Blog Category: visualization

A Gentle Introduction

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Quantum Computing: A Gentle Introduction by Eleanor Rieffel and Wolfgang PolakOur book, Quantum Computing: A Gentle Introduction, has been out for a little over a month. So far, it has received as much attention from weaving blogs as science blogs, due to the card-woven bands on the cover.

MIT press takes pride in their cover designs, but warns authors that  “schedules rarely allow for individual consultation between designers and authors.” They do, however, ask authors to fill out a detailed questionnaire that includes questions asking for the authors’ thoughts with respect to a cover. It was the third question “What would you like the viewer to think or feel when they see the cover?” that prompted me to think that a fabric with abstract, colorful designs would suggest a “gentle” introduction to an abstract and colorful subject. Continue Reading

When is one>two and seven==eight?

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So Google recently released the Google books N-gram viewer along with the datasets.

There’s been plenty of press about it, and the Science article based on this data is an interesting read.

I was trying to come up with a simple, yet insightful query. My initial trial was modernism,postmodernism which immediately had me wondering about hyphenation or the lack thereof…  In any case, the upshot seems to be that the use of the term postmodernism started 1978ish. Neat, though I think I won’t need to clear space for my Nobel Prize anytime soon.

I toyed a little bit with other terms like generation X which has an odd sort of bump in the graph around 1970. Not sure what’s up with that, though perhaps there’s some data collection artifacting as discussed in this article.  I wasn’t inclined to deep end on this and was happy enough to have my prior knowledge confirmed by noting that the use of “generation X” took off in the mid 1990’s.

My final trial was a bit more on the minimal side: one,two,three,four,five,six,seven,eight,nine,ten. There shouldn’t be any surprise here that “one” is more common than “two” is more common than “three”, is more common than “four”. It probably shouldn’t be a surprise that each succeeding number is less frequent by roughly a factor of 2.

Occurence of numbers in google books N-gram viewer

Google books n-gram viewer for numbers

Less intuitive (to me anyway) is that “ten” squeezes in front of “seven” and “eight” (OK, so maybe it’s a round number), “seven” and “eight” are basically tied, but even more odd is that before 1790 or so, the putative occurrence of “six” and “seven” were virtually non-existent.

Detail on number occurrences

Turns out it appears to be the same issue with the “medial S” that Danny Sullivan describes in greater detail in his post. In other words, it’s an artifact of OCR and an indication of the evolution of typography rather than the evolution of language.

One mystery solved; now why are “seven” and “eight” tied in frequency?

Kudos to Google for releasing the viewer and data.

Revisualizing a past FXPAL researcher

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Traces of Gold, by Chris Culy

Traces of Gold, by Chris Culy

Chris Culy, who worked on discourse parsing at FXPAL a number of years ago, is now in Italy working as a Senior Researcher and the Language Technologies Technical Officer at the Institute for Specialised Communication and Multilingualism. He oversees language-related software development and leads a research project on linguistic data visualization. But the real excitement is that he has a solo art show, Revisualizing the visual, opening today.  His work combines his  interest in photography with his  interest in how information is structured and perceived. The software he has written to support his work transforms colors into shapes or uses color information to create rambling colorful paths based on the image. To create effective artworks, Chris carefully chooses the original photograph and tunes the algorithms to it. Don’t miss the video that shows some of this process in action!

Virtual Factory at IEEE ICME 2010, Singapore


Happy to note that our overview paper on the Virtual Factory work, “The Virtual Chocolate Factory: Building a mixed-reality system for industry” has been accepted at IEEE’s ICME 2010. The conference is in Singapore in July; I’ll be there, co-chairing a session there that focuses on workplace use of virtual realities, augmented reality, and telepresence. You can see more on the Virtual Factory work here.

Exploratory visualization

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Motion within San Francisco / Berkeley / Oakland recorded by geotagging photographersEric Fischer recently published a visualization of traffic in the Bay Area based on location and time data associated with photographs. It’s a lovely image that traces the major routes in the Bay Area and highlights points of interest to locals and tourists alike. The image is beautiful, reminiscent of sketches or studies done in preparation to painting.

But what about its effectiveness as a visualization? What does it tell us that we didn’t know?

Jeremy Pickens (wearing his curmudgeon hat) wrote:

Think about your own mental model of San Francisco, and where you think the interesting or appealing places are.  I.e. if you were visiting the city and/or out for the day taking pictures, where in the city would you go?  You’d probably go to Golden Gate Park, to anywhere along the water, and to the downtown shopping areas (the grid around and north of Market).  And that’s pretty much what the map shows, right?  So we don’t really learn much from this, do we?  It confirms our existing intuitions.

