Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Celebrity Sightings: Visual Perception

The tangible pages of glossy magazines are still available in grocery store checkout lines or by subscription. But today, many readers are taking to the Internet for news and entertainment. Magazine publishers are re-evaluating their role in the 21st century, as users are demanding information more quickly, with higher functionality, and essentially for lower cost.

US Weekly, one of my great guilty pleasures, is no exception. is now a significant component of my experience and ability to obtain celebrity news and gossip in this great nation. I often spend a few minutes of each day surfing the bright hyperlinked pages. I can be pulled in a direction by the mention of a particular A-lister but I have come to realize that the very design of this interface intentionally directs my eyes to motion, imagery and organizational features in prime locality.

“We have no direct access to our physical world, other than through our senses,” (Lotto). Sight is arguably our greatest sense; but the truth is our eyes don’t really see anything. Images are constructed in our brains based on simple signals sent from the photosensitive cells in our eyes. When I notice the flamingo pink that is part of US Weekly’s color palette, my eyes are merely detectors of light, which in turn send signals to my brain that interpret this color.
“Nearly every living system has evolved the ability to detect light in one way or another. For us, seeing color is one of the simplest things the brain does,” (Lotto). There are two components to seeing: the eye, which is the easy part to understand, and our perception of our eyes' signals as processed by our brain, which is far more difficult (Kolbe). Adding to the mélange of stimuli, “We never look at just one thing; we are always looking at the relation between things and ourselves. Our vision is continually active, continually moving, continually holding things in a circle around itself, constituting what is present to us as we are,” (Berger 9).

When I click on my bookmarked browser link I find myself arriving at my favorite portal for the latest in who’s who nattering. Top news is that Kate Middleton is meeting with recovering addicts this Valentine’s Day, and Jennifer Hudson hasn’t stopped crying since news of Whitney Houston’s death. As I stare at the screen my eyes are naturally drawn to hot spots within milliseconds, but why?

In my first eye spy, I notice moving graphics dancing on the screen. My eyes, like all of yours, are trained to follow shifting objects. This is intentional showboating, a promoter’s “look at me” attention seeking behavior. The eye’s retina has two kinds of cells: rods and cones. Rods can detect light, darkness and sense motion and cones detect color. Rod and cone cells are connected to the optic nerve, which carries the image from your eye to your brain (Kolbe).

“Large ganglion cells called magnocellular neurons, or M cells, are triggered into action when part of the image of a moving hand sweeps across their receptive field,” (Montgomery 1). In perceiving motion, as in determining color, the brain constructs a view of the world from pieces of information. Currently there are three moving features on the home page for, the first is a center stage slideshow featuring relationships of the rich and famous or “Hot Pics.” Due to Valentine’s Day the US Weekly logo is also flashing, surrounded by pulsating hearts and cupid’s arrow.

Finally, and this is no doubt a plan of a marketer somewhere, the subscription notice for the magazine beckons my consideration as a gridded box begins with a colorful slate and than fills with informational content and imagery. All three of these examples have given my M cells a run, triggered acknowledgement, and early stages of processing. It will only take a second before I can understand the information and significance of these particular stories and their superiority to anything static on the page.

After I have deciphered the more energetic components, I find my eyes focusing on the headlining imagery, pictures of Kate Upton, Jennifer Lopez and Courtney Cox. We’ve all heard time and again that pictures speak louder than words, but we don’t dive into the science behind this phenomenon. A simple argument could be made that imagery conveys meaning far more quickly than text, but the brightness and size of these images also make a strong case for directing my sight.

“No other kind of relic or text from the past can offer such a direct testimony about the world …In this respect images are more precise and richer than literature,” (Berger 10). US Weekly minimizes text-allowing images to be dominant in both their print and online versions. Our brains form images based on pattern recognition. Data from our visual system are processed to create the images we perceive. Certainly dense scientific research exists to shed light on the biological and psychological processes in play, but when I look at an image of chic Reese Witherspoon my eyes are gathering data; line, pattern and color. The brain interprets this not only as an image, but a recognizable face.

I am able to navigate because of a designer’s thoughtful exploration of my needs as a celebrity stalker. The wireframe is based on the golden grid rule, or the rule of thirds (Lidwell 208). Symmetry, alignment and proximity allow me to make sense of the information before me.

“Gestalt psychology attempts to understand psychological phenomena by viewing them as organized and structured wholes rather than the sum of their constituent parts,” (Soegaard). The Gestalt principles account for theories of visual perception, several of these are at work in the arrangement of material on the site. Not only was a designer conscious of good navigational functionalities but additionally the tracking of the human eye. Jakob Nielsen’s research in this area has demonstrated that users read web content in an F-shaped pattern (Nielsen).

