Sky Matrix

Ever wondered what the weather would look like as a painting? Now you don’t have to.

Our habitats should reflect our lives. Why does the world around us not react to events the same way that our devices do? If we care so much about this information, let's bring it into the real world and stop trying to suck all of our data through the tiny straw that is a phone screen. We need to make more proactive devices so that we can spend more time reacting to data, and less time searching for it. We need to make ambient devices that live where we do, so that our data is more accessible. Furthermore, we need to stop being so literal with our data. Take weather data, for example. When I see that list of numbers predicting the future, I feel like I am trying to figure out what a painting looks like with a microscope. We need to explore other ways of expressing this data; what if it was a painting?


I first found out that Dark Sky provides a free API for hourly weather forecast data over the future 168 hours. The data is high quality and accessible, but presenting it in a meaningful and digestible way has been an issue (Dark Sky on iOS, Left). The amount of data is overwhelming and very difficult to remember, but we may be able to synthesize this complex data into a digestible pattern by lowering the specificity. Instead of metaphors like: temperature is a number, chance of rain is a number, cloudiness is a number, we can combine these variables into a single color for each hour. All 168 hours presented together create a piece of art, painted by the weather forecast.


The color picker (Right) shows how temperature and the chance of rain of each hour map to a corresponding RGB value. Warmer colors indicate higher temperatures, blues indicate lower temperatures, and the more green the color, the higher chance of rain. Cloud coverage and sunrise/sunset times are then added by controlling the brightness; the more dim, the more cloud coverage. These metaphors more directly align with the weather that we experience. We already associate warmth with red, cold with blue, and green with spring and rain; in this way, we can get a sense of the data without actually reading any numbers. Individual colors would be difficult to interpret, but many colors presented relative to one another reveal patterns that are otherwise hidden.

Try to get a sense of the weather by referencing the Sky Matrix (Right), and the RGB color picker, while keeping in mind that the brightness of the led indicates sunrise/sunset times, as well as cloud coverage. A few patterns immediately emerge: The sun rises between 7/8 in the morning and sets between 5/6 in the afternoon each day. On Saturday (far right column) the green indicates rain throughout the day, and orange for a warm rain mid-day. It is also easy to see temperatures starting relatively cool and raising throughout the week, from blue to red.

One case that caught me off guard is when an LED shows white. Since temperature is a ratio between red and blue, an LED can only be white when the temperature is 50º with a 50% chance of rain; it is the only time there can be the same amount of all three colors. These patterns, and others, are not immediately evident in lists of numbers, and not as digestible in traditional visualizations. This "painting" can also be seen as a whole, and interpreted in seconds because there is no limitation of reading speed. However it is not without flaw. Those who are colorblind are definitely going to have a hard time translating the data that relies on color, but there are alternate solutions for this too, which I may explore in the future...

This is just one example of how we can create devices that update our habitats, present ambient and proactive data, and question the metaphors of traditional communication. This is what can start to make the difference between reading what data says, and quickly sensing what the data actually means. I built the Sky Matrix using a Raspberry PiFadeCandy Driver, and a bunch of NeoPixel LEDs from Adafruit. It updates its data every 15 minutes automatically, and the current hour of the day breathes in and out to give you some context of where 'now' is on the Sky Matrix.


Floating Pencil Cup

The first version isn't the most stable and the weight of too many pens on one side can cause it to tip, but it's easy to imagine the base as metal wire in the next version, providing more stability and space.

A couple of weeks ago I decided to take something already very simple and make it intriguing. This pencil cup is turned out of African Mahogany and seems as if it is a ring floating just above the surface. This effect causes a quick double-take of a normally ordinary object, followed by an innocent curiosity of how it's made.

What iPhones, Andy Warhol, and Coca-Cola Have in Common

A Coke is a Coke, and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking.
— Andy Warhol

The idea behind the richest consumers buying the same things as the poorest is the essence of Andy Warhol's art. Art had always been something owned by the wealthy, but when Warhol began to mass produce fine art, he created something that completely went against the traditions of the art world. Andy Warhol said, "What's great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you can know that the President drinks Coke. Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke, and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking."

This is great in theory, but what makes us associate a Coke with the president, or Apple products with being creative as opposed to Dell? Many would say that advertising plays a big role, but even still we are very aware of the deceptive nature of advertising and yet can be seduced by brands. Much of it may have to do with the imagery that surrounds that product. Products can sometimes gain a certain amount of non-tangible properties that people automatically associate with them. A certain brand may seem to make you thinner, or a type of knife can somehow make you feel confident in your survival skills. 

The truth is that we can be just as creative on a Mac as we can a Dell. If I buy one knife over another it is probably not going to make me better at surviving, but if I buy a Gerber knife, and learn how to skin a deer with that knife, I am going to automatically associate this experience of rugged accomplishment with Gerber. This can literally force us to manipulate our own experiences without realizing it. If I picked up another knife, and I know that the knife is not Gerber, I will actually have a worse experience with the knife because I have already made a decision that the knife is of lesser value. This theory works the same across all products, services, food, and even people. 

It is scientifically proven that Coke tastes better than RC, so long as you know that it is Coke. There are endless studies surrounding expensive wines and how connoisseurs cannot guess between a $5,000 bottle and a $50 bottle. However if the same connoisseurs know which bottle is which, the $5,000 bottle actually tastes better in real life. 

With this knowledge it can be hard to try and decipher what is objectively better, or what is better because of the brand. I like to think that I will be able to admit when a Microsoft product is finally better than an Apple product, but now I am not so sure.

So if you are trying to create a brand, product, company, food, or even name your child, remember that the associations that come along with that, actually affect how people feel towards it. There is nothing RC can do at this point to make people believe that it really tastes better than Coke, and there is nothing anyone can do to prove that Jiro and his dreams don't actually make the best sushi in the world. Our own experiences of pleasure are just that, our own, and no one can tell us differently. To dive deeper into why we love what we do listen to this episode of The TED Radio Hour.