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by Johannes Schöning, Brent Hecht, Martin Raubal, Antonio Krüger, Meredith Marsh, Michael Rohs [ published at IUI 2008, Canary Islands, Spain ]

Interesting work that mines wikipedia to create layers on data above a virtual globe. They mine wikipedia for semantic links and create narratives based on the relationships. They have also built a large FTIR based multi-touch screen to interact with their application.

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So, we have the picture of the team, we have some of us post our funny and not-so-funny experiences, and we have a couple of posts on story-telling. But why, you ask, are we solving a solved problem? Why does the world, and specifically India, need an other mapping site, when you have Yahoo! and Google do a really neat job with their satellite + street maps? Do we want to be another GMaps-wannabe?

As you know, the answer is a resounding NO. Virtual India is a platform for many things. One is to showcase (showoff?) Microsoft technologies – not just Virtual Earth, but also MSRI’s own multi-lingual capabilities, and our strengths in different forms of digital geography. But primarily, we believe as a team, that the final word in maps has not been heard. We believe that the potential of a digital map as a platform for narratives, as a platform for collaboration, and as a platform for learning,  has still remained in its promise. We hope that through this endeavour, we end up exploiting a little more of this potential.

Every good dev team either has a slogan or a codename for their project. Even XP advocates having a single-word metaphor that generally describes what the project is about. So, if some Microsoft projects used names of Mountains, some Intel projects used lakes and rivers, and some projects in HP used LOTR/Harry Potter-esque names.

What should the VI team slogan be? My personal favourite is the one phrase we use most often: “I don’t know”. Should we make the UI a classical one? I don’t know. Should we add some cool new feature? I don’t know. Should we even release the damn thing? I don’t know!

Affordances

Mohit is a funny character. He bluntly refuses to admit that he knows anything while continuing to dazzle you with his knowledge. Today was no exception. I was walking out of our building to get a cigarette, when I pulled on the handle of the door that was clearly marked “Push”. Stupid of me, I thought. Then it struck me. Handles are meant to be pulled, not pushed! Now, there was a conceptual underpinning to this – what was it? I thought I should ask Mohit, our local encyclopedia. [BTW, MSRI has put off plans of populating a library until Mohit leaves us. Wonder why.] As I was walking towards him, I remembered the concept – affordances. So, I asked him: “Hey Mohit, do you know about affordances?” And pat came the answer: “No.”

I knew this would be a long evening. Unfazed, I laboured on: “Affordances…”, I told him, ” like on a door – you don’t put a handle on the side of the door you expect to push.”

And then, like the Hanuman of lore who had to be prodded into doing exemplary things, Mohit woke up to reality.

“We should put in some new affordances in our site.”, I said. [This should tell you how much I know about affordances.] “But first, we need a metaphor.”, Mohit replied. Which is fine, but would our metaphor be a paper map? Or would it be a three-dimensional thingie? Or should it be something else? Like always, we discussed away to glory, not coming to any conclusion.

 A day well spent, I should say!!!

Discussions, meetings and even passing each other in the active corridors of MSR are only some instances for the Virtual India team to digress. Each conversation flows flows through a multitude of disciplines, people, moods – opinions clash, noise levels are breached and work is ignored.

There is an air of Care, love of what is being done and could be done. Everybody has a Veto and is pushed to dream. The Virtual India team – when working together – never hates work, hate is something we waste in words and in our frequent leaps to the edge of what could be possible. It is only in my recent interaction outside our little world – where India is Virtual and where stories make lives – i realized the changes that have come into me.

There is so much more to get excited about, to read, to listen, to interact and fight over. Problems suck less, and signs, sounds and smells tell more. Gestures in the street remind of that part of us which lives outside of time – of timeless charm and elegance. The target is not to build a piece of software, and not to provide the illusive, distant and in-vogue happyness. And surely we are not in a race to beat the competition, to win the customer – we are not looking to customers, but collaborators to tell stories about places and ponder about tools for doing so.

The many collective ideas, quirks and obsessions provide fuel for what we do and our digressions from it. And as I have gone on incessantly – man is a species of space – and a construct of stories. In more ways than one.

So to conclude let me say – the blog needed an update – love what we are building and hate to waste time – am not in a mood to work today – hyphenations galore – the above should be taken with a pinch of salt as I really do not understand what I was trying to say.

Tons of exciting tales lie buried deep in every corner of India – tales of places, tales of people, culture, tales dark and daring or inspiring and uplifting, tales yet untold.

Some of these stories are truly Indian, stories that may provide glimpses of where we were, where we truly are (and are not) and where we are heading; stories that must be told.

Then, there are the tales of old India that we probably know very little of, tales that have the ability to influence us even today, tales that have been confined to history books read and forgotten in history classes.

