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A Window Into MIT

The Window is an ever-changing digital landscape that reflects individuals who contributed their data – while also offering a collective view into the extraordinary community that is MIT.

Contributed by Lindsay Bartholomew, Exhibit Content and Experience Developer, MIT Museum

The Window is a design collaboration between the MIT Museum and Bluecadet, our media partner

What is the Window?

The Window at the MIT Museum aims to represent MIT, both as individual elements and as a collective. It was designed with input from members of the MIT community, and each of the colorful “elements” cavorting across The Window is an expression of data contributed by a real individual. The result is a dynamic mosaic of the MIT community that grows and evolves as each person adds more data.

Our goal in developing this project was to represent the people and voice of MIT, and to include everyone – students, post-docs, faculty, staff, alumni, and visitors to the MIT Museum coming from near and far. At the same time, we wanted the computation and data processing on the back-end to be as interesting as the beautiful and whimsical visuals on the front-end. After all, this is MIT.

How could we create something surprising yet authentic, that created snapshots of individuals while at the same time built a community portrait of MIT?

We began by reaching out to talk to people – MIT Admissions bloggers, staff, faculty, students… all the broad categories of people that we wanted to represent. We found that asking questions like “What is MIT about?” or “How would you describe the people of MIT?” either elicited a long monologue, or simply a deep inhale followed by an exhale accompanied by a sigh and something to the effect of, “Wow how do I put that into words…”

These conversations helped us hone this experience, as we wanted to find and evoke the feeling of being at MIT.

The emotion of what it takes.

The whimsy that’s hidden behind the struggle.

The humor and curiosity behind the hard work.

The integrity and determination in the face of uncertain projects.

The individuality – and quite frankly the weirdness – that might be surprising to some who don’t already know MIT.

After many iterations on concepts, visualizations, and form factors, and lots of input from those in the MIT community, we created The Window.

The Window takes individuals’ personal contributions – from self-described “weird” passions to messages for others at MIT – and processes that data to manifest into colors, shapes, and movements. As more people contribute, it is continually refreshing this dynamic view into MIT.

This dynamic 'data dashboard' represents one individual. In the center that person’s 'element' is moving around, and scrolling around it are the different types of data that person input.

What are these colorful elements on The Window?

What you see on The Window are whimsical representations of real individuals. Each of these “elements” is based on data that a person inputs by answering a few survey-type questions. The various bits of data that a person inputs are mapped onto attributes of his or her “element” that will then appear and cavort around on The Window.

A collection of colorful 'elements,' each representing a different person, shows the range of color, shape, and movement that results from the different types of data each person contributed

What you’ll experience with The Window is a chance to input yourself into the MIT community, by letting us know:

  • How are you doing?
  • What are you like?
  • What’s your weird?
  • What makes you MIT?
  • What’s your message?

One question will ask you to identify core values that you think are most representative of the MIT community. Behind the scenes in the interpretation of data, each core value is mapped onto the body shape of your element.

The shapes that correspond to the MIT core values – and that form the basis of each person’s “element” – slowly twist and turn to show their dimensionality.

Just as MIT is defined by more than one value, your element is also being shaped as you continue inputting more data. How you prioritize these core values also influences the shape of your element.

What determines how many tertiary shapes there are? That comes in the form of a numeric value (from 0.00 – 100.00) as determined by your answer to one of these “slider” questions – specifically, the tree/chameleon slider.

  • My personality is more like a … Tree <--> Chameleon
  • On an average Sunday, I’m … Taking it slow <--> Doing the most
  • I feel the most like myself in the … Sunshine <--> Moonlight
  • My best work happens in … Chaos <--> Serenity
  • My dream house looks like … Crystal cubes <--> Bubble domes

All of the appendages fluttering about on an element are also determined by your responses to various slider questions – and the appendages themselves also have many attributes.

These various “body parts” of an element are discrete geometric shapes which are then added together using a method called signed distance field (SDF) rendering. SDF takes the “hull” of all of the individual body parts and outputs a single 3D surface that encompasses all the shapes within. In this way, shapes can be added together with varying degrees of blending to form the final element.

Your answer to slider #5 (crystal cubes vs. bubble domes) will determine how blended, or “shrink-wrapped,” the shapes are.

One of these wiggling “elements” has a body and appendages that are merged together to create a blob-like appearance. By comparison, the other element appears more “shrink-wrapped,” with sharper edges and joints between shapes.

The color palette of each element is based on your answer to slider #3 (sunshine vs. moonlight). The palette consists of 3 colors:

This “slider” question is one of several questions you can answer that informs the creation of your “element.” Where you place the slider on the spectrum between sunshine and moonlight corresponds to your element’s color palette.

Data inputs don’t just affect the physical characteristics of elements, but also how they move. Parodying the people on which they are based, elements have movements that are intrinsic to themselves (appendages wiggling or fluttering), as well as movements that are extrinsic (strolling or flitting from place to place).

Your element is assigned one of six movement types, based on your first core value that you feel represents the MIT community.

These three “elements” prancing across the screen show the range of movements – from bouncing to stepping to floating – that can result from various data input by each person.

Each movement type can vary, and these parameters are based on your responses to one or both of these “slider” questions: #1 (tree vs. chameleon) and #4 (chaos vs. serenity).

Whether someone is already a part of MIT or not, everyone is welcome to contribute to The Window. The piece of data indicating whether someone is a part of the MIT community, or just visiting for the day, is represented by a subtle border around each element – yellow for those in the MIT community, and blue for visitors.

These colorful, visual “elements” on The Window, much like the people on which they’re based, are not simply the sum of distinct pieces of data. Their charm, and the way they embody people, comes from how everything is put together.

At the end of the day, it’s about MIT.

The Window at the MIT Museum is a representation of MIT, as individuals and as a collective – including visitors welcomed into the community. While each “element” is an expression of the data that each individual contributed, the overall visual of The Window is intended as a depiction of MIT itself, built with the help of MIT community members. Elements grow, move, and combine into groups and communities, and with each new contributor, the mosaic changes and evolves as more data, more messages, and more weirds are added.

P.S. How did we land on the questions that we decided to ask people?

We started by thinking about the MIT community itself – what it is, who are the people that make it up, and what people might be interested to know about it. In our first conversations with students, faculty, and staff at MIT, we asked:

What is the MIT community? What do we see as our communities? Are there multiple, or what makes it all feel like one?

How do we as individuals show up in the MIT community? What is it about us that unites us with others? How do we self-identify within the communities we belong to?

What do we want to know about others in the MIT community? What makes us curious to know? What would we want to share about ourselves?

This “slider” question asks you to indicate where your best work happens – whether in chaos or. Serenity. Your answer here will inform how your “element” moves, bounces, or twirls throughout The Window.

As we asked these questions of more people who represented various facets of the MIT community, what we learned is that people really feel a shared experience of MIT, while also seeing tremendous individuality in everyone here:

…People felt like everyone is weird, but in a good way, and in a way that is unique to that individual.

…People expressed that they wish they’d had someone to tell them what MIT is like before they arrived – and wished they could do the same for someone else just arriving at MIT’s doorstep.

…People shared their ideas about what’s most important to survive, and thrive, at MIT – from a collaborative spirit, to a sense of humor, to unwavering passion for what you want to learn and accomplish.

One of the questions asked of people when they are contributing data is “what’s your weird?” This animation shows a multitude of answers, given by real people, sliding across the screen.

Armed with this input, we went about creating The Window – very explicitly as a metaphorical window into MIT, but also as a welcome to MIT, because it needed to include people in the MIT community, as well as people just visiting the museum for the day.

Our aim was to create something that feels like a gesture of an individual.

More than a name or a face, it needed to be something that was meaningful, and that felt like something characteristic of that individual. Equally important to fashioning a whimsical and lighthearted expression of an individual was creating a system of data interpretation – this is MIT after all. Most importantly, at top of mind always was that this was being created with MIT, for MIT, about MIT.