Presentation|Tech (I): Preamble

This is the first installation in a short series of posts on presentations, presentation technology (software and infrastructure) and presentation culture (mostly within the academic setting). This first post gives some background to my personal interest in presentation technology and uses HUMlab as a key example of presentation infrastructure. I take the term ‘presentation’ to also include practices that I would more readily describe as enacting, narrating, performing and interpreting. I am hoping that some of this writing/thinking will be useful for a book project of mine.

My interest in presentation software most likely comes from my interest in presentations, storytelling, screens and infrastructure. Over the years I have tried quite a few different presentation technologies and I have planned and implemented (with a great deal of help) different kinds of presentation infrastructure. In creating HUMlab, we created a space and infrastructure for enacting, articulating, interpreting, performing and presenting. It presents an experimental and exploratory possibility with the support of an expert team. I think it is fair to say that we pushed the envelope in the sense of trying new things out and not always having everything sorted out before we started. I need to stress that an operation such as HUMlab depends on people more than infrastructure, and the infrastructure comes to life through people.

A particularly precarious example of this risk taking is when we did the inauguration for a new large-scale initiative in 2009, drawing on a screen infrastructure and touch functionality that were not quite implemented. There are two videos (video 1 and video 2) from the event (in Swedish), when  the County Governor and myself managed a fairly tricky situation well (especially given that we had university leadership, funding agency heads, regional leadership, international visitors and more in the audience). We were lucky the system actually started to work … eventually.

The space in question has eleven screens around. If you have ever been to HUMlab you are likely to have seen it as we often use it. I am happy with the way this space turned out – it is versatile, attractive, useful and conceptually strong. It incorporates (among other things): peripherally placed screens (and associated interaction technology), normally a centrally placed seminar table (surrounded by wallpapered pillows), nooks for individual work, and a large open space that can be used for events, performances or exhibitions.

sortingscreens

From Sorting the Digital Humanities Out (December 2013)

The visualization below is one of the earliest material concepts for the space (on the left hand side – at this point this space had not been incorporated in HUMlab).

nyrum_screen_7

All the renderings and concept drawings I have of this space include the central table. It is as important as the screens (if not more important). For various reasons, the setup displayed here did not quite come true, but the concept remained, as can be easily seen in the current setup. The angled screen setup (the three screens in the lower left corner), however, did not come true until much later (and then as a two-screen angled setup). As a whole, the space is both flexible and static. For instance, the arrangement of the screens was carefully chosen and is fixed, while most of the space can be rearranged. I have written more extensively on this space, infrastructure and design principles in the DHQ article “From Optical Fiber to Conceptual Cyberinfrastructure”.

I have had a tendency to think of spaces the way I imagined then, which can be a problem sometime. While space and infrastructure need a certain degree of stability and onceptual core (I argue), you also need to be flexible and adapt to actual use and strong ideas of how the space can be used. One example I remember is when visiting research/art fellow Ele Carpenter started to do art-bsaed sewing circle activities (as part of a large-scale project) in the lab and totally changed the space. She also had this screen cozy made (never, ever could I have imagined someone creating a cozy to cover one of the large screens part of the core infrastructure of the space. Here (pdf) is a leaflet for one of Ele’s open sewing circle events in the lab.

One of the challenges with creating alternative infrastructure (having more than one screen for instance) is that software and hardware systems do not necessarily work with your setup. Try running PowerPoint with several presentation screens for instance. In the case of the 11-screen space (HUMlab-2), we early on realized that we needed to think carefully about how we could actually deploy content to the infrastructure. I am glad we did not let the complexity of this issue stop us from actually building the infrastructure. Infrastructure is intimately connected to narrative possibilities. I think that one personal driving force has been interest in multiplexity – different ways of enacting complex arguments, data sets and perspectives. The infrastructure discussed above is one example of this interest.

Part of the original setup in HUMlab-2 was a media distribution system which allowed us to distribute content across the screenscape on a media signal level (allowing a certain number of sources). However, while this system allowed us to use the screenscape as a single display surface, it turned out that it was not capable to move windows/viewports around and do other dynamic actions in any convincing way (it was simply too “blocky” and slow). We also installed a single computer with a very large desktop (extending across the eleven screens), but it took time to get a computer with that many video outputs at this point (it is still a struggle if you want heavy-duty graphics power). Furthermore, also this system had clear limitations. How do you actually organize a presentation or narrative over multiple screens on the same desktop in any systematic way? Desktop interfaces are primarily made for production, not presentation. We also realized there were fairly trivial challenges – including the problems of moving a small arrow around on a screen at the other end of the space (15 meters away).

Although we invested in several systems to produce and deploy content in the screenscape, it has often been our own systems that have been most useful. Johan Von Boer’s work has been invaluable here. He started to use the clustered computers (intended primarily for the display wall infrastructure) early on as a kind of backbone for his own software systems that used the these computers to output content to the screenscape in a cohesive way.

schema

There is also a great deal of work to get a complex non-standard infrastructure in place. For instance, it is easier to run a standard single-screen widescreen setup than an irregularly shaped screenscape (computers expect screens to be rectangular and have certain display ratios). Furthermore, there is the complex work of installing cables, making sure that the signal strength is good enough, tweaking video and sound, installing other interaction technology and make sure it works with the system etc. The technology group at HUMlab made this possible through their expertise and hard work. Allowing for exploration is important and also realizing that experimental setups will not work as expected. At the same time, once experimental setups have been “naturalized” and taken into more general use (which usually takes quite a bit of time in a research and development environment), there have to be relatively fail-safe ways of using them (this does not exclude experimental work, but can at this time hopefully be done in such a way that it does not compromise the basic functionality).

The next post will be on performing scholarship.

Svensson, Patrik. 2015. “Presentation|Tech (I): Preamble”, Published on September 2, 2015. http://patriksv.net/2015/09/pres-prestech-i/.

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