Dream Encyclopedia

Sunday 06 October 2002 at 13:19

Back in the late eighties I was reading an article about a CD-ROM encyclopedia and while reading I drifted off into a day dream that was only loosely related to the article. At some point my attention returned to the article and I skimmed back to where I was last paying attention to re-read the article. I realized that my daydream had been much more interesting than the article anyway.

At that time I was corresponding with a Canadian scholar at the University of Toronto whom I had met at a guest lecture at the University of Colorado. I described the day dream to Dr. Veltman in my next letter. That eventually lead to two semesters in Toronto and one in Siena working essentially as an apprentice to Dr. Veltman.

Quite a few years have passed since then, but the day dream is still fairly clear in my mind. It's been embellished somewhat over the years.

I'm looking at a photo-realistic animation of a falcon in flight. I'm able to adjust the camera position to observe the falcon's movement from various angles and to zoom in on details like the tail feathers, or wing tips. In an adjacent window pane I can see a larger view of the falcon in the context of its flight. The window panes are synchronized so that I can see how the adjustments in the tail feathers effect the flight path in the more distant view. As I'm watching this I feel myself developing an intuitive grasp of the relationship between the changes in the wings and the flight behavior. As the falcon dives toward it's prey I can see how the wings change position and see how minor changes in the wing feathers effect the flight.

In the close-up pane I turned on a wind-tunnel display which visualized the effects of the wing on the surrounding air. I could see how the changes in the feathers effected the turbulence behind the wing. And I could begin to see how the patterns of changes in turbulence correlated to the flight path in the other display.

Then I changed the second window pane to be a close-up view of the wing. But in this view I was able to remove layers from the display to see what was happening inside the bird. So I could remove the feathers and see how the skin flexed underneath. In the correlated pane I could still see the feathers. Again there was an intuitive connection developing between what I saw in the feathers and what I saw in the skin. I removed another layer and could see the muscles themselves. At this point I opened another pane to see the larger context again. Now there was some connection developing between the musculature and the changes in flight path.

Peel back another layer to see the various biological systems in motion: I could view the circulatory and respiratory systems, and in a separate pane correlate those systems with the muscles, or feathers, or flight path. There was a display that visualized what was happening in the nervous system. It looked something like distant thunderstorms firing through the limbs. And again I could correlate the visual patterns in the nervous system with other aspects of the flight of this falcon.

Having explored the falcon in some detail I brought up a different bird in the adjacent window to compare the systems and dynamics of the different birds. I started first with other raptors, an eagle, an owl, a hawk, and then compared a penguin swimming in comparison to the falcon flying. In each case I was able to compare the muscles and nervous systems across species. I could adjust the speed of the animations so that the flapping was in synch.

The next phase in the exploration took me to a slightly larger view. I zoomed away from the specific bird an looked instead at its niche. I could view the interplay between the insects which fed on plants, and the smaller birds which fed on the insects, and the falcons which fed on the smaller birds. I could display the nervous systems and see in the thunderstorm flashes when the predator and prey became aware of each other and how that awareness changed their behavior. I could zoom into different aspects of this wetland to see how the soil changed as it neared the edge of the water. And adjust the display to highlight different elements and chemicals in the stream. And in zooming and dialing in different aspects of the wetland I felt the same intuitive connections developing between the changes in the soil and how those effects rippled through other members of the wetland. In a sense it was a witnessing of The Butterfly Effect.

Zooming out I changed to a continental view where I could examine the paths of migratory birds and weather patterns. I could view the cycles in alpine watersheds and peel back the layers of earth to view aquifers. Adjusting time scales, I could watch the tectonic plates move, watch mountains form. Here I could compare different parts of the world in adjacent windows. In one I could see the Rockies, in the other the Himalayas.

Changing topics entirely, I opened a history of the Roman Empire. Here I could see in one window a display of the changes in the Roman boarder. In another window I could see a progression of technological discoveries. I began to see a correlation between the technologies of road building and the corresponding amount of territory under Roman control. Adjusting the time slices I viewed a colored display of the linguistic changes over the centuries. For a time there was a surge of red as Latin spread with the Romans. Over time the different regions colorations changed as French and Italian and Spanish diverged from Latin. I could correlate some of the natural boundaries with the changes in language.

In a later view I could see animated presentations about the movement of technology. Innovations moved rather slowly for centuries and then exploded after the invention of the printing press.

Though I still love this vision, I have been sobered over the years as I've developed a greater understanding of the insane amount of data that would have to be collected -- devices invented just to capture some of the information. Digitizing the world is no small undertaking. And in my daydream the interface to this encyclopedia was all completely intuitive. But I shudder to think of the effort required to enable an intuitive adjustment to point of view, and comparisons and layering and selecting of different species. Sigh.

On the other hand, Shrek animators used tools that allow them to manipulate digital muscles and bones to create the characters' life-like facial expressions. And The Visible Human gives some hints of the kind of data-based imagery that's possible. Some of the technology is out there in the form of medical visualization tools like CAT and MRI. And technical evolution happens insanely fast. I can't decide if I'm likely to see anything like this in my lifetime or not.