About Our Media Wall

Why we have the wall

One of the most effective means to explain the digital humanities or digital scholarship is to provide a visual example. Our human ability to read images clearly exceeds our ability to process text, and a rich data visualization can not only elucidate an esoteric concept in concrete and creative ways, it can also be an attractive or even artistic object.

Our goal with the wall is to have an ever changing array of data art and data visualizations on display that will serve as a current answer to the question “what is digital scholarship.” We invite anyone on campus looking for display space for their data visualization/art to contact us about putting their work on the wall. Anyone who has rich data and would like help creating a visualization should contact us, too. We have expertise to help.

How it came to be

The media wall adjacent to the entrance is one of the Sherman Centre’s signature features. It started as a passing suggestion from Stéfan Sinclair, an incorrigible digital humanist (his words) and former McMaster faculty now at McGill. In a conversation with Dale Askey, he mentioned the notion of a video wall with various sized monitors, akin to a wall of family pictures in a grandmother’s home.

That idea morphed into a call for proposals from undergraduate students in one of Judy Major-Girardin’s advanced studio art courses. We gave the students information about the space available and specified that any design had to have space for monitors to show data visualizations, but otherwise encouraged them to let their creativity take over. We received about 15 portfolios, all creative in their own way, but not all realizable in real time and space nor on a budget. In the end, the jury selected the design submitted by Katrina Camilleri, which she titled “Mega Minds.”

The Wall

The wall itself is built on a slight angle from an existing wall, forming a very small wedge-shaped room to house the computers and cabling. It’s quite claustrophobic, and only the intrepid (and thin) can reach the last monitor.

The Artwork

Katrina painted “Mega Minds” over the summer of 2012. It uses common latex enamel paint on an MDF surface, with a clear coat finish. We discovered to our dismay that MDF actually swells and contracts with the seasons, so there are subtle lines at the seams between the panels in dryer weather.

The Monitors

The monitors themselves–with one exception–are common consumer-grade monitors from various manufacturers (Toshiba, Haier, ViewSonic, Proscan). They were selected primarily for their size attributes, as the cutouts on the wall dictate what size must be used. The exception to this rule is one touch-screen monitor that we acquired to experiment with interactive games and features. All models are Energy Star compliant.

The Computers

One of the design principles for the installation was to use minimalist technology. For one, this helps contain costs, both initial and ongoing. But more importantly, it reflects one component of the digital humanities, namely the maker/hacker community. It would have been easiest, of course, just to drop seven Windows computers into the wall and attach them to the monitors, but we would have learned nothing, nor explored a single new technology. As it currently stands, the seven monitors are being driven by five distinct types of hardware–modified Apple MacBook, scavenged HP laptop, two Raspberry Pi boards, Android-based simple computer, two Zotac thin clients–running a wide range of operating systems. Details for each monitor can be found below.

Viewed from left to right:

Monitor 1

A simple $99 Android-based mini PC runs this display, which currently displays graphs and word clouds based on data extracted from the Library’s public catalogue.

Every morning, 2 cron jobs are setup to query our Integrated Library System (Sirsi-Dynix Symphony). One script pulls the total count of the books checked out the day before and appends the results to a text file. The other script pulls the titles of the most popular checked out books in the last 7 days and stores the results in a text file.

A php script then reads the text file containing the daily total checked out books and calls the Google Charts API to generate the timeline.

Another php script reads the text file containing the titles of popular books checked out in the last 7 days and generates the tag clouds using a free tag cloud generating script.

Monitor 2

Details coming soon.

Monitor 3

This monitor, near floor level, is powered by a Zotac mini-PC running Ubuntu 12. The current artwork is a fanciful screen saver known as Electric Sheep that generates randomized fractal animations (design: Scott Draves and the Electric Sheep). It is a simple demonstration of data art. It currently runs in standalone (offline) mode, but when networked, this client can participate in creating collaborative abstract artwork with thousands of other clients across the world.

Monitor 4

Powered by a $35 Raspberry Pi device, this monitor currently displays a 7.5 hour train ride in Norway, the Bergensbanen. Video was scaled down to fit on the 16GB card, and a loop program was written so that it just plays over and over and over and over and over.

Monitor 5

Details coming soon.

Monitor 6

This display is driven by a scavenged (i.e.- old and decrepit) HP laptop with both its battery and optical drive removed to reduce heat generation and improve cooling airflow. Its wifi card is disabled, and it currently just plays an .mpeg video in a continuous loop using the open source VLC media player. Older computers such as this laptop often have various hardware failures (this one has a failing screen) and generally can’t run newer operating systems well, but they are perfectly suited for simple repetitive tasks such as this, often running for years without issues.

Monitor 7

This monitor displays a bubble graph of stock data from the Nasdaq 100 index. The size of each bubble is based on the current day’s percentage increase, i.e. larger bubbles are bigger % gains. As with Monitor 4, this uses a Raspberry Pi device running Raspbian Linux. The Python source code for the stock bubbles app is hosted on Github.

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