Turning Thoughts into Things link

Experimental IRC Software Puts Ideas in 3D Space

Lots of people draw bubble diagrams when they're trying to pull their thoughts together. Crime shows feature what TV writers call “crazy walls” plastered with photos, notes, scribbles, and zigzags of yarn that help investigators tease out invisible patterns to identify the villain. In school, students who seem to think visually are increasingly taught the skills of graphic organizing or mind mapping to build and organize knowledge in preparation for writing. These are both ways people who feel comfortable with a bit of visual chaos can get a handle on overwhelming amounts of disconnected information. But they have an even more powerful value. Visualization of this kind, or spatialization of information, is a tool to explicitly articulate not just pieces of information, but the all important relationships between them. Written lists or outlines—thought organizing methods that are more culturally prominent, cannot do this very well. Further, your brain is built to remember separate ideas when they are made visual and spatial. That's how we can learn our way around a new neighborhood. It is akin to the principal method used in international memory contests. (Contestants memorize the order of cards in a deck by building a virtual memory palace and imagining cards placed in its many rooms and drawers.)

“Crazy Wall” from the Showtime Series, Homeland[1].

The problem is that once you go down this road, things can get “crazy” fast. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal presentation infamously went awry when a NY Times reporter saw the mindbending powerpoint image he was using to describe the complexities of Afghanistan to his troops[2]:

McChrystal’s Power Point image

We live in a society that is faced with challenges of increasing complexity that require more and more information in order to meet them. Interdisciplinary approaches that illuminate previously hidden relationships and interactions—the "intersectionality" of things, seem not only promising, but critical. Fundamental improvements in how we represent problems and information must be explored. To deal with the way flat diagrams become overwhelming, IRC staff and researchers thought: why not put all those pieces of information into a 3D space where there’s more room? We began developing the software, MapTu, which lets you turn ideas into virtual objects which the software refers to as things. You can make things any 3D form or color; map them to geographic locations; embed media in them; make them parents or children of one another...etc. The result can be strange but compelling. The same way we characterize knowledge when we right about it, when using MapTu we ask ourselves what color and shape an idea is, how big it is, what altitude it seems to have (higher up means more abstract), and what’s it connected to. The image at the top of this post is being used to look at many of the challenges and assets in Baltimore City. We are learning how to put a whole lot of things into one space so that they are comprehensible and memorable—not just a "yard sale" of random looking stuff. We don’t know much yet, but we’re discovering some of the key questions and will pursue the research further.

  1. ^ Still from showtime’s series Homeland. From Myers, S. Blog: Go Into the Story. Retrieved 12/15/16 from:
  2. ^ Bumiller, E. (2010, April 10) We Have Met the Enemy and He Is PowerPoint. The New York Times. Retrieved 12/15/16 from