Being the Data (ie. data & body syntonicity)

Recently I’ve seen a number of new examples of physically-embodied data presentations – examples where each person participates with their body representing the data that they are.  Using your body to act as the data in this way is not only fun, but reminds me of the work I used to do with the concept of “body syntonicity” here at the MIT Media Lab’s Lifelong Kindergarten group.  Seymour Papert coined this term to describe how children would program and predict a LOGO Turtle’s motion by imagining they were the Turtle (1).

Some kids kick it old school with a real LOGO Turtle at the MIT AI Lab!

A Corporate Example

The first connection I saw recently was a video ad for Prudential while I listened to Pandora Radio.  They are trying to tell a data story about how long people live after retirement, with the goal of getting them to set up a retirement plan with Prudential. The campaign is very appealing from a data-presentation point of view.  In one ad they asked people how much money they thought they needed for retirement, then gave each a length of ribbon, and had them walk from the center of a circle to the length of the ribbon:

Another let people put a sticker on a big chart to build a histogram of the oldest person they knew:

These are cool, and look fun.  Letting people be the data connects them with the information in a real, body-syntonic way.  I’m sure this makes the people more likely to be interested in Prudential’s product offerings and planning services.

An Academic Example

In the academic realm – my colleague Nathan recently went to the Computer Support Collaborative Work conference, where he learned about the MyPosition project from Nina Valkanova, Robert Walker and others.  Her recent work revolves around concepts of presenting information in public spaces.  Here’s an academic paper describing the MyPosition project.  It allows people stand in front of a projected poll and add their vote by holding up their hand:

Their findings in the paper around social pressure are interesting, as is the fact that people got around the fancy tech to actually engage in the question they were polling.  Also the idea that people used it more when it showed real people’s faces is interesting.  All in all, it presents a fascinating example and some usable insights into how to design these types of public interactive data presentations.

A Community Example

My colleague Sasha Costanza-Chock recently pointed me at the Crossing Boundaries project from the local Urbano Project.  Artists Alison Kotin and Risa Horn worked with 10 local high school students to gather data about local transit and create art pieces that told the data stories they found.

Their pieces are embodied data sculptures – wearable objects that represented the data story they want to tell.  This example is fantastic empowerment, data literacy, and art work.  I enjoy it in so many ways and look forward to talking with the creators sometime in the future.

Be the Turtle

So what’s the takeaway?  As a young participant in a robotics workshop I ran years ago said – “Be the turtle”.  Think about ways you can engage people to actively be the data in the story you’re trying to tell.

(1) Papert built on Freud’s notion of “ego syntonicity”, which concerned the mind.  This presentation I found online digs into this more in relation to computer programming.