Tangible Topography: how physical and digital modeling affect freeform 3-dimensional surface modeling


A study of how analog, digital, and hybrid analog-digital technologies change the way landscape architects model 3-dimensional surfaces. As an experiment research subjects – novice and expert landscape architects – will model landforms by hand, in a 3D modeling program, and with Tangible Landscape, a tangible user interface for hybrid analog-digital surface modeling.


Theoretical framework

Representation is mediated by technology. Technology gives us the means to represent abstract ideas; the means shape the way ideas can be expressed and represented potentially even transforming the ideas. The idea represented – a product of a tool or method – is bounded, constrained by the technology with which it was made. The possibilities of the technology constrain and determine the mode and parameters of representation.
The ways in which representation is mediated depend upon the specific technologies used. However, it has been theorized that digital technologies are generally less intuitive than analog technologies, but have the potential for greater analytic rigor and reproducibility (Ishii). When interacting with a computer via a graphical user interface (or command line) intention must be translated through multiple layers of abstraction – from the hand to the keyboard and mouse, from these (input) devices to computations, from computations to a display, and from the display to the eyes. Based on this reasoning GUI-based technologies for representation should require highly abstract thought and thus be unintuitive (Ishii) – an as yet unproven and perhaps overly generalized thesis. Furthermore hybrid analog-digital technologies are emerging that are theorized to combine the intuitive nature of analog technologies with the analytics and reproducibility of digital technologies (Ishii, Picon).
Representation is a creative act mediated by technology. Representation, however objective in intent, is creative because the representation is distinct and unique from what is being represented. In this sense representation is ideational – the idea one wishes to represent is an abstraction, an image schema transformed by ones unique embodied experience and understanding, of what is being represented. And in expressing that abstraction the idea is further transformed by its means of expression, of production.
We have conceptualized the act of representation as an iterative process shaped by technology. In this scheme technology restructures the relationships between intention or ideation, form generation, analysis, and critique in the representation process. When the process of representation is enabled by analog technologies it unfolds in an iterative cycle of generative ideation, haptic analysis and visual analysis, and critique. With analog technologies there is a physical, kinaesthetic immediacy that allows for coupled, simultaneous ideation and creation. By immediately acting out thoughts one can generate ideas by giving them form – we are calling this generative ideation. Ideation and expression can only be tightly coupled when the act of expression, of representation is highly intuitive – and even then they will not always be simultaneous.
When the process of representation is enabled by digital technologies it unfolds in an iterative cycle of ideation, form generation, visual analysis, and critique. Here ideation is decoupled from form generation for an additional layer of abstraction – the GUI – separates the conception of an idea from its instantiation. Ideas are translated from intention, to hand, to input device, to computation, to display, and then back to the eyes. Graphical user interactions tend to be symbolic, arbitrary – the computation and visualization (scaling an object for example) may bear little indexical relationship to the physical act (a move of the wrist and a click of a button). This high level of abstraction tends to make digital modes of representation unintuitive as one must learn to connect arbitrary meaning to action.
When the process of representation is enabled by hybrid technologies the analog and digital processes unfold in parallel informing each other. The hybrid process is highly intuitive and yet informed by computation; it draws on rich haptic, visual, and computational feedback.