Virtual India we hope, will provide the platform to bring to light these hidden stories through narratives. More importantly, we hope to provide the touch of realism to narratives, whether they are intense stories which have great impact or light descriptions of fun filled anecdotes, of interesting tourist places, or maybe of typical urban hangouts.

Virtual India will, hopefully, help us get in touch with the Real India. Well, virtually atleast!

On Jan 8th, 2007, my first day at MSR, I arrived early at the institute. Atleast earlier than the time given to me. I got my photograph clicked for my ID card and was shown to my workstation by the group admin Prathibha who was one of the few souls in the lab at that early hour. Later I learnt that folks in MSR are mostly nocturnal in nature and a large number of them are, what we refer to fondly as ‘night owls’ 🙂 . 

Prathibha quickly showed me what I needed to know, where I would sit, the pantry (which was fortunately quite close to where I would sit 🙂 ), the conference room, the recreation room, the rest room and so on and so forth. She asked me to help myself and left to attend to her other duties.

I had a lot of time on my hands and left to myself, I started exploring my surroundings. In less than ten minutes I felt very much at home in my new workplace and was quite proud of myself for getting there early enough to get comfortable before the important folks arrived. The next item on my personal agenda was to visit the restroom. And so I did.

The Ladies’ Restroom in Scientia(thats the name of our lab by the way), was quite impressive. After using it, I took my time admiring the interiors 😉 . I looked at the shower and dreamt of using it one day soon, though I couldn’t think of any immediate reason why I would want to take a shower in office. I admired the elegant wash area, the spic and span floors and mirrors.Soon I was ready to go, not wanting to spend my first day entirely in the restroom.

Oops. It was only when I tried opening the door to get out of there did I realize that I was locked inside. I looked at the thick polished wooden door and the shiny handle on it. Somewhere under that beautiful exterior, something had snapped.I shook it, rattled it, jiggled it( and any other verb you can think of).Finally,  I realized with great despair that , that beautiful shiny handle does not work.  The first thing that crossed my mind was the empty lab outside. How, Just how did I get myself into such a mess on the very first day of my corporate career?? 😦

Then a thought struck me. What if this was a test. A test that every newcomer had to take.A carefully designed task to test my resourcefulness. Could the new girl cope with day to day problems and match the ingenuity and creativity of the smart people in the company? I knew this was a stupid thought. But not altogether impossible.

I thought of the possibility of a videocamera that I could wave at, to attract attention. But unfortunately, the company was much too decent to have planted cameras in the rest room. Sigh 😦 . Or they were much too cunning to have planted it in the open where I could see it 😉 . So I waved around anyway..  Needless to say, it did not work. The thought makes me smile even now.

The door seemed too thick to carry my voice out. So I decided that shouting was not such a good idea. Besides, I still had not completely dismissed the idea that this could be a test and did not want to fare too badly 🙂 . So I looked around for things to use to open the foreboding door. Unfortunately it wasnt even one of those locks that one manages to open with a hairpin, specially in movies and novels. Though it was another thing that this was neither a movie, nor a novel and I did not have a hairpin. I was wearing one of those clasps that hold up your hair and I couldnt think of a single way in which you could open a door with that.

I cursed myself for not having brought my cell inside. But then who would I call?? I didn’t know a soul. I would probably have called my dad who in turn would have called up the institute with a request to rescue his daughter from their second floor restroom. That thought was quite hilarious 🙂

Well, looked like I had to try shouting. I spotted a few vents at the bottom of the thick door and bent down to listen for noises outside. My ingenious idea was that I would start shouting and banging the hateful door, the moment I heard footsteps. And so I did. I figured that if I could hear their footsteps, they must be able to hear my shouts too. But I was mistaken. Probably because they werent listening for sounds from restrooms as intently as i was for footsteps. Not one of those footsteps turned my way 😦

I also wondered what would happen if the handle failed to open from outside too. But I had run out of ideas so kept at the shouting. At length after about twenty minutes of incessant ‘shouting at footsteps’, I heard one of the footsteps stop. I heard a voice. I increased the fervour of my shouts and tried making as much noise as I could. The footstep was definitely coming my way. My savior was here 🙂 . I couldnt wait to see the face of the owner of those now familiar footsteps. Then there was a final thought. Would the face be curious and concerned when it sees me or would it be grim and judgemental because I had failed the test? Fortunately the face of Aishwarya, my savior 🙂 , was the former.

Within moments I was out. We had notified the housekeeping and within about half an hour the problem was solved, the handle was fixed. The efficiency was quite impressive. I returned to my workstation and vowed to stay out of trouble for the rest of the day. 🙂