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Escher demonstrates the importance of perspective

While in Holland last year, one of my favorite museums was the M.C. Escher Museum in The Hague. This is a video I created using a SketchUp model posted by Torch and available within Google’s 3D warehouse library. It’s a recreation of Escher’s famous Waterfall (1961). I dissected the model into key components so that the transformation from a descending canal to a perpetual motion waterfall is more pronounced. Kudos to to Torch for creating this excellent SketchUp model.

Waterfall and other drawings like his equally famous Ascending and Descending, in which lines of people ascend and descend stairs in an infinite loop, highlight Escher’s incredible ability to take advantage of quirks of perception and perspective. The fact that this drawing can be converted into a workable 3D model is a tribute how incredibly precise he was.

A great example of how different viewpoints can change perspective hugely. I can imagine using this model in a warm up exercise to get people thinking about complex issues from multiple perspectives.

DIY touchtable using Wii remote

This blog entry is a cross-posting of a DIY tool recently added to the Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science (PLOTS) website. The website is a fabulous resource for activists, educators, technologists, and community organizers interested in new ways to promote action, intervention, and awareness through a participatory research model.

PlaceMatters has built and tested a variety of interactive touch screens and touchtables using Wii remotes and LCD projectors so participants can interact directly with maps, images, and brainstorming applications.  Here is a video we have posted before showing how we integrated the use of the touchtables with GIS so that participants on Cape Cod could go through a scenario planning exercise looking at the linkages between land use, transportation, and climate change.

The use of Wii remotes to create DIY “smart boards” was pioneered by Johnny Chung Lee (who started at Carnegie Mellon’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute, moved to Microsoft to work on the Kinect, and now seems to work for Google).  Teachers in particular have contributed to the development and refinement of these touch screens.  We found the use of a reverse projection screen to work best for a vertical screen (see brief footage in our video).

Given our work with maps and our interest in developing low cost tools for stakeholders to be able to work with digital maps on a table, we started experimenting with ways to use the Wii remotes with projectors shining directly down onto tables.  In total, we made 7 variations of the touch table experimenting with different stands for the projectors, different surfaces for the tables, and different projectors.

PlaceMatters built DIY touchtable with Plexiglas top and reverse projection

Two of the tables were made out of converted card tables with the middle replaced with Plexiglas and a mirror reflecting the image off the ground onto the underside of the table.  We experimented with several white materials for reverse projection — our favorite ended up being a plastic shower curtain from Target.  The advantage of this design was that the image was unaffected by hands and objects on top of the table (no shadows).  The main disadvantages were 1) the table wiggled too easily and with the projector and Wii attached to the table we found we had to recalibrate often; and 2) the entire contraption weighed just under 50 lbs (minus the projector) which meant we could check it as baggage without paying for extra weight but too heavy and bulky to be able to travel with it easily.

A second generation of prototypes involved stands that either clamped to the table or stood directly on the table. The main disadvantage of this approach was that the clamps would easily get bumped causing the image to rock back and forth on the table.  The advantage was that the whole contraction could be made to be quite portable.

Touchtable on Cape Cod

Using the DIY touchtable in a GIS “where do we grow” exercise”

The third generation of tables (as shown in the image above and the SketchUp rendering at the top) uses converted tripods that are placed a few inches away from the table so that they are less prone to getting bumped.  We finally have a version that is our favorite.  On Cape Cod participants quickly learned how to use the pens and the set up worked well.

Key components of a touchtable include:

  • Altered camera tripod/monopod or photography light stand for mounting the projector and Wii remote.  This takes some tinkering to figure out how to mount the projector and Wii high enough.  I will post my version soon.
  • Lightweight portable LCD projector (the new LED and laser projectors emerging in the market are particularly good for this applications).  We found LED projectors like the LG have a wide angle lens which means you can get a larger image with the projector closer to the table (better for a brighter image).  The trade off, however, was that we found we needed to mount the Wii a good 18 inches above the projector for the Wii to cover the entire image.
  • IR Light Pens: in the UK make our favorites with tips that light up when pressed (just like a pen) but not too expensive. provides a higher end design.
  • Wii Remotes:  Because the latest generation of Wii remotes have motion technology you don’t need, best to buy used remotes from Amazon or eBay ($10 vs $30).
  • Cloth or a cardboard trifold for a screen: Trifolds are available at most office supply stores and are nice and flat.  The advantage of cloth is that the pens glide over the surface much more easily and the material is less reflective and therefore helps cut down on glare.
  • Wii remote whiteboard softwareSmoothboard is the best application we’ve tested on the PC.  A dongle version means you can move the license from one computer to the next.  For the Mac, we like WiimoteWhiteboard which has fewer features but is open source (free!).
  • Computer: Finally, you’ll need a computer with bluetooth or buy a bluetooth dongle (main advice here, avoid Targus!).

I will add more links and pictures to this site over time.  Will also post lessons learned and a progress report on efforts to create a USB version of the Wii.

One warning: test the room you’re going to use the table in ahead of time.  Particularly if you are going to have a bunch of people to use the table in some sort of exercise.  Natural daylight and halogen lights, for instance, can interfere with the infrared camera in the Wii and ruin your day.

Finally, we have put together a webpage for folks that are interest in renting or buying a DIY touchtable kit.

Send me your comments/suggestions.  Ken

Helium Balloon’s Perspective of Life in a Park

At the GeoDesign conference in San Diego we heard mention of folks at MIT using helium balloons with cameras attached to take aerial pictures.  Thinking this was a fabulous idea I decided to find out more and see if this was a technique we could easily incorporate into our projects.

The MIT connection turned out to be the  MIT Center for Future Civic Media and their partnership with others to create Grassroots Mapping, a project and resource site to encourage citizens to use these balloons to generate maps of communities and their surrounding environment.

One application highlighted on the website is Gulf coast communities using the balloons to observe and report on last year’s BP oil spill.  From Grassroots Mapping emerged the Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science (PLOTS) which represents network of scientists and activists experimenting with accessible technologies for investigating and reporting on local environmental health and justice issues. PLOTS is a great example of an online platform bringing together citizens, scientists, social scientists, and technologists to collaboratively solve problems.

We too see a number of ways we could integrate balloon launches into our work including adding a bird’s eye perspective to our Walkshops or providing a unique medium for place-based art projects.  The 3 minute video at the top of this blog documents our first balloon launch. Grassroots Mapping’s  downloadable instructions on how to build your own helium balloon camera made the job easy.

At the time, we did not have a digital camera with the functionality of taking continuous pictures so I put huge faith into our knots and fishing line and sent up my iPhone in video mode.  Since then we have acquired a GoPro sports camera that is capable of taking video or time-lapse pictures.  The GoPro has the added advantage of having a wide angle lens. Total cost for our first balloon launch was $165, with the rental of the helium tank and the purchase of a 6 ft diameter balloon being the dominant expenses.  The tank had enough helium for two launches.

Here is a poster of some of the images extracted from the video.

This blog was first posted on Planetizen.

Just One Word: Glass

It’s in the top 100 list of repeated lines from movies more than a couple decades old. In The Graduate (1967), Mr. McGuire pulls Dustin Hoffman (as Ben) aside: “I’m going to say one word to you, just one word… Are you listening?… Plastics… There is a great future in plastics.”

On the one year anniversary of the BP oil spill and with studies and books on plastics like Susan Freinkel’s Plastic: A Toxic Love Story getting heightened attention, the future of plastics (and their polymer granddaddy) is not looking so great.

Enter glass, while the process of making scratch and impact resistant glass is an energy intensive process, the chemicals used to make glass tend to be more environmentally benign (in contrast, Freinkel adds IV bags to the list of concerns about vinyl plastics with reports of DEHP getting into our blood stream and interfering with testosterone).

Now we’re seeing thin layered glass showing up on many of our technology devices (smart phones, iPads, screens, etc.) in parallel with amazing touch technologies. Here are excerpts from a Corning video showing what’s in the not-so-distant future (or you can view the full video here. )

It’s cool to see some of the touch technologies we’re dabbling with becoming polished and perfected. The object-aware technology many of us first started seeing with the Microsoft surface provides some neat opportunities with data seamlessly transferred from one device to the other. The woman at the bus stop was a good example.

We would love to work with Corning and others on a “sustainable future” version for The Future We Want exhibit we have been incubating with others, utilizing some of these new technologies for tackling some of our tougher energy, water, and waste problems.

It is amazing to think most of this technology is either available or right around the corner.

Rob Matthews on the Seattle “Decision Commons”

Here is an interview with Rob Matthews, Project Director of the Decision Commons Initiative in Seattle. The Decision Commons is an initiative put together by the University of Washington, the Seattle Chamber of Commerce, and the Quality Growth Alliance. The Decision Commons combines high performance metrics with the ability to visualize future land use patterns. 3D engines that have emerged in the gaming industry will enable the creation of the next generation of decision support systems for community planning. These powerful 3D and visualization tools will make it possible to rapidly create data-rich urban models linked to massive data sets but with the ability to show the data visually in an interface that is very intuitive. Listen to this interview to learn more about how the University of Washington hopes to apply these tools in the Seattle Region.

A new crop of online idea creation tools

Ideas for Seattle, using UserVoice has a tab for ideas that have been adopted and/or completed

In Jacob’s April 4th Blog Roundup, he lists the recently published Tools for Online Idea Generation: A Comparison of Technology Platforms for Public Managers by folks at the Collaborative Project. I spent some time looking at the tools to see if any stood out.  Recognizing I only got to test about of a third of these tools, my evaluation is only cursory.  From what I was able to see on example sites and promotional materials, however, Spigit and UserVoice seem like the most creative and user friendly (but also on the higher end of the cost spectrum).

Tools include:

  • Bubble IdeasProduct marketed to businesses, allowing users to submit, comment, and vote on ideas with positive and negative ratings.  I could imagine using their Geo Location tool in innovative ways.
  • Crowd WiseInstead of voting for favorite ideas, participants rate each idea from best to worst (they may love some options, be able to live with others and find a few completely unacceptable). The system for tallying votes helps identify which option has the broadest support.
  • Delib’s Dialogue: Pretty much the following functionality: Set up a proposition; have people add their ideas; rate, tag and comment on them to build consensus.
  • Google Moderator: Another post, tag, and rate site.Allows you to filter ideas by popularity or newness.  Some of the discussions are overwhelmingly huge, like Egypt 2.0 with 40K ideas and 1.4M votes.  What’s missing? A sense of how ideas submitted can actually lead to action.
  • IdeaScale: Was cutting edge when Obama’s transition team utilized it but pretty much submit, agree/disagree, comment.
  • Microsoft Town Hall: Useful to have a tool that focuses on questions, however, would be better if you could also rate the answers as well.  Tried to submit a question and the site froze when I hit submit.  I appears this tools in not ready for prime time use.
  • PubliVate: Another site that offers a post, view, comment, and vote on ideas in response to a question platform.  They set up a timeline that gives the author opportunities to improve the idea along the way.
  • Salesforce Ideas: Focuses more on service response systems integrating multiple channels of communication from email to calls and social media.  Good if you already use Salesforce for audience in mind.  The chatter function, and the idea-exchange provide platforms for an office to collaborate internally on challenges/solutions and for customers to submit suggestions.
  • Spigit: The most expensive of all the tools and perhaps rightly so given its sophistication and creative applications.  While seems particularly well suited for large businesses to encourage innovation, some interesting examples of public agencies using this tool to reach out to the public (check out theSpending Challenge conducted in the UK).People get points and become power users over time with 360 degree review for ideas and innovation.
  • UserVoiceCool tool with some great examples of communities utilizing this application for idea generation. Ideas for Seattle is a great example site. Not the first time we’ve seen legalizing marijuana be a top vote getter along side with some more thoughtful and creative ideas.  I like the way UserVoice makes it possible to limit the number each user gets (10 in Seattle’s case) so participants are forced to allocate votes wisely.  System does a great job at listing categorized ideas for easy browsing.  Also like the tabs for hot, new, accepted, and completed.

Great to see new online idea creation tools coming available to communities.  One criteria to think about when evaluating these tools and their potential use in community planning is whether or not they integrate well with public meetings.  Can they be used during group discussions as well as by individuals online.  A public meeting with round table discussions can be a great way to collect initial ideas and kick start the conversations.

What to do When Public Participation Goes Terribly Wrong?

Image of the only outlet in the room, check your circuits before plugging inIn 2009 we worked with Ron Thomas, Mary Means, and Goody Clancy to help plan and run a large 500+ person visioning event in the town of Shreveport.  We set up the event the night before with computers at every table for brainstorming and a keypad polling system providing each participant with a handheld device for voting and prioritizing strategies in the region.  We had a tech table set up next to the audio/filming crew, a group that was very helpful in getting us what we need to set up.   We tested everything, including making sure the keypads registered when voting from the far corners of the convention space.

The next day the meeting started well.  Then came the time to conduct the first keypad vote.  We started with demographic questions to learn more about who was at the meeting and to give us the ability to do cross tab analysis of the polling data to see how different groups voted.  I explained how to use the keypads and then asked people how long they had lived in the area.  A vote counter in the corner of the screen indicated how many votes had been cast.  To our horror, the count petered out at 190 to 210 even though we knew there were at least twice that many people in the room.  My crew scrambled to figure out what was wrong.  We reset the vote but again, less than half the room’s votes were coming in.   We switched over to the brainstorming exercise in the hopes that we could fix the problem with the keypads in the meantime.  Only a few minutes into the brainstorming exercise, however, hands started going up with complaints that computers were no longer linked to the network.  I went over to Ron Thomas and said, “that’s strike two, in events this big you don’t get three strikes. Time to go old fashion pen & paper.”    What caused the problem was hard to determine but several theories emerged.  Some wondered whether all the equipment of the AV crew caused interference with wireless used by the keypads and computers.  Another theory was that the Caddo-Bossier Office of Homeland Security, nearby, was working with some new technology that interfered with the wireless.  Also possible? We simply needed a more central/elevated antennae structure for the wireless keypads to accommodate the size of the room and the number of people using the space.  Regardless of the reason, the most important thing was that we had a Plan B and a Plan C for backup.

That’s one example of equipment failure, we have also had events hampered by 2 feet of snow falling the night before, and meetings where angry protesters started chanting and yelling, trying to shut down the process.

“What to Do When Public Participation Goes Terribly Wrong” is the title of a session PlaceMatters is facilitating at APA next month. As a non-profit with a mission to spread the use of tools and techniques effective in improving land use planning and community development, this means sharing the tough situation stories as well as the successes.  Holly St.Clair from Boston’s Metropolitan Area Planning Council and John Fernsler from WRT (the first firm to win APA’s new Professional Excellence award) will also be joining us and sharing some of their experiences and how crisis was averted.

The plan is to also share stories submitted to us. Comment on this post or send Jason Lally your stories, videos, and/or pictures. It can be just a sentence or two just to give us a feel for the situation. If we select your story, we may ask you for more details. If you have any near misses or actual disasters in public planning/facilitation, please send them our way.  We’d love to include your story. We will send $20 gift cards to the top 2 submissions. And join us in Boston at APA, April 10 from 1-2:15PM (S456)!

Cross-posted on Planetizen

DIY touchtable technology integrated with GIS

Participant add future housing to scenario

This Fall, PlaceMatters broke new ground in the application of our DIY touchtable integrated with CommunityViz and Brainstorm Anywhere. On Cape Cod, we used 4 tables simultaneously to enable a “where do we grow” exercise with 4 teams. With the touchtables, participants were able to add jobs and housing and changes in transit services directly to the CommunityViz GIS maps.

Because participants had direct access to the GIS interface, they were able to view important data layers including land use zoning, sensitive habitat, protected well head zones, and areas vulnerable to sea level rise while discussing options. This translated into more informed decision making while considering where to steer future growth. At any time during the exercise, participants could run the CommunityViz model to view the impacts of placed jobs, housing, and enhanced transit services on key indicators including converted open space, development occurring in sensitive areas, changes in per capita vehicle miles traveled and greenhouse gas emissions.

Visit to see footage of the Cape Cod workshop.

Included in the video are scenes from a workshop PlaceMatters and the National Charrette Institute helped organize and facilitate with the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the Environmental Protection Agency, the US Department of Transportation, and US Department of Agriculture. At this event, PlaceMatters set up 6 stations using our Brainstorm Anywhere tool and keypad polling to help identify and prioritize strategies for interagency collaboration in the implementation of the HUD’s new Sustainable Communities Grant Program.

WRT receives APA National Planning Excellence Award for a Planning Firm

I learned today, the American Planning Association selected our partner in the Albany 2030 Comprehensive Plan Development, WRT, to receive their first ever National Planning Excellence Award for a Planning Firm award. They were selected for their innovative and collaborative approach to planning and the bodies of distinguished work they have produced over the years influencing the professional practice of planning. We have learned a lot working with WRT staff over the past years and look forward to teaming with them on future projects, including the HUD Sustainable Communities Grant project recently announced in New Rivers Valley, VA. WRT will receive the award at APA’s annual conference, this year taking place in April in Boston. Click here to see the full description.

Holding public meetings in multiple languages – new translator tool helps with brainstorming and polling

PlaceMatters Anywhere Translator from PlaceMatters Decision Lab on Vimeo.

In Denver, PlaceMatters teamed with A+ and the Denver Public Schools
District in a 10 month process to engage citizens in Far Northeast
Denver in a conversation about turnaround strategies for low performing
schools. It was essential to have all meetings in Spanish and English.
School translators and headsets were used for the audio portions of the
meetings. The challenge was how to share notes during break-out group
and large group discussions so nobody was left behind.

Jason Lally, Director of PlaceMatters’ Decision Lab, developed a module
to our brainstorming application that made it really easy to have both
languages side-by-side.

Here is a video of the tool. For the DPS meetings, Fernando Pineda with
CREA Results provided the written translation. Depending on the size
and complexity of the event, you can have multiple translators working
at the same time from any location linked to the internet. We have even
added a module that allows you to take advantage of automatic
translators (like Google translator) to detect the language and provide a
first attempt at translation. At a minimum, we recommend someone
proofing these translations since errors (comical ones at that) are