Experimental Data Aesthetics – Multi-sensory exploration of high-dimensional data sets as an issue in design research

In empirical sciences the media aesthetics of the very own thinking tools are seldom explicitly considered in research projects. The fact, that research results are represented not only textual but especially by visual means and that at the same time, these forms of expression have a significant influence on the research process has already been recognized and elaborated strongly by media, cultural and design studies. The application of these insights back to the representational tools of the empirical sciences is one of the most relevant contributions of design research still due. Key subject of the application-oriented research project is the cultural technique of the explorative analysis of high-dimensional data, that has been researched in the field of computational sciences since the 1960s, but rarely exceeded modes of mere visualization of data. Based on a critique of the media aesthetics of these representational modalities, the project aims at a multi-sensory approach to data analysis by the synthesis of seeing and hearing. Guiding questions are, how the conventional, standardized methods of visualization in the field of explorative data analysis can be extended by means of sonification, and how such an approach can be elaborated by experimental as well as historico-theoretical informed methods of design research.

The project is conceived at the interface of practice-based design research, media studies and aesthetics, knowledge design, sound design, and computational sciences. In regard to methodology, it strives for a close interlocking of designing, programming and critical analysis. The challenge to represent big amounts of high-dimensional data in a way, that researchers can recognize and explore them productively appears to be an immanent design problem. For the filtering and extraction of significant differences in data sets numerous algorithmic techniques have been developed since the advent of the computer. Although algorithmic efficiency is increasing and screen sizes are growing visualization strategies still (or more then ever) seem to reach the limits of productivity and meaning making. Therefore, we are interested in the sensual extension of visual representation by acoustic means and the question, whether the “visual work” of the researcher and the “calculating work” of the computer can be complemented by “sonic work” to find novel solutions to the problems of representation.

The research is structured in three parallel and interrelated parts. In a speculative design process the space of possibilities and implications regarding a multi-sensory exploration of high-dimensional data is mapped out by narrative scenarios and artifacts. In an explorative design and programming part software modules are developed, that aim for exhibiting innovative approaches to the combination of visual and sonic data representations. For that purpose, high-dimensional data sets are provided by experts of the field of computational sciences from the University of Basel and the University for Applied Sciences and Arts Northwestern Switzerland. In the long term, we intend to scale these programming experiments to a kind of software toolbox. The research is complemented by a scientific study of the theory and history of data aesthetics.

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