In the visualization session at American Association of Science and Technology Centers, Devon Hamilton, Director of Content at TELUS World of Science in Calgary, Canada, tells this story about his teenage son. Devon was watching the documentary ‘March of the Penguins’ when his son came into the room and remarked, “That’s a really good animation”.
This simple comment, as he explained it, highlights an increasing challenge for science centers and institutions that rely upon visitors’ belief that what they are presenting is true and accurate. Visitors assume that that “institutions” with a capital “I” have the authority to speak about a topic in a way that is 100% trustworthy, quotable, and real. This authority is the cornerstone of the institutional power of legitimacy and proof of their relevance in the field. This trust, though, is fragile.
Each year computer generated graphics get more sophisticated. On the silver screen the gap between the real and the simulated narrows to the point in which audiences can’t, or simply do not, distinguish between the two. Skepticism about what is real and unreal rises and the lines blur. More and more, we are losing our authenticity bearings. This blur of reality is a quite positive outcome for Hollywood success, but the ever-growing skepticism is carrying over to venues such as museums and science centers.
Science centers are looking at visualizations as an exciting tool to include in exhibits, but the fidelity of what people see and believe is a pressing issue. Scientists use visualizations, based on accurate readings from instruments and mathematical models, to study and describe the un-seeable. These agreed upon conventions are useful in that any scientist within a particular field can look at them and derive meaningful information. Because these visualizations and measurement systems require extensive knowledge and experience and the ‘just noticeable difference’ of domain expertise, they are not always particularly apparent or useful to the casual visitor.
Terms like data visualization, which means one thing to scientists and another to visitors, are used to describe new and upcoming data intensive exhibits. By choosing to be true to the actual science, by using the same exact tools, may also mean potentially losing a good part of your audience. Whether an exhibit includes true data visualizations or interpreted animations is an issue that exhibit directors are struggling with in search of the right balance – holding true to the fidelity of the science while providing visitors with an exciting and meaningful experience.
Existing exhibits, such as NOAA’s Science on a Sphere, and the Global Observer at the New York Hall of Science, present actual earth science data culled from NASA satellites. Aside from sea surface temperature maps using color-coding and sea currents with arrows, most other visualizations, like cloud cover, from sources like MODIS satellites, are incomprehensible to audiences at large. Color temperature maps with arrows showing currents are common metaphors used in TV weather reports, but naturally lack much as an actual tool for data view and analysis. Visualizations, especially 3D visualizations tied to real data, offer wonderful models for exhibits.They are a cool and impressive way to show phenomenology and dynamic systems. The rich layers of data manipulation provide visitors with ways to interrogate data, to test out “what if” scenarios, and to play interactive knowledge games. But they fail miserably when people find them to complicated and intimidating. Trying to find the ideal interface for these types of exhibits is one of the potential pitfalls.
Other interesting visualization links:
We have found the most success occurs when visitors are presented with a simple to use, but dynamic interface, that can switch between various depths and types of data, quantitative and qualitative views, and various points of interest. Providing visitors with the ability to see the data models behind the experience, and presenting the same data in a variety of visual formats, also increases their interest and participation. Naturally, we all do not relate to the same stimulus – visual or otherwise, and one of the true wins of the visualization model, is that it comes with the kind of built in flexibility and variability that allow visitors to get involved and explore the content. Watching a movie, we may be engaged, but we are passive. This is just the right combination of factors for the lines of fidelity to blur. However, the more engaged we become, and the more active we are, the more interesting and ‘real’ the content becomes for us, which in turn, maintains the fidelity and the believability of the experience.