Solyaris originated as an exploration into Organic Information Design, a term coined by Ben Fry. In his master’s thesis 1 on this subject, he outlines the limitations of static design techniques when dynamic information is considered. The author makes a case for using organic simulations for visualizing complex, large and dynamic data. Such a self organizing system responds to the changing data as well as to the interaction of its users.
Inspired by his thesis and Marcos Weskamp's flickr graph 2, I began developing a visualization of The Internet Movie Database (IMDb) using a force directed graph 3. Such a graph consists of a collection of nodes (e.g. movies or actors) connected by edges (e.g. character or role). Each node repulses any other as if electrically charged, while the edges attract them by applying a spring force. This physical simulation is repeated until the system reaches a state of equilibrium, resulting in an optimal and pleasing layout.
Back in 2008, The Internet Movie Database Graph (IMDG) was born - built with Processing. Still a rather basic application, it allowed the user to explore movies, actors, directors and their relationship. While the visualization itself certainly has its flaws, it's main drawback was the user interaction. Clicking and dragging nodes with a mouse just somehow “felt wrong”. Personally, I would rather prefer touching, manipulating and exploring information in a more direct, natural and playful way.
Recently, with Apple's iPad and other touch, tactile, haptic or gesture based devices becoming more popular, a paradigm shift from desktop computing (keyboard & mouse ➝ monitor) to a less abstract interaction between user and content is occurring. As a consequence, also the metaphors for user interfaces are changing from abstract to more direct representations. In respect to information visualization, it is no longer necessary to manipulate data by external devices. Instead, information from different sources can be accessed and explored directly - the visualization becomes the interface 4. Bloom's iPad App Planetary 5 or Flipboard 6 are examples of such an intuitive and immersive approach.
As kind of an experimentation, I decided to rebuild my simple movie database visualization for the iPad. The Solyaris app uses data provided by The open movie database (TMDb), the graph itself is built with Cinder and some custom iOS components are used for displaying additional information like filmography, biography or Wikipedia articles. The full source code is published under a GNU GPL license on GitHub.
The focus of this project was actually not on the visualization itself, but on the interaction and experience with it. There exist much better force directed graphs and more accurate and meaningful visualizations. For example, the nodes/edges get rather messy, labels overlap - and yes, I do scale the nodes by radius... and well, you basically just see who played in what movie.
Instead, I tried to improve on the interaction with the information, how it is presented and how the application responds to it. The objective was to render it as natural, intuitive and responsive as possible, allowing a user to touch, manipulate, explore and experience this data directly. Far from being perfect, Solyaris is the attempt to make one step closer towards designing a more organic and natural way on how information is found, discovered, presented, consumed and understood.