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David Kepron

Brain Food: Be Creative. Be Brave. (Part VIII: Data Visualization)

Making the invisible visible.

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WE HAVE BECOME amazingly adept at collecting data. Despite this, I’m not sure that we have become equally as good at using it to change brand experiences in places where the engagements happen. What if we could take data and translate it into physical manifestations? What if we could make the invisible, visible?

The amazing thing about moving from an analog to algorithmic experience paradigm is that’s technically possible. We can use data in ways that it becomes physical, transforming surfaces from blank plains to captivating, interactive digital experiences that make what has been, until now, un-seeable.

Through the extraordinary digital imagination of data visualization artists like Refik Anadol, recordings of brain activity generated by memories, data on weather and traffic patterns or millions of images of a city can be pushed through algorithms that parse the data into usable visual elements, making the ephemeral and intangible content of a memory a beautiful piece of dimensional, dynamic digital art. Anadol, recently called “the new Da Vinci,” is reshaping environments. With a growing portfolio of public building works, art exhibitions and installations at places like Artechouse in Washington, D.C., and New York, he is demonstrating the remarkable power of the algorithm to recreate the experience of place.

While there has often been the tendency to view technology in a dystopian perspective, a new generation of data visualization artists are demonstrating that it doesn’t necessarily need to be thought of this way. To Anadol (who in 2019 received the Lorenzo Il Magnifico Lifetime Achievement Award for New Media Art as part of the 12th Florence Biennale) architecture is a canvas, and light and data are substance. His works “mostly collide media arts and architecture.” While based on hard algorithmic science, the nature of the work that Anadol produces is able to deliver remarkably subjective experiences. Its creative depth and intricate physicalizing of data allow for a sense of wonder and awe as remarkably detailed images pour across the screen or are projected into a space. The work illustrates the didactic nature of machine-human learning.

We interact with artificial intelligence each day. As we do, machines learn about us, and we in turn learn about them. This exchange allows for the reinterpretation of the meaning of architecture that has the ability to transform human interaction by way of data sets that hold memories of human experience. Anadol likens his work to the time of the Renaissance, when artists, supported by wealthy patrons, were supplied the best brushes and pigments. Today he has a connection to the best, and biggest, data-driven companies as well as AI engineers. He describes his process as “literally putting the brush inside the machine’s consciousness and trying to paint with those algorithms, AI or data.”

Imbedding digital media into architecture can make the old seem new again. It shifts our perception of time and space, or more importantly, our perception of time and place. The symbiotic nature of data and embodied human experience opens new avenues to seeing the world of what brand places may be in the near future. Digital overlays on existing architecture create new meaning, especially because buildings from past decades are representations of a world view with a time stamp on them; they are a reflection of a specific time and place but not necessarily relevant to today’s time and place.

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While existing architecture provides a physical testament to periods of human history, it may be less relevant to an emerging cohort of brand experience seekers who may not care so much about other times other than the present.  The combination of existing architecture with the ephemera of digital experience re-contextualizes experience places, lifting them out a history long since passed into a world where moments are more relevant than monuments. Analog architecture is metamorphosing under the weightless burden of data. These new architectural experiences are built on a foundation embedded in the ground and augmented by data floating in the cloud.

I am not suggesting that we wipe out architectural history. I am actually fascinated by how architecture, over the years, has represented our understanding of the world and given meaning in physical form to ideologies that could only be considered as metaphysical. We are now firmly in a new market-segment-of-one economy, where life experience is increasingly a reflection of the “brand of me.” Without the context that comes from truly understanding the who-what-why-how of places and buildings that were loci of significant cultural expression, historic places of deep meaning become a footnote to a selfie moment.

I believe places of experience teach. Architecture, machine-learning and data visualization are interdependent in a new expression of meaning. Through them we learn about the world around us and our place in it. Architecture though, tends to be static. As the pace of change accelerates, how do buildings keep in lock step as an expression of a culture despite being bound to a certain time? New digital tools combined with “old” (or new) buildings can create a fundamental shift in how places teach and learn.

As I have suggested in previous posts, digital overlays on existing buildings are one level of creating immersive experiences that can profoundly alter place-making. These video mapping exercises are more like a performance, entertaining since they combine compelling graphics and paint buildings in movement, color and light. However, there is a beginning and an end. The curtain rises and falls, and engagements are extended to viewers for a specific duration. They play like a movie and are then rewound to play again for a new group of observers in a different time slot.

The challenge in this paradigm is one of content creation. Groups of creative digital artists spend immense amounts of time and energy creating these shows. When they lose their luster having run for a period of time, they are shelved and new ones are made. The process is long and involved and is done at considerable cost. Often the burden of content creation and management is too much for companies who provide these experiences. Maintaining the constant flow of new product makes these digital video mapping projects less viable long term.

What a new cohort of data visualization artist are doing is something different. When Refik Anadol says he “is painting with algorithms by plunging his brush into the consciousness of the machine,” his creations live, grow, learn and transform as new data is fed into the algorithm. As the code receives new information, the algorithm augments itself, changing as it learns, never presenting the same visuals. In this way, AI-based immersive digital experiences can stay in pace, in real-time, with the customer who directly interacts with the environment, and in turn, with the machine. This is a symbiotic relationship, a shared teaching-learning paradigm, that establishes a creative collaboration between consumer, machine and architecture.

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This type of experience doesn’t “get out ahead of customers” as we often hear retailers describing their strategy to remain relevant to their customers. Rather it will work with them, in the moment, to make new experiences that are captivating because the customers, in part, made them. Futurists suggest a man-machine merge, “the Singularity,” to be a few decades away. The postulation is that it will be a time when we have physically integrated with the digital world and have become augmented. We won’t be living/working alongside the digital world, we will be fully embedded in it – or it will be embedded in us. Along the path to that future state, we will share data – our digital life stories -– with algorithms and visualization devices. The real-time experience of place will be painted with the shared consciousness created by way of AI and the data sets of our lives.

David Kepron is formerly the VP - Global Design Strategies – Premium Distinctive Brands at Marriott Intl., responsible for the strategic design direction for Westin, Le Meridien, Renaissance, Autograph Collection, Tribute Portfolio, Design Hotels and Gaylord Hotels. He is also the founder of Retail (r)Evolution, LLC and NXTLVL Experience Design, LLC. In his latest venture, NXTLVL Experience Design, Kepron brings years of retail and hospitality design expertise to the making of meaningful customer connections at brand experience places around the globe. His multidisciplinary approach to design focuses on understanding consumer behavior and the creation of relevant brand engagement moments at the intersection of architecture, sociology, neuroscience and emerging digital technologies. As a frequently requested speaker to retailers, hoteliers and design professionals nationally and internationally, David shares his expertise on subjects ranging from consumer behaviors and trends, brain science and buying behavior, store design and visual merchandising as well as creativity and innovation. @davidkepron; www.retail-r-evolution.com.

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