Lost in the Clouds
January 22, 2014
When I approached Jonathan Minard under the red glow of the New Frontier lounge, I knew I wouldn’t understand much he said. He sounded like Jesse Eisenberg playing Mark Zuckerberg in "The Social Network," but a little more sociable. He calls the network he developed with James George "Clouds." The interactive 3D documentary maps the stories of data artists, critics and software engineers in a video game-like simulation.
While I waited in line to view "Clouds," I studied a pair of players locked in intergalactic combat in the 3D video game "Eve Valkyrie." Their jaws hung slack. They thumbed Xbox controllers, titling their heads to explore space.
A volunteer fitted the Oculus Rift, a pair of giant binoculars and noise-cancelling headphones, over my head. "Don’t just stare at one thing," she said. "Keep moving your head around."
I began flying through a tunnel of stars. This must be what it feels like to die and go to computer-geek heaven. Circles floated with questions above them: What is big data? How can we use data to create art?
"Clouds" puts viewers in the driver’s seat, then slingshots them down a road stuffed with exits. Viewers determine what questions they want answers to and which artists they want to hear from. Two screens in New Frontier chart a viewer’s path through "Clouds." It looks like a brain map from high school psych class. Bright points of light and white cables connect like a neural network. Each point marks a question the viewer has chosen or an expert they’ve heard from. The points and lines lay in tangles, reaching deep into the screen.
The brain map is only one of the film’s many fantastic shapes: blobs of digital goo, digital streets filled with pink skyscrapers, digital constellations. Each represents data in a visual form.
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On another screen hooked to an Xbox Kinect, viewers can rearrange graphics with their hands. I got so caught up playing with the shapes that it took me a second after the camera cut back to another computer whiz to process her musings. Analyst after critic after game designer popped into the field of stars. If I got impatient with their answers, I could look down to read their biography or twist my head left or right to find more question circles.
I caught bits of language while I swiveled my head to catch job descriptions and discover new questions. Interviewees talked about how we’re all connected now, how ordinary people walk around with technology that used to be exclusive to celebrities, how human ability to visualize patterns impresses them. A ball of spaghetti marked the path I had traveled in a few minutes, a dot in the mesh of white cables. The full version of "Clouds" spans 10 hours.
"Clouds" was supposed to help me make sense of big data, but I gave up early. Looking at my roller coaster flight path gave me a feeling like motion sickness, though I had been standing still.
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