He is partially correct.

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Tufte vs. Holmes

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The militant wing of the Visualization Brigades recently published its manifesto, shown on the right. The War on PowerPoint is escalating, and at this pace, threatens to overtake the War on Drugs in the near future. What are we to do? Is minimalism the most effective way to convey information, as Tufte preaches? Or is Tufte’s argument backed by nothing but his personal sensibilities, rather than hard evidence? An upcoming CHI 2010 paper (one of the CHI 2010 best paper award winners) argues that elaboration is not all bad (or perhaps that not all elaboration is bad).

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pCubee: a interactive cubic display

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Our friend Takashi Matsumoto, (who built the Post-Bit system with us here at FXPAL) built a cubic display called Z-agon with colleagues at the Keio Media Design Laboratory. Takashi points us at this video of a very nicely realized cubic display (well, five-sided, but still). It’s called pCubee: a Perspective-Corrected Handheld Cubic Display and it comes from the Human Communications Technology Lab at the University of British Columbia. Some of you may have seen a version of this demoed at ACM Multimedia 2009; it will also be at CHI 2010. Longer and more detailed video is here.

Glossy pictures and diagrams


Valentine, love, hate: Twitter VennIn the spirit of Many Eyes, Jeff Clark has been developing visualizations of various kinds, including those of various Twitter collections. For example, his Twitter Venn diagram looks at intersections of tweets with three user-specified terms to help understand something about the way different concepts co-occur. Other visualizations look at word distributions associated with pairs of terms, and term use timlines.

The graphs are pretty and, perhaps, informative. His goal is to visualize complex data that don’t lend themselves to standard bar and pie charts. When these visualizations are effective, they can reveal insight that textual representations fail to convey, but the trick is to understand what is effective when. Tufte‘s design guidelines are a start, but one based on a rather static notion of data visualization. Apparently Bertin was more attuned to interaction, but was still trapped in a static medium.

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Choose Your Own Adventure

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Historically, the Hypertext research community is an intertwingling (a Ted Nelson-logism) of three distinct strands — structural computing, interaction, and HT literature, which could be mapped, roughly, onto the engineers, the HCI folk, and the humanists. While engineering and HCI aspects were somewhat necessary for HT literature, the focus, by definition, has been on exploring the boundaries of electronic literature. In the end, I think, it’s good writing that makes hypertext literature interesting much more so than clever interaction. In fact, the electronic component is often not necessary at all: see If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler, for example.

But there is room for beauty in interaction as well. Thanks to Mark Bernstein of Eastgate, I came across a beautiful set of visualizations of narrative structure of CYOA, a series of hypertext books for children. Through a variety of charts and graphs like the one shown here, the author of these diagrams conveys the many alternate paths through a each story in the collection, and uses these visuals to compare, to analyze, and to appreciate the books. And don’t forget the animations, accessible through a link near the top of the page.

My retelling won’t do it justice; take a look for yourself, and think about these designs next time you’re building a slide deck.

Finally, since these stories are now available as Kindle editions, in principle, it would be possible to collect actual reading paths that readers take through the works, and subject them to the same analyses. What sorts of hypotheses about reading, personality, and interaction could we answer with such data?

My dream virtual (almost) reality exhibit

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A couple of weeks ago I attended the SIAM/ACM Joint Conference on Geometric and Physical Modeling and heard a lovely talk by Richard Riesenfeld. Riesenfeld and his wife Elaine Cohen were this year’s Bézier award winners for their work in computer aided geometric design (CAGD). He spoke about his correspondence with Bézier and showed us many of the letters they sent back and forth in the early days of CAD/CAM, with their many hand drawn diagrams and the typed text with the math symbols added in by hand. I spent the time marveling at how they managed to have an effective collaboration over such an impoverished communication channel. But even with all of the wonderful 3D rendering capabilities we have today, it is still hard to communicate about 3D objects and spaces over a distance. Having a visual rendering is not sufficient. Spatial reasoning requires more. Riesenfeld mentioned Bézier’s view that “touch is more discriminative than eyes.”

This theme reminded me that I’ve been meaning to describe and send to the math factory folks  a suggestion for an exhibit in the math museum. Instead, I’ll first write about it here.

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