The London 2012 Olympics captivated the world’s attention for several weeks this summer, and no place was our collective obsession with the Games more prevalent than on Twitter, the world’s water cooler. Whether it was weighing in on victories, rivalries, upsets, rising stars, or spotty sports coverage, Twitter was constantly ablaze with a slew of opinions, both good and bad, all of which were captured and analyzed in real time by the emoto project.
Emoto, which we originally covered back in August, is a data-visualization project that tracked the public’s emotional response to the Olympic games, as they were happening, as well as the topics and events that were causing the most stir online. While the Games were still in action, curious viewers could head to the emoto website to take a temperature test of the general tweeting public’s feelings on a given trending topic, like Usain Bolt, or the overall tone of a particular day.
Developed for the Cultural Olympiad by Drew Hemment of FutureEverything, Moritz Stefaner, and Studio NAND, the project used sentiment analysis software from Lexalytics to determine the emotional content of each message and assign it a “score” on the positive and negative scale. These were displayed on the site as multi-colored origami-like shapes that evolved dynamically with the changing tides of the public mood.
Over the course of the Olympics’ 17-day run, the emoto team captured and analyzed some 12.5 million tweets. But why stop there? After the thrill of the closing ceremony wore off, they went on to transform the data they amassed they into a 9.5 meter long physical data sculpture and interactive installation, which recently debuted at the We Play Expo.
The installation is composed of 17 CNC-milled plates—one for each day of the Olympics, from opening to closing ceremony—which together compose a timeline of the event. Peaks and valleys are etched into the plates to indicate the volume of tweets per hour, and a heat map of color gradations is projected on top to show the public’s feelings towards a particular topic or theme over the course of the games (these were pre-determined by the emoto team).
We spoke with the emoto team to find out more about the design and creative process behind the installation. You can also find a more in-depth account of the project on Studio NAND’s website.
The Creators Project: How did you select which events would be represented in the sculpture?
Moritz Stefaner: First of all, the emoto team manually supervised the topics [we were tracking] for the real-time visualization during the course of the Olympics. This means we followed the Games over several news channels, and our real-time visualization on the web. In addition to this real-time process, we also created visualizations in hindsight using a custom graphing tool called the “Sentigraph,” which we created in parallel with the origami figures. All these activities allowed us to go on a data-driven ‘hunt’ for good topics within our dataset, meaning we tried to identify topics that are equally well reflected within our dataset as they were reflected in the real world, or, topics that have been an interesting data-artefact in our archive, such as the massive peaks of tweets due to the boy band One Direction. We also liked those secondary topics because we found they illustrated what emoto does in a nice way.
What is the sculpture made out of? Was it 3D printed?
Stephan Thiel, Studio NAND: The sculpture is CNC-milled from ‘Chemiwood,’ a Polyurethane foam that’s ideal for highly-detailed prototyping and modelling. We actually like the artefacts created by this process as well, i.e. traces left from the milling head, as opposed to the generally cleaner looking 3D prints. Additionally, the objects were painted with a gray dual-component paint, which is especially well suited for projections because it contains particles to form a structured, matte finish.
What’s being projected on the sculpture and how do these projections help highlight the development of individual stories from the Games?
Moritz Stefaner: As mentioned earlier, the sculpture contains all tweets we have collected for emoto. The basis for its creation process are 2D-graphics, basically gray-tone ‘heat-maps,’ which show the aggregated number of tweets per hour for each sentiment-level in a small rectangle. The lighter the rectangle, the higher the number of tweets for this hour and sentiment-level and the higher the elevation of the sculpture at this point. This results in the rollercoster-like bands you see in the sculpture.
For the sculpture, we have aggregated multiple topics into high-level stories through which users can cycle. For instance, the Team GB story consists of tweets from many topics related to Team GB, such as individual athletes, but also other interesting topics we have found, i.e. the story about the golden post boxes. When a user moves the timeline cursor within each story, we basically pick the tweet with the highest number of retweets for this current hour and display it next to the sculpture and projected heatmap. This is all enabled by custom software developed by us using Processing.
Can you tell us a bit more about the user interaction? How do people cycle through stories?
Stephan Thiel, Studio NAND: Visitors were able to cycle through these stories using a Griffin Powermate. Pressing the button switched from theme to theme. Turning the knob moves a cursor on the time axis and selects the most-recurring tweet per hour.
What are the challenges/benefits of turning a data visualization into a sculpture? What is lost/gained by making it physical and tangible?
Stephen Thiel: Benefits: Creating a three-dimensional sculpture helped people understand the displayed dimensions in the data more quickly and naturally. Height corresponds to volume of tweets—a third dimension in addition to time and sentiment-score. This is often more immediate than encoding multiple variables in two-dimensional space. Also, we were able to use the size of the space to emphasize the volume of the data and work with that dimension. Another factor is a social one. People often experience the sculpture together, [as opposed to] the screen based visualization, which many people likely engaged with on their own. This leads to more exchange and discussion, which is what we have liked very much. Another benefit is persistence, we would say. A sculpture is a physical object which doesn’t rely on technology once it is produced. Of course, we enrich it with technology, but if all the lights are off, it’s still an object which represents information.
Challenges: Working with interactivity and dynamic elements. If everything is digital, you can freely create and transform and combine views and thus are free to create perspectives onto data that transport the message you would like to transport. If you have a massive sculpture, this sets a limitation on how you can work with it, also in terms of interactivity, which is definitely a nice design challenge! We would love to explore all further possibilities that would transform the sculpture even more into a kind of interface, rather than a three-dimensional display. Of course, other challenges are also of a technical nature. How to work with different materials and manufacturing processes as visualization variables, which we have only started exploring. It’s also important to gain experience in close collaboration with engineers and manufacturers to understand limitations and affordances of different manufacturing procedures and so on. It’s basically a complex chain of production steps with which you have to deal in a creative manner.
What did you learn from doing this project?
Moritz Stefaner: The emoto project led to many insights which we [will] hopefully explore further in the future, such as all the aspects and design considerations in relation to the sculpture—what materials to use, how to deal with interactivity here, and so on. One of the most interesting things we see in the sculpture is actually all the work that went into its design, basically to try to create a more ‘understandable’ shape and experience for the user. We loved thinking about ‘visualization’ for the blind here, for instance, being inspired by Braille city maps, among others. There is actually much potential here to discover.
Same goes for all the experience we have gained with the real-time online visualization. It struck us how immediately we will see an effect in the real-time visualization if something happens in the real world. And this is definitely something to explore further from a design perspective. But we have also gained much technical experience in setting up such an infrastructure, together with Gerrit Kaiser, much experience in the data-driven journalism-like workflow by toiling in the data-mines and so on.
One of the biggest insights in terms of our audience is that while data visualization is already very abstract to a general audience, it gets even more complicated to communicate all the potential explored by emoto to a larger audience. Here the sculpture was actually very interesting, since its physical manifestation helped people understanding more quickly what it is they are actually seeing and learning about. Of course, that’s also due to the fact that we had more control over the experience as opposed to the visualization online.
Was there a surprising piece of data that you encountered? Did it reveal something about the way information spreads online to you?
Stephan Thiel: Definitely the massive amounts of traffic caused by the boy band One Direction. One tweet by Niall Horan (member of the band) in which he basically expressed his pride about being Irish, got retweeted so much by his fans, it completely dominated our statistics for the topic “Ireland” on emoto, leading to an interesting quasi-glitch in the visualization. The [group] dominated emoto for the second time during the closing ceremony, during which they performed, and that’s when we decided they will be one of our selected stories in the installation. A definite surprise, which was a lot fun to discover and integrate into the project, and which also illustrated to us the power of teen stars on the web.
All images courtesy of the emoto team. Visit their website for more detailed information on the data visualization and sculpture.