Mobile Visualization

(PS on this one. Links to follow over the conference…)

Mobile matters. Mobile internet users will exceed desktop internet users soon, and by 2016 as many as 80% of all internet users will do so from mobile devices. Internet dat calls are increasingly coming from mobile devices according to Cisco and others, and traffic will increase exponentially.  This “paradigm shift” toward mobile, predicted by Pew in 2010, represents both extraordinary challenges and possibilities to digital humanists and scholars.

As we think about visualization in the digital humanities, this shift is worth considering. Specifically, how do practices of visualization shift when we think about doing it within the confines of the space of a 3×5 inch phone, a tablet, or an iPad? Perhaps more important questions involve those of goals and audience. How do we think about visualization in mobile context? Who precisely is our audience? How do we handle complexity? In what ways can we simplify? Although I won’t answer these questions, I will begin with some examples of best practice, which are by no means comprehensive. Great mobile apps tell stories, they evoke places and ideas. Visualization strategies are, obviously, a huge part of that.

Examples of great visualization strategies abound, though it is clear no best practice has yet fully emerged. Some of the most effective include some of the following examples: Time Travel Explorer London does this through its effective use of background maps to connote time, even if the particular narratives attached don’t excite. (Note also, this is on an iPad.) Halsey Berglund’s Scapes captured place and art through the effective use of Sound. The London Street Museum app allows users to superimpose photographs over views of place evoking a sense of how a particular locale has changed. Time Machine Manchester takes historic video and geo-locates it. The PA Historic Markers app captures the sensibility of historic markers and enriches them with rich context, it provides lots of text as well as rich images. My own Cleveland Historical (and tool Curatescape) allows for implementation of multiple different sorts of multimedia interpretive materials and meta analytical tours. We’ve capitalized on this technical capacity by interpreting through multi-layered stories with visualizations that allow audiences the capacity to move deeply into an interpretive narrative, peripherally across a wide variety of stories, or have their experience mediated by a meta-interpretive theme. Museums, such as the Indianapolis Museum of Art, have also produced ways to visualize their collections using mobile devices, often in conjunction with visits to their institutions.

Arguably the best example that I’ve seen of brilliant visualization is by the NYPL’s Biblion World’s Fair project on the New York World’s Fair for iPad. Entirely an app-based experience, this project provides an unique non-linear approach through the fair, mimicking (I think) how you might have experienced a fair itself. With a view that changes frequently, deep interpretive analysis, and a collection of interconnected visual and sound materials, Biblion suggests the possibilities of mobile to transform how we see the past.

If the above apps suggest some best practices, what other differences might present themselves for visualualization in mobile environments?

Technology matters, and while it can impress, it is not necessarily an end in itself. For example, augmented reality is seductive but emphasizes only technology, and especially the visual. Essentially, augmented reality is the ability to juxtapose a camera view (taken from your phone) over a historical or other images. Apps that do this exceptionally well are surely magical. Check out London Street Museum or LookbackMaps. More broadly, platforms for doing this have emerged, including Layar that allows you to see more than images but all sorts of information, including restaurants, directions, shopping possibilities, or even fellow users. This sort of augmentation is meant to enhance our experience of landscape by adding information to that experience. As neat as this is when it works, it is not necessarily interpretive. Interpretation is more than merely seeing an image, it is about “seeing” and understanding in new ways.

Interpretation is about building connections, representing ideas in new and original ways, or among historians it is often about contextualizing the past. In this regard, technology may augment, but so does interpretive process and expression.

In other words, interpretation *is* augmentation.

When thinking about visualization on mobile devices, we should recognize that *mobile* matters. Mobile allows us to take the power of computers into the spaces of exhibits or city streets, so our work should use the physical landscape as part of the interpretation. Examples of this include the brilliant movies on the Gettysburg Battle App (and others by the National Trust) where a live storyteller is filmed in situ, placing the physical space where the story is taking place within the story. An example of an approach to avoid is embedded in most Historic Markers apps that show images of historic markers (literally) and display their text (literally). What’s the point of this? I have no idea. If you are at a site, then you can already view this information on the marker. These apps add nothing to the marker itself. Although they do alert you to the fact that a marker is nearby, it is little consolation because they offer nothing of analytic value.

Engagement with landscape or object or the visualized data is enhanced by tools like QR codes (and, in the very near future, near field communication). The ability to interact with the code provides interpreters another way of pushing information and ideas to audiences. One aspect of the QR code often overlooked is that the information and knowledge linked to through the code has to be sought by users. As a result, it allows for projects to call users to action, to seek more information, potentially making it possible to provide deeper and richer interpretive visualizations than you might otherwise provide. It is worth noting that other strategies for engagement that are not necessarily technological can work. For example, we can invite user comment and feedback (Scapes), crowdsource the creating of content (Broadcastr), or as we do in Cleveland building content in collaboration with publics. QR codes (and NFC) also call forth the import of using the tactics of game makers, and/or interactive storytelling, or even geo-caching to draw users into your interpretative narratives, to enhance their interaction both with the material world, either artifacts or the landscape. QRator University College London connects people to museum physical objects through a quasi mobile, quasi crowdsourcing strategy that reimagines museum artifacts in entirely new public dimensions. If this is not precisely visualization, the act of engagement is vital to successful visualization. Likewise the app Comic Street Paris accomplishes the same thing by inviting users on a journey of discovery through Paris. Mobile is more than just the visual.

Sound matters. (See my post on the challenges of visualization itself and its privileging of sight over sound and the other senses in the digital humanities.)

For mobile apps that are outdoors and placed based, the use of the Google Map as background is pervasive. But, consider using historic map layers or stylized maps. Precise representations of reality can help you find something on a map, but they don’t necessarily enhance interpretation. Open Street Maps, Vector Maps, or other historical rectified backgrounds might be of greater help in evoking place.

Curiously relatively few apps have embedded visualizations such as those produced by scholars in the context of their scholarship or digital projects. On desktops and laptops, our strategies for visual or other storytelling techniques have been much richer. Perhaps, it is because of the differences in mobile? I doubt this however. It is more likely caused by the fact that the technology—both for visualization and for mobile representation are relatively new and only slowly coming together. Even so, it is clear we need to imagine our visualizations being encountered by audiences in mobile contexts and move toward figuring how best to present in this environment. I am confident that there surely is room for more richly nuanced and detail visual strategies on mobile, but they have not yet emerged. Indeed, I am in favor of having scholars lead the way in reimagining how techniques of visualization can be adapted to mobile technologies, whose pervasiveness will reshape how we communicate with one another as well as with our students.

Mobile, as I hope that I have suggested, produces a different sort of user experience—neither better or worse. It is just different. Those differences don’t preclude more traditional would recommend that we focus our time, efforts, and resources (financial and other) on building new interpretive strategies for mobile. Many of these exist within our professional practice already, but they will surely have to be re-imagined in the context of mobile expression. More importantly, visualization depends on building and responding to audiences within the framework of their experience.

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About Mark Tebeau

I am an urban history professor and digital humanist. I study how memorials, public art, gardens reveal the changing nature of cities and community identity in the twentieth century. I wrote a book that explored the history of cities by thinking about the work of firefighting and fire insurance. As a digital humanist, I am also interested in curation, public interpretation, and mobile technologies. I directed the development of the mobile application Cleveland Historical.

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  1. Pingback: Issue 2 (5 June 2012) | The Digital Museum

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