding you of friends, or that you can use those running shoes today. Your doorbell alerting you to loved ones' locations as they make their way home. Your umbrella by the door alerting you as leave that it will be needed today based on the weather forecast.

If you take a look at Rose's "psychoanalysis" of traditional furniture forms, you can see how to get a lot more ideas on new "enchanted objects":

A Rose[tta] Stone for Generating Ideas for Enchanted Objects
Results of David Rose's "Psychoanalysis" of Traditional Furniture Forms
(from 1:05:23 of his talk at Google)

Per Rose, these "enchanted objects" should be tangible, haptic, incidental, embedded, natural, expressive and humanistic. For the first few products out the door, this will be exciting. But a world full of these things could be a different matter. However subtle these devices are, when there are enough of them all around us, we will need to deal with a cacophonous Disney-topia where every everyday thing is "magical."

And as cheap as these objects will be to make, it seems inevitable that WalMart could become a Brookstone Death Star, filling all of our homes, cars, offices - anywhere we go - with devices that can watch us and (hopefully just) want to helpfully communicate with us.

But enough simultaneous "subtle" tones and alerts could result in what are effectively loud "dings" that counterproductively irritate and distract.

We need to avoid the Internet of Dings.

And don't get me wrong - I love the examples he shows in his talk at Google last month. Both my wife and daughter thought the "Internet of Things" umbrella was "cool."

I think that we'll muddle through this. It's just another side of what's coming when the evolution of it trying to scale meets reality.

And I'm going to use that table by Rose to think of other ideas for enchanted objects :)

Note: After I wrote this this morning, I found that Joshua Benton had used the term "Internet of Dings" in a tweet in June 2, 2014 (https://twitter.com/jbenton/status/473617737164816384). I also saw it used in this 2005 blog. There may be other references as well. I am pretty sure it has popped up before several times, given the recent interest in the "Internet of Things".

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