Apps as data visualizations

I’ve been stuck on Koven Smith’s challenge from IgniteSmithsonian to disambiguate the digital from the physical. In several meetings now on a variety of topics, I’ve found myself recognizing how easily we take the preconceptions we have about how things are done in the world, extend them into the digital realm, and how restrictive they can be. So, it is especially refreshing to find not one, but two new apps that embody that challenge and let you interact with large masses of content in new and interesting ways.

Planetary by Bloom Studio is an amazing little app that acts as an alternative front end for your iTunes library. It’s already gotten written up by Wired, The New York Times, CNET, and others. I like this review from Read Write Web, though.

Two amazing things about Planetary are the way the data visualization is the organizing metaphor for interacting with your music, and the extent to which it’s interface is based around tablet gestures, not buttons and icons. Planetary doesn’t act like a web app or a phone app scaled up for a tablet. It’s its own new beast.

Planetary is based around the metaphor of your music collection being a galaxy. Artists are stars, albums are planets, songs are moons. You can zoom in and out of your library and see all the albums orbiting a given artist, zoom in further to see tracks, and tap one to start it playing. It’s mezmerizing. When you play a song, a progress bar extends from it along its orbital path. As I played with it, the care that went into the app started to become manifest. Planets orbit at speeds based on their length, so 1 orbit = 1 song length. You can tell how long songs are relative to each other by their orbital periods. All the junk that’s usually a list in my iTunes window was there, but as a visual representation, rather than words or numbers. They do have all the usual controls down on the bottom of the screen, but I didn’t bother with them. It was so impressive to see how easily they’d converted all the information I wanted to see into moving images.

Planetary is by no means a perfect app. It completely locked up my iPad twice, forcing a hard reset. And the interface currently only allows you to search by artist. My lovely and talented wife, stoically sitting through another, “Honey! Check this out!” moment with me, felt that Planetary seemed a trifle too limited. She wanted to view artists by genre and see who’s related to whom, and explore connections between artists. Maybe v2? I got that feeling too, more than once, like they were 80% of the way to something incredible, and decided they had enough to launch with. It’s a free app, by the way, so take all this pining for more features with a grain of salt.

What intrigues me so much about Planetary is what it signals for mobile apps. An app that uses a killer, intuitive interface on a big database full of structured data that it displays on the fly as a changing visualization of a data set. Substitute your museum’s CMS for your iTunes library and imagine the possibilities.

Download Planetary here and try it out.

Biblion: The Boundless Library– is an iPad app from The New York Public Library, and a potentially a platform for NYPL delivering new ways to explore their holdings. The launch issue of Biblion (note the language) focuses on The 1939-40 World’s Fair. According to NYPL, future issues of Biblion “will open up another of the Library’s collections, services, or programs by providing exclusive content in an innovative frame.” In other words, this is the first installment of many. So is Biblion an app, a magazine, an exhibition, or a platform? I’m not sure, though it seems to have elements of them all.
Biblion’s been generating some heat out in the world. Bill Barol from Forbes hated it,  the New Yorker liked it, and the Atlantic thinks it might be the magazine app of the future. It’ll be interesting to see.

What I like about Biblion is the way they’ve managed to make a large, potentially unwieldy collection of primary source materials understandable, browsable and coherent. It really felt like I was sitting with a very knowledgeable curator while they showed me stacks of materials, told me interesting stories about what I was looking at, and made connections between pieces to draw out some larger themes. It feels like a lot of thought went into the content design and that always warms my heart.

The primary interface for Biblion is the Wall, a collection of stacks of materials that are grouped into themes like “A Moment in Time” and “Beacon of Idealism” and so on. The topics cover a lot of ground; women and the Fair, racism in 1930s, celebrities at the Fair, visions of the future… There’s probably some entry point for you. When you select a theme, you are presented with a collection of images and introductory text on the theme, and probably more, but the controls are a bit daunting, and I purposefully didn’t not avail myself of the help screen. When you select an image to explore, you are presented with a larger version of the image and more information. Swiping will take you from page to page, pinching will move you back up to a theme. It feels very much like a mature iPad app.

So far, nothing groundbreaking, right? But what Biblion does is organize the content based on how you’re holding the device. I was holding it portrait, like a piece of paper, so I was given “Book View” – a white background, smallish image and text. An icon at the bottom of my screen prompted me to rotate the device to enter a gallery view. The background went black, the image expanded to fill the screen and the text disappeared, replaced with a headline. When I selected it, I could get back to the text I had been looking at. That’s when Biblion grabbed me, and that’s why I’d recommend you take a look at it. All the same content was there, but if you wanted to look at pictures, and then read, you could. If you wanted to read and look at pictures, you could do that, too. The app allows you to move back and forth through two ways of interacting with the content and I really appreciated it. Some topics spoke to me and I wanted to read, others didn’t and I could flip through the images as fast as I wanted until something caught my eye, and I’d stop and dig for details. I think it’s genius.

The app is not without v1.0 issues. The interface has a lot of subtle cues that are telling you tons of things about where you are and where you can go, and what awaits you there. But unless you go to the help screen to learn about the interface, the orange or blue bars aren’t going to tell you much. Maybe as Biblion becomes a platform, people will get used to them, but for now, the navigation and design vocabulary can be problematic. It’s big, and on my 1st gen iPad, it sometimes felt a bit sluggish. On the whole, though, I think it’s a viable model for how museums could be thinking about mobile experiences that really take full advantage of the affordances of the medium.

Download Biblion now and try it out

UPDATE: The CMS to iTunes library comparison seems to have struck a chord with people.

Chad Weinhard tweets:!/caw_/status/73110795000627201

@drbouchard tweets:!/drbouchard/status/73368134672846848

Not quite sure what this means, but I hope we’ll hear more.

Suse Cairns tweets:!/shineslike/status/73721128404791296

Her response is brilliant. She takes my pretty narrow look at a couple of apps and places them in a theoretical framework that lets you consider the big questions of how we choose to represent knowledge. As a useful thought experiment, she quotes a post from Mia Ridge’s Open Objects blog (you already read it, I trust) that asks us to imagine what our museums would be like if we were Amazon, or a pub, or a festival. How would we organize and present our collections, our data, our “stuff”?

If you’re interested in the idea of exploring different metaphors for representing museums’ information, then give her post a read and add your thoughts.