Sitting around chatting with @erica_jane_mp at the Sheffield Geekup last week, we got talking about data visualisation - or rather what comes after visualisation.
Incoming rant: This was partly born out of one of my hobbyhorses - that we’ve done pretty much everything it’s possible to do with a screen and a keyboard by now. Don’t get me wrong, jQuery and HTML5 and so on are really exciting and cool tools - but they’re stuck in a desktop paradigm that hasn’t changed significantly in the last 30 years.
The elements to liberate us from this are starting to come together - we’ve got computing devices small enough that an entire fully-functional Unix machine can be compressed to the size of an iPhone. The battery will last for hours at a time. The screen is touch-sensitive, and uses intuitive gestures rather than abstract concepts like menus. And we’ve (almost) got ubiquitous connectivity with 3G and wireless.
So to just concentrate on every-more subtle refinements of the desktop metaphor seems - well, just like a wast of an opportunity, really. Rant over.
Back to visualisation, or what comes after.
Years ago, I spent some time working for what was then British Nuclear Fuels, at the Sellafield plant. One of the risks of working with fissile materials is that they can go critical if they’re allowed to concentrate in particular ways - and when that happens, vast amounts of radiation is released, and it’s generally a bad idea to be in the vicinity.
So all the buildings which handle fissile materials have criticality alarms, which will alert the occupants and allow them to Get The Hell Out Of There. You’d expect sirens and klaxons and flashing lights - but the main criticality alarm is completely different. It’s a background ‘tick’, which is constantly broadcast over the PA system in the building at about 1 ‘click’ every 2 seconds.
If there’s an incident - or the alarm system goes down for any reason, the tick stops.
The counter-intuitive part of this is that you’d think that it would be either incredibly annoying because it’s constantly present; or that you’d end up tuning it out and ignoring it, so wouldn’t notice an alarm in the first place. But in fact, the opposite is true. When the tick is interrupted for PA announcements, there can be a pause of up to 2 seconds before the alarm starts after the announcement finishes. And I can vividly remember people pausing and looking around, waiting for it to start again - because 2 seconds is a VERY long time to wait for something THAT important. You become aware of the absence almost subconsciously, and very quickly.
All of which got me wondering about how you could apply this to visualisation.
I sometimes use a piece of software called ChatterBlocker - it plays a series of noise tracks to block out ambient noise, sounds like running water, waves, conversation murmours and so on. It’s loud enough to cover distractions, but not so loud or intrusive that you can’t concentrate.
If the volume of individual tracks was hooked up to incoming data feeds, you’d have a sound source where the mix of sounds was an indication of the data trends. If the sound of rain increased, it could mean that a market was falling; or a gradual rise in conversation could be triggered by unread emails or DMs building up.
The point is that you don’t have to be fully-aware of what’s going on - it’s completely peripheral. No bouncing Dock icons or unread counts - leaving visual cues for the task in hand.
For that matter, I can’t see why other senses couldn’t work. A blast of cold air down the back of the neck when an email from your lands, or a chair that tilted slowly forward over the course of the day until it tipped you out just before you needed to head off to catch that train. And smell is incredibly evocative - a quick whiff of a significant other’s perfume/aftershave instead of a ring tone?
And then there’s haptic feedback - a task on your iPhone home screen that had to be pushed really hard to dismiss it, because it’s now become really urgent? The list is endless.
Anyway, this is something that can sit on my someday list for now. Maybe it should decay and start to whiff after a while as a reminder?