Designs and big data

Big data is only useful if it can be harnassed, so we used NASA's, creating an installation that connects to stars millions of miles away.

04.10.13 | Research

By Pete Thomas

Hero: starlight

Recently we’ve been thinking a lot about how design can be used to find new ways to share, interpret and visualise data.

Why does it matter to us? Well we’re generating and sharing enormous amounts of information and data every day, data that can be used to better understand our world and those beyond ours. But data is only useful if it is accessible, organised, structured and from the perspective of most people, engaging and easy to understand.

This big-data is enabling breakthroughs for scientists, like those at NASA who are beginning to answer some of our greatest unsolved questions like working out if there are other planets like Earth beyond our solar system.

This question – and that data – is at the heart of StarLight, the latest project we’ve completed with the Fieldguide collective. It’s an installation that uses NASA data to allow people to replay the light that originated from stars light-years away and observe the discovery of new planets.

Fieldguide were approached to create a bespoke piece for London Design Festival within the Brompton Design District, in collaboration with the amazing Swedish lighting manufacturer Wästberg, and asked Uniform to work with them to create a compelling experience, to be housed in the monumental entrance of Imperial College London.

People interact with Westberg lights

The project’s aim is to make space data more approachable, giving people a sense of connectedness to the stars, and encouraging them to think about the potential of life on far-off worlds.

The installation features 12 brass Wästberg Lindvall w124s pendant lamps each individually linked to data from NASA’s Kepler observatory. The observatory looks at the light from far off stars and interprets their flickering and pulsing to discover habitable, earth-like planets. StarLight translates the brightness and timescales of these dimming stars so that they can be perceived by humans, allowing people to replay the patterns made by orbiting planets in far-off solar systems and wonder at the possibilities they suggest.

Every time a lamp dims or flickers the viewer is watching the evidence of a new planet moving in front of that star.

Looking into the Imperial College London

For me in particular this project felt like an amazing opportunity. It’s fair to say that I’ve always been fascinated by space and the designs that have been used to imagine and explore it. I watched far too many Sci-Fi films as a kid and I love the fact that the kind of future gazing that goes on in Sci-Fi often plays a part in inspiring the people who actually make these things real.

For StarLight we’ve designed a bespoke mission control that allows people to choose which stars they want to watch, and control how they watch them, as well as relaying some key facts about the Kepler mission’s discoveries.

Mission control: Using data light-years away

And the discoveries are amazing. Before Kepler started relaying data back to Earth we didn’t know for sure that there were any planets outside our solar system – let alone planets that could be habitable. Now we’ve discovered planets that live up to the grand visions of the films of my youth such as Kepler 35b a circumbinary gas giant that orbits 2 stars not one – just like Tattooine from Star Wars. Previously nobody knew that circumbinary systems even existed.

The project is based on an original idea by Dr Jayne Wallace, a reader at the University of Dundee and James Thomas at Northumbria University and as Jon explains, the project is all about thinking about our interaction with data in new ways:

“Making data physical means that more people can access it in more ways. Taking data from the screen and making it do things in the real world dramatically increases the potential impact of this data.”

So far only half of the data from Kepler has been analysed. Over 3,500 potential planets have been identified and 136 planets have been confirmed. Scientists have conservatively estimated that out of the 100 billion stars in the Milky Way, there may be as many as 17 billion Earth-sized planets.

So StarLight is not just about connecting us with the Universe it’s also about connecting us to the data which we’re amassing in ever greater numbers that sits out there somewhere… in the cloud. By engaging with the data in new ways we increase the opportunity for people to engage with it and understand it.

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