Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Banging the rocks together

I had a revelation today, one of those moments when your mental jenga stack crumbles, and you have to enter the laborious process of building it back up a few blocks at a time. I was attending an "Inspire and motivate" presentation by Victor Antonov where he was discussing a new artistic project he's working on, and he mentioned using an abstract concept as a tool for defining how to achieve the required end result. I'll get to the details in a minute.

At that point in time, my brain jolted. Abstract concepts as tools? What the hell? My mental picture of a tool is ... well, stuff like hammers, bandsaws, straws, or software tools like Maya - they are tangible things that you interact with. I can grok picking up a hammer, swinging it, and hitting a nail - result achieved. How can I use an abstract concept as a tool? I can hear the jenga stack falling all around me right about now.

Building back up a new mental concept around something as simple as "what is a tool" takes a bit of work, so I'm going to lay out my thought process here.

1. This guy is saying he uses abstract concepts as tools, and he's achieved a result from that - I can see, looking at his presentation, exactly what he's describing as his hoped-for end result. (In this case, He was discussing reduction of scene complexity, including lighting and texturing, to get what he wants).

2. He's talking about using this tool in terms of what he wants - i.e. the end result - not in terms of how he interacts with it - i.e. how you swing it. This is my first disconnect point - my mental picture is normally all about the interaction, and this is the first thing I need to change. After talking to my friendly technical artist Joe, he's quite clear that the best tools are transparent in translating what an artist pictures in their head, and the end result. I've paid lip service to this, but i've never really got it.

3. He's expressing his end result in the simplest of terms - in this case, he's taking a theme ("Lighting defines mood") and establishing a spectrum or gradient ("one end is a single light which gives solid contrast and clear lines between light and dark with lots of shadow, the other end is large numbers of lights and soft ambient lighting which reduces contrast and minimises the clarity of shadow direction").

4. He's then mapping his abstract concept, the theme given above, as the tool that lets you tweak where you lie on the gradient. By tweaking where you lie on the gradient, you end up with a result. Bingo! The process is as simple as a volume slider - how it works is irrelevant, as long as it works.

Using tools is something pretty ingrained in the human psyche. It's been used as a discriminator between humans and animals for quite some time, even if we now know that many animals use tools regularly. As the hitchhiker's guide says, "We’ll be saying a big hello to all intelligent life forms everywhere … and to everyone else out there, the secret is to bang the rocks together, guys." Still, it's a step away from using tools to manipulating your environment using abstract concepts, even though we do it all the time. I'm certainly not suggesting that i've never used an abstract concept as a tool, I'm just saying I've never really thought about it before.

The discussion with Joe lead us into the problems of language dissonance, overloading symbology and user interfaces - but I'll keep that discussion for another post.

1 comment:

  1. I'm looking forward to the next chapter on this.

    I had a particular problem in my last job when the language associated with an abstraction got too overloaded. In the case the troublesome term was 'role' and people had built whole careers out of a particular definition (often without thinking too hard about what that definition was). When I tried to split 'role' into two more manageable abstractions - one still called 'role' and the other called 'persona' people went berserk - I was ruining their world.

    I've been meaning to post myself for some time on the power of language in defining our understanding (of abstractions and real things) and how that shapes our interactions. Of course I would be standing on the shoulders of giants - Orwell's Newspeak anybody?