Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The times they are a changing -- HTwins "Scale of the Universe" updates Eames' "Powers of Ten"

In 1977 the designers Charles and Ray Eames made a film called Powers of Ten, "dealing with the relative size of things in the universe and the effect of adding another zero." It begins with a picnic scene then zooms out to 100 million light years (10^24 meters) and back in to .000001 angstroms (10^-16 meters).

The film was very popular at the time and it has been viewed over 1,728,000 times on Youtube. In 2010 the Eames Studio created a Web site based on it. The Web site adds a bit of interactivity and sharp still images like the one shown here, which depicts a view of the picnic from 10^26 meters.

But, it is re-purposing of old material and it shows.

Contrast that with HTwins' interactive site "Scale of the Universe 2" (Scale2), which was born digital. Here we see some objects that are around 1 meter in diameter.

Instead of watching a video, the user zooms in and out using a slider that ranges from the size of the strings of string theory (10^-35 meters) to the observable universe (10^27 meters). The user can also click on an image to open a small text window describing the object. The text is at least partially available in 20 languages.

Unlike Powers of Ten, Scale 2 is extensible. The translations are provided by volunteers and new images and text descriptions can be added. Powers of Ten has not changed since it was filmed.

While I like the interactivity and extensibility of Scale2, it lacks the interesting and compelling narration that accompanies the Eames film and provides for transitions between the images. The two have their place, and if I were teaching the topic, I would have the students watch Powers of Ten then play with Scale2.

There are two other notable differences between Powers of Ten and Scale2.

Powers of Ten was sponsored by a major corporation, IBM, and Scale2 is sponsored by Google Ad Sense ads. One big client versus a lot of minuscule clients.

Another difference is in the project organization and cost. Powers of Ten was produced by what was arguably the most famous design firm in the world. They had a large studio with many employees and were known for projects like the Eames chair, IBM's World Fair pavilion and the design and colors of IBM's "big blue" mainframe computers. Scale2 was created by Cary Huang, a 14-year-old ninth grader with technical help from his twin brother Michael. (I wonder if their parents helped). Here are the Htwins: