Touching encouraged (an ongoing story)

A recurring theme at KB Labs is to show a lot of pixels. By chance we got our hands on a 4K touch-sensitive display, capable of showing a non-trivial amount of said pixels on a non-trivial surface area. Our cunning plan is to

  • Adapt some of the labs products to work on the display
  • Put the display somewhere in the public area of the library
  • Watch people swoon when they delve into beautiful cultural heritage data

This post is intended to be a diary of sorts, journaling what we learn.

Coincidental activation (2019-10-10)

We have talked about experimenting with interactive large displays for years. With emphasis on talked.

It took someone with youthful initiative to actually do something: Max Odsbjerg Pedersen discovered a usable & unused display and promptly sent us a video showing him using a labs product on the display. 4 days later he brokered a loan agreement and 10 days later we verified that no one questions two people removing a large display, as long as it is transported in a cardboard box.

Adding heavy box moving to résumé

Fair warning (2019-10-23)

The software development department has a – not entirely undeserved – reputation of being loose cannons that tend to muck about in ways that unexpectedly affects other departments.

To atone for blunders past and primarily because it really is the most constructive practice, representatives of the Cultural Heritage and the Communications departments were duly informed about the initiated process and invited to participate in discussion hereof. In other words: We met them at lunch as usual and said “Hey, we’ve got this nifty idea …”, to which they answered “Sounds good!”.

What have we got? (2019-10-24)

The display is a 55″ Samsung Flp. Its internal software seems focused on providing a digital flip-over with some connectivity possibilities? It does not have a build-in web browser, but connecting it to a Windows 10 machine is exceedingly easy. We will just have to duct tape a laptop to its back or something to that effect.

It was a pleasant surprise to discover that the excellent tool OpenSeadragon works perfectly out of the box with multi touch on desktop browsers: Tap, double tap, drag, pinch & spread. Well, as long as you are not a lazy developer that still use a pre-2017 version of OpenSeadragon where pinching is wonky *cough*.

Adapt, by which we mean “remove stuff” (2019-10-25)

Three KB Labs products, which would benefit from a large display, were selected:

At the core they are all web pages using OpenSeadragon and as such, adaptation mostly meant removing features and interface elements. A simple navigational area was added to switch between the products and the PoC Mark I alpha was born: Best viewed on a 55″ tablet or larger.

Secure, by which we mean “fail” (2019-10-25)

Since the whole thing is intended for public display & interaction, we want to make sure the users stay on the designated pages.

A developer navigating one of the designated pages

Pressing F11 switches to full screen with no navigational bar in Chrome and the end users does not have access to the keyboard, so problem solved? Our boss Bjarne Andersen passed by, stopped and played with the presentations. It took him 2 minutes to somehow activate right-click and presto, the box was cracked. Thanks boss!

Well, Chrome has a designated kiosk mode: Simply add -kiosk as an argument and all is taken care off. At least until co-worker Kim Christensen discovers that there is a handy swipe-from-a-vertical-edge gesture that opens the Windows menu and other elements. Cracked again. Thanks Kim!

Disabling swipe gestures did not seem possible without admin rights, which we do not have on the current computer. There seems to be a Windows kiosk mode that also requires admin rights. Oh well, maybe Monday? Weekend calls.

Broken Windows and tweaks (2019-10-28)

Colleague Thomas Egense brought a private windows laptop to work (no worries, we only connect those to the eduroam network).

  • It would not connect to the large display. Reboot.
  • It did connect to the display in 4K, but not to WiFi. Reboot.
  • It did connect to WiFi, but would no longer connect to the display. Reboot.
  • Same. Reboot.
  • Same. Give up.
  • Actively avoid defenestrating the laptop. Drink coffee.

At least it went a little better when colleague Gry Vindelev Elstrøm stopped by. She suggested adding some sort of map overlay, so that the users would not get lost in the big collages? And of course OpenSeadragon delivers again: 90 seconds and a reload later the wish were granted:

OpenSeadragon with Navigator overlay

Gry’s other wish: To have visual-similarity spatial grouping of the maps collection is both valid and entirely possible to fulfill. Buuut it is not a 90 second job and the touch screen project is a side project, so that idea was filed under when We Find The Time.

And then they were two (2019-10-29)

Heroic display digger Max Odsbjerg Pedersen phoned in and said he had found a twin display lying around. He’ll put it up somewhere at AU Library, Nobel Park, mirroring the display we’re working with at the Reoyal Danish Library, Aarhus. Thank you, Max. You do realize we’re at the early Proof on Concept stage, right?

Go ahead is a given (2019-10-30)

Gitte Bomholt Christensen deals with the public space at the library. She visited to take a look at the project. Her first question was if we should put the display on a movable stand or if a wall mount were better. We’ll take that as a “Yes, we’ll go forward with this experiment”.

Soon they will be five (2019-10-31)

Early in the day miniboss Katrine Hofmann Gasser asked for requirements for 3 extra touch displays. Later in the day, miniboss Katrine Hofmann Gasser had ordered 3 extra touch displays.

Damn, people! What happened to the concept of testing a minimum viable product followed by iterative improvement?

The hunt for 4K (2019-11-05)

The afternoon was not free (they never are), but at least it was not bogged down with other stuff. So what about upping the resolution from HD to 4K? How hard can that be? Yeah, 4 trips to Operations and 3 different computers produced the new knowledge that passive DisplayPort → HDMI cