Flocking mathematical model that visitors interact with. Video of exhibit coming soon.

Project Description

Flock is a new exhibit at the Exploratorium. Through Flock, visitors can interact with a mathematical model of swallow flocking behaviour.

Swarming simulations model the observed behavior of animals that are flocking, herding or schooling. The original observations and algorithms were created by computer scientist Craig Reynolds in the mid-1980s. The Flock exhibit enables visitors to interact with the three parameters that produce the behaviour:

cohesion: the desire of each animal to move toward the center of its closest neighbors

alignment: the desire to align speed and velocity with nearest neighbors, and

separation: personal space around each animal.

Imagine a sphere with each animal at the center. Each animal is only reacting to the other animals in that sphere. In this way, a larger (beautiful, swooping) pattern of intelligence emerges. Changing the sizes of the spheres for cohesion, alignment, and separation produce the varying behaviours.

Parallels to human existence are obvious, but untested. These may be explored in a future exhibit.

flock still images

Various states of the model, from left to right: low cohesion, high separation, low alignment; high cohesion, low separation, high alignment; high cohesion, low separtion, low alignment.

Visitors adjust knobs on a physical interface to change the cohesion (grouping on the label), alignment, and separation to see how the model changes. Goals for the exhibit can be grouped into levels of engagement, not necessarily in linear order:

• Recognizing that each knob controls a flocking rule, and that this in turn affects the behaviour of the flock

• Strategizing ways to test the effects of the rules on the flocking model (the primary way — setting the knobs to middle position and turning one knob at a time — is suggested by the label instructions)

• Interpreting the effect of the parameter changes on the behaviour of the flock, asking productive questions

• Understanding that this is a mathematical model

• Contemplating the relationship between the rules and behaviour in their own way, for example, wondering if flocks of birds and flocks of fish follow slightly different rules and to what effect, whether there is a relationship between groups of people and flocking, what else we can model mathematically, and what a model does and doesn't capture.


Visitor studies and interface design

Exploratorium exhibit development has a forty–year history of iterative, formative development through testing exhibits on the floor with visitors. Originating with interative exhibits that were non–computational, the Exploratorium process parallels the user–centered design process found in the human–computer interaction field.

testing the interface with visitors

Testing the interface with visitors

initial interface ideas

Initial interface ideas

flock interface iteration
flock interface iteration
flock interface iteration
flock interface iteration

Some of the interfaces tested with visitors