The F-shape reading pattern refers to the viewing order; in the case the menu bars and latest news headlines have prime real estate. A designer has utilized bright color swatches that contrast with the whiteness of the remaining screen when information falls lower on the homepage or outside this zone. “Color enables us to see the similarities and differences between surfaces according to the full spectrum of light that they reflect,” (Lotto). The organizational features and placement on this interface allow my brain to make sense of an onslaught of data. “The brain evolved the mechanisms for finding patterns, finding relationships in information and associating those relationships with a behavioral meaning, a significance, by interacting with the world,” (Lotto).

Since the rants of Plato, humans have come to give primacy to visual sensory experience. We’ve all heard things like “seeing is believing,” or “love at first sight,” which is certainly my experience with Ryan Gosling.

As a species, we are driven by a desire to uncover connotation, above all, we are, as Roland Barthes suggested, “Homo Significans” or meaning-makers. This fundamental human aspiration underlies the process of our visual perception; faced even by “meaningless” patterns our brain will strive to make sense of it all.

It’s not a matter of chance that my eyes are drawn to particular features on A well-intentioned designer’s objective is not only to consider how an interface will be seen, but how it will be perceived; this relies on having a fundamental understanding of the mechanics of sight and visual perception. As Beau Lotto said, “ We must investigate how people literally make sense of the world,” (Lotto). It’s not an easy task: “It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world… The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled,” (Berger 7).

Works Cited
Beau Lotto. “Optical Illusions Show How We See | Video on" TED: Ideas Worth Spreading. Oct. 2009. Web. 14 Feb. 2012.

Berger, John. "Ways of Seeing." BergerWaysSeeingchp1.pdf. British Broadcasting Corporation and Penguin Books. Web. 14 Feb. 2012.

Kolb, Helga. "Photoreceptors – Webvision." The Organization of the Retina and Visual System. The University of Utah School of Medicine, July 2011. Web. 14 Feb. 2012.

Lidwell, William, Kritina Holden, and Jill Butler. Universal Principles of Design. Beverly, MA: Rockport, 2010. Print.

Montgomery, Geoffrey. "A Hot Spot in the Brain's Motion Pathway." Howard Hughes Medical Institute | Biomedical Research & Science Education (HHMI). Web. 14 Feb. 2012.

Nielsen, Jakob. "F-Shaped Pattern For Reading Web Content." Designing Web Usability. Indianapolis, IN: New Riders, 2000. Print.

Soegaard, Mads. "Gestalt Principles of Form Perception." 2010. Web. 15 Feb. 2012.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Where does a good idea come from?

We like to think of an idea as a light bulb that suddenly appears aglow in the dark corners of our mind. But brilliant ideas don’t just pop into view in a single flash of clarity; “eureka” moments are not spontaneous or isolated incidents. We should think of an idea as network with a timeline all its own; ideas grow and evolve because of how they are allowed to make connections with other ideas. That is where innovation comes from.

Tonight, at the close of a busy semester, I find myself thinking about just one thing: how do I get to the big idea? I have a feeling that there is something sort of epic in me, but I just keep wondering how will those ideas come shine?

I’ve been doing a bit of reading on this in the last week. And it seems to me that our grade school teachers were right about one thing, sharing is caring. I’m not sure I like sounding peppy or optimistic about “collaboration.” It was a lesson we heard repeated in our childhood, and I feel like an after-school television special to have a platform of ‘play nice with others.’ This blog entry isn’t about an original thought and the topic doesn’t make it feel young or hip. But regardless, the idea of collaboration as a source of innovation is an important cause.

We must all jump on board with the idea that working together leads to opportunity and embrace openness. New and evolving communication platforms are giving us the ability to work together in increasingly complex ways. Call me a techno-optimist, but why aren’t we more excited about these innovations of connectivity for the sake of solutions? Cognitive Surplus, an idea Clay Shirky has installed in me, is the idea that the world’s free time can now really be used as a global resource. If we accept that there is wisdom in the crowd, and that two or more people can produce an idea far superior to the individual, than why is there so much resistance to embracing openness of knowledge and research?

Connect rather than protect ideas: I am thinking that we all need matching t-shirts with this slogan. I know what it is like to hold a good hand of cards. I understand that scientists and research labs are resistant to showing their bag of tricks. When I find myself with a full house, my fingers tend to ache from my tight grasp; careful and aware of wandering eyes that might ruin my victory. But curing disease, saving our planet and digitizing human knowledge are not card games. I find it foolish that some are more concerned about intellectual property rights over humanity. These multi-faceted and significant problems can’t continue to suffer from hesitation and greed. I dream about about collisions—of ideas. In physics, a collision is the exchange of energy and momentum. I advocate for collisions of our philosophies and methodologies. The collision is where exciting innovation is born.

Big ideas need big spaces. I encourage you to become familiar and comfortable with the idea of open source, open data, open access, open software and open science. The fundamental ideas, as Dan Gezelter wrote, “Transparency in experimental methodology, observation, and collection of data; Public availability and reusability of scientific data; Public accessibility and transparency of scientific collaboration. Using web-based tools to facilitate scientific collaboration.” I believe strongly that we will continue to discover that sharing is in our own best self-interest.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Disconnect to Reconnect: Being OK with Powering Down

My phone buzzes in my pocket. Just a one pulse vibration, ahh what does that mean again? Curiosity overcomes me and I pull the shiny screen from hibernation, rightttt, someone has re-tweeted my most recent life altering post. Freaking fantastic, remind me to change those settings! I turn back to the computer just as a pop-up window invades my screen; it’s Google, someone has sent me a video chat request. It’s an old troubled friend down in the Carolinas. Sigh, you’ve got to FOCUS JESS. I can’t play “online therapist” right now buddy. I X the screen close quickly as my Catholic conscience sets in. Before I can process what I’ve done, I have received new email and push notifications on my phone. By the way, it’s your move on ‘Words With Friends’ and if you don’t act soon you will forfeit. Additionally, someone has commented on your ‘Happy Birthday Big Cat’ Facebook comment.

When I am “hooked in” trivial life can feel more exciting and validating. And when the world feels a little lonely or small- simply logging on exposes me to droves of people from the past and present ready to “like” me: validation, information and connection. It’s there for the taking, if you want it.

I have one email address for work, one for school, one for a side eBay business and another still for personal use. Three of these accounts get sent to my phone. My daily life is a slew of incoming information and messages. I get texts, tweets, and emails rocking round the clock and calls via phone, Skype and Google. But it almost feels passé to use the phone now, doesn’t it? If I am making plans with a friend sometimes I’ve got to check six places to see how they messaged a time and location. “I figured you would get this email as fast as any text.”

Everyone has a bedtime routine. Like most, I start with brushing teeth. But then I plug in. I set the alarm app on my phone, making sure it is wired to the wall. I set my laptop on my nightstand; loaded up with the next thing in my Netflix queue; a life source as important as my MacBook must be charged overnight. It’s sad when you realize you can’t fall asleep without the lullaby background noise of a television show. It was in this pre-bed plug in process on Wednesday that I had a realization; I’ve become so good at connecting that I must become better at disconnecting. I set a goal on the spot, for 24 hours of tech solitude, desperate for a passport-free mini retreat to the jungles of my undisrupted mind.

By 9 am the next morning I had failed miserably. I had texted my roommate, checked email and monitored a bidding war on eBay. Perhaps 24 hours was too lofty a goal for my first go. I totally blame my environment; it dictates the need for being wired up. As a student of emergent media, I certainly can’t have live Wi-Fi less life. But an addict would never get away with those excuses at a 12-step meeting. What have I become?

For the past four summers I have spent time with a handful of good ol’buds in Caroga, NY. There is a camp there, deep in the Adirondack wilderness, which belongs to a friend’s family. The property is only accessible by boat and is an amazingly rustic and secluded hideaway. Every time I drive there I know the exact landmark where I will loose my cell service for the length of my stay. I have observed a difference in the relationships with these friends on our backcountry vacations. We always blossom in light of total disconnection, we aren’t distracted and we relish in the face-to-face, internet-free, TV-less relations. We disconnect technology and we reconnect with our liveliness; and in the process have one hell of a good time.

I am so tired of hearing, and for that matter saying, “I can’t live with out my phone.” Technology can be a mind-numbing drug. I know what it is like to jones for it too, we need it. Now hey, I am no naysayer. I think the power of technology is awesome. We rightly depend upon it for efficiency. It’s not feasible or practical for me or anyone else to completely abstain. But as the year comes to end, I am dedicated to establishing ability for disconnecting. I firmly believe that when we turn our phones off we have a newfound ability to reconnect with some important things in life. There is such a thing as being too connected and as I continually reaffirm in life, balance is important. When I am able to disconnect I have the ability to tame my mind and find new value in real human contact. I am going to insert “time off from technology” into my weekly schedule—and not just during my usual yoga practice. I don’t want to wake up with my iPhone in hand or my laptop tucked under the sheets --- and yes this happens.

There is a new film by Tiffany Shalin that is asking what it means to be connected in the 21st century? I am looking forward to seeing it and sadly I checked Facebook while playing this trailer: Connected The Film.

I would also check out this new witty picture book: Goodnight iPad by Ann Droyd.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Tuesdays with Jody

Martin Luther King Jr., John Lennon, Clint Eastwood, Marvin Gaye, Buzz Aldrin, Marilyn Monroe were all part of the “Silent Generation.” Demographic justification defines this generation with birthdays between 1925 and 1945; it includes the children born during the Great Depression and World War II, and those who fought in the Korean War. William Manchester, a biographer and historian, summarized the generation as “withdrawn, cautious, unimaginative, indifferent, unadventurous and silent.” My experiences over the last few Tuesdays have proved Manchester a fool.

Class lets out at 4:45pm on Tuesday. I’m usually a bit fried from discussions on technology as a disruptive force and heavy with weight of homework assignments due in less than 24 hours, but I agreed to join my professor and a few classmates on a trip to a senior community in Shelburne, Vermont. With promises of a $5 dinner, and good karma, we were tasked with helping seniors with digital technology.

Jody was one of the first residents to enter the room. I looked up from my screen, having downed the vegetarian option at the café and feverishly trying to knock out some part of my hefty homework load in the small window. She smiled, I smiled, and the journey began. “Where should I sit?” she asked. The evening was a bit of an experiment, pre-assigned to topics, uncertain of our destined partners or further arrangement I invited her to take a sit until we were told otherwise.

“Do you have an iPad?” she inquired.

“Well no. But I have an iPhone, it’s the small version of the iPad and I work with a lot of Apple products. I bet I can help.”

“I really need to talk to someone who knows the iPad.”

What happened next was perhaps serendipity… Jeff, my professor surfing the room, formally assigned us to work together. Needless to say, Jody wasn’t thrilled, she had come here, looking for simple, straightforward, easy answers and my lack of an iPad was a strike against me. She whipped out a laundry list of topical questions, sync issues and other problems. I took a deep breath and dug to the core of my inner yogi. I knew I had something to prove and jumped to the plate, reading the first item aloud, “e-books.”

Did you know that the Kindle reader app doesn’t work on the iPad 2? You need the Amazon Cloud Reader app apparently. Long story short, I didn’t know that. Jody studied library sciences, was a librarian and has a love of a book in hand. She really had no interest in reading e-books but she wanted the option. She wanted to know, what was all the rage? Lesson 1. Technology is not seamless. Lesson 2. Technology makes things easier, but it isn’t easy.

Tuesday 1. Downloaded some new apps, managed to get access to e-books against great odds, set up email account and covered podcasting. I was amazed and caught off guard by Jody’s hunger; in her 70’s she was aching for modern technological enlightenment. Along with the hunger was fear and frustration. The more she talked about her six children and numerous grandchildren that more I understood. Jody knows the world is operating a new digital playing field and she does not want to be left behind. She wants her voice heard.

I returned the following Tuesday evening, not quite knowing what to expect. Jody arrived shortly after with her laptop and iPad. It sort of felt magical on Tuesday 2. She had played with some of the new apps and had questions on syncs and social networking. “I tried Facebook,” she said. My eyes bugged out of their sockets. Curiosity is what keeps us young, regardless of what year it says on your birth certificate. Her internal digerati had been awoken. By the end of the evening we were following each other on Twitter and she was planning a trip to Small Dog to buy a MacBook. I assume her Dell laptop has found a dumpster by now. Lesson 3: Technology can be your friend, if you let it.

Lesson 4: Life works in mysterious ways. I’ll be honest, 15 minutes into Tuesday 1 was thinking about wolves wearing sheep costumes. By the end of Tuesday 2, I was feeling a bit sentimental that the experience was coming to a close. Lesson 5: Empathy. It is important to look at the resistance of technology and where it comes from and what feeds it. It is easy to forget that we all use technology with different expectations.

Jody has sent me words of thanks by email. I don’t think she understands that I am grateful for these Tuesdays; sure a lesson in patience, a reminder to be sweet and steadfast, but a powerful experience nonetheless. I am confident that Manchester’s generalization needs to be revisited. Nothing about Jody suggests she is withdrawn. She reads more than anyone else I know and is openly seeking education in her golden years. Perhaps she is a bit cautious but I would argue, well shouldn’t she be? I think over one cup of tea, Manchester would be biting his tongue, unimaginative? Unadventurous? I don’t think so. Silent? Think again sir.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Photography, Painting and Puppy Love

Digital painting: let's hear it for trying something new! I used a Wacom drawing tablet and many of the paintbrushes in Photoshop to create this digital painting of my dog and I:

This is is a link to the PSD file.