lifecasting as a digital notebook

Essays

I had a meeting this morning which I think will help seed a nice, grand project over the next year. We discussed creating an augmented workspace to be used in a laboratory setting. This is the brainchild of Jason Morrison and Mac Cowell of diybio.org. (see the Seed Magazine article featuring Mac and his work)

The concept, called SmartLab, looks to be a fun way to reapply and improve on some work I have done previously in interface design, multitouch tables, and creative workflow research.

The project will involve prototyping a physical workbench (with integrated projection, multitouch screen, and image capture facilities), writing some system software, and developing a user interaction that will stretch my imagination in strange and useful ways.

Tomorrow I’ll be working with them at Dev House Boston (a self-imposed cram session of people completing interesting things over the course of a few hours) to design and possibly prototype some of the user interaction for this device.

I have an interest in people’s workspaces. I have reams of notes and photographs documenting how people set up their studios, kitchens, or even just their computer desktop. I adore artist studio tours because you can often get a sense of flow from the best producers just by their arrangement of tools or choice of decor. I believe that prolifically creative people set up their environments so that there are few barriers to successful accomplishment.   

workzones

The idea of introducing technology into an environment in an unobtrusive way to facilitate creation strikes me as a big problem worthy of exploration.

For example, one of the more interesting ideas that surfaced today was the idea of an “improved lab notebook.” Researchers must take copious notes about their experiments as they are learning and trying new ideas and techniques. These logs serve as both evidence of work progress and as fodder for the papers that are the mark of accomplishment for scientists.

While there are many attempts to digitize or automate these notes, it seems that most researchers revert to paper and pencil as their note-taking default; Mac relayed a story of a researcher printing out results and literally cutting and pasting the spreadsheet into a paper notebook.

Lifecasting as Means for Project Documentation

There are live video streams of offices and studios and workshops out there that I find fascinating. Sometimes I’ll just turn them on one of my monitors and just have them running in the background. Since I work alone from my home office, this sometimes makes me feel connected to other humans also pursuing some results.

A little while ago, I registered a ustream.tv account for an idea called “Tinkercam.”

tinkercam: Ustream.

lifecasting as means for project documentation.

There is a known psychological effect that when you are observed in a work setting (i.e. you think somebody is watching you), you will work more effectively and are more likely to stay on task. The surprising thing is that this will even work if you place a photograph of eyeballs somewhere in your peripheral vision.

I set up my tinkercam in hopes that it may be a way to mindhack my way into increased focus. On my test run, I just found that I was spending all my time fiddling with the webcam and that only one person was watching (who thought I was a tech support person and started asking questions about setting up their ustream account). Granted, I could have gone onto twitter and announced the “launch” of tinkercam, but I felt that it’s not at a launch stage yet. (The cam is live sometimes, nonetheless.)

I then started brainstorming on what else a tinkercam would be and how it needs to change to be useful or even fun.

First, because it’s video, it needs to point at interesting things. A guy, banging on his keyboard all day is actually not interesting. More interesting would be a stream of my computer screen overlaid on top of my face so you could see what I was working on, what I was paying attention to, and how my workflow progresses.

If I was working on my robotics projects (like the robot puppet), then I could get away with just pointing my camera at my soldering iron and that would be more visually interesting by the nature of the work.

Second, it needs to be unobtrusive. I shouldn’t have to think about turning it on or switching between camera views. Something like motion detection or application awareness could act as a virtual “director” for the tinkercam.

The more exciting potential is that by recording the stream or taking critical snapshots, you can document the progress of a project automatically for sharing. Documentation and process sharing has become increasingly important for creative producers in the hacker/DIY community. (see instructables.com) Software artists pay attention to the blogs of other software artists as they write about their projects.

We also discussed the value of “replaying.” Mac often captures a desktop stream as he is iterating over design (ex. photoshop). This way, he can replay his tinkering and watch the creative evolution of an idea. Often he will discover decision points where alternate choices might be useful in different contexts.

The Creative Framework and the Digital Notebook

I’ve also been working on a digital sketchbook and ideaflow tool which allows me to rapidly iterate through ideas and follow threads. I am able to fork off ideas and replay/retrace iterations to discover their lineage.

This, in essence, is my lab notebook. It’s custom software that in itself is a creative work, but it allows me to open lots of streams of thought and follow them as I see fit (or as the software urges me to go).

I’ve written about my theory of creative infrastructure before, but to reiterate:

The creative process has steps:

  1. Live and Observe
  2. Wonder and Research
  3. Tinker and Experiment
  4. Build and Bookend
  5. Repeat

You complete this cycle forever and at every stage, you have opportunities to share your output copiously so that you can create better work.

I think working with Jason and Mac on the SmartLab table and lab notebook will inform my continuous tinkering with the creativity framework. I think there are tools that may emerge that will become useful cognitive aids for knowledge workers.