Spending years thinking about public data fosters strange fantasies, like finding a way to fly through it. Imagine: a virtual or augmented space where the world we know is annotated with the copious amounts public data available on Enigma Public. How would such an immersive spatial exploration change our sense of the data we use each day?
Flying is tricky, but virtual worlds are increasing accessible. For our first company-wide hack week at Enigma, our team spent the days building a VR game based on a New York City populated with public data.
The game was based off of Mapbox’s Unity SDK, with its 3D map of all the buildings in New York City, and an Enigma API that allowed us to search for all public data points within a given radius. We were all new to Unity and to the HTC VIVE (a particular sort of VR headset), so a good amount of time was spent familiarizing ourselves with the tools and the experience that is the Unity Asset Store.
What we were more familiar with though, was the public data side. We built our game off another team’s hack week API, one that included all sorts of data points for New York City from the very familiar (subway station locations) to those less evident in everyday life, such as toxic waste sites.
The resulting game, Discovery and Collection or DISCO VR, drops the player into grey-scale New York City, with colored dots placed at the geographically accurate locations of heterogeneous Enigma Public data points. Color indicates the type of data found at a point; yellow for a building permit for instance; red for the site of a fire in the federal NFIRS database, for example. When a player points (or shoots!) a sphere, they “collect” the data, learning some metadata about it, and receive points. The rarer the type of data found, the more points received.
With our time constrained, we kept the design basic, adding a few flourishes to make the experience more game-like. We explored various substitutes for the VIVE controller, eventually landing on the least weapon-like object we found in the Asset Store. We added in home-grown sound-effects for little added flavor: a “pewpew!” representing a data capture for instance, and a throaty “argh!” for a miss. Plus, our “VR studio” for the week happened to be on top of a beautiful and distinctive rug, so we turned it into a flying carpet for the player to explore our virtual New York. We think data can be fun, and wanted the game to feel like a joy too.
The resulting gameplay was basic, but this approach to spatial exploration of data still felt exciting. We hope that is just our first step into a novel form of exploration.