Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Getting the connotations right

Having returned to Cambridge this week, my 6 months as isolated bush-coder are complete, and it's time to show Palimpsest to some real users. The first of these was Melissa Pierce Murray, sculptor. Melissa originally trained as a physicist, so potentially comfortable with the abstraction inherent in Palimpsest, but by her own claim "doesn't get on with computers". As I've seen in the past with artists considering what they might do with a computer, her first impressions were that she might use this to make a web page, or a powerpoint presentation - computers have never been relevant to her creative practice in the past, and this is answering question she doesn't have.

Nevertheless, after an hour or so of discussion, some points of connection did emerge - she has been sketching grids of visual elements, which she describes in terms of "matrices" and "boundary conditions". The collection operations in Palimpsest (though sadly crashing when demonstrated, because a minor piece of debugging code introduced while passing through Singapore disabled them) do indeed provide exploratory potential that is relevant to these creative questions.

This discussion focused on the potential of software as an exploratory sketching tool, in much the same way as our Choreographic Language Agent has been used at Random Dance. Our most recent thinking on sketching is set out in work with Claudia Eckert and colleagues (see below). An interesting aspect of that collaboration was our investigation of the importance of connotation in sketching - the fact that a sketch looks like a sketch, and has social functions arising from its appearance.

In the case of Palimpsest, I had just made a change to place a mathematical-looking "graph-paper" grid under the currently selected layer, as part of a more general visual overhaul. This has no real function, other than looking generally technical, and providing a bit of colour/texture to help interpret the transparency in the foreground. But Melissa specifically commented on this as helping her to understand the intention of the system, and what it could do for her. In particular, it helps to distinguish the abstract / symbolic / notational / allographic elements of the Palimpsest display from the pictorial / interpretative / autographic elements. Despite the fact that Palimpsest deliberately plays with the allographic/autographic dividing line (what Luke previously called the "anti-semantic"), I think users need to know which is which.

Eckert, C., Blackwell, A.F., Stacey, M., Earl, C. and Church, L. (in press). Sketching across design domains: roles and formalities. To appear in Artificial Intelligence for Engineering Design, Analysis and Manufacturing 26(3), special issue on Sketching and Pen-based Design Interaction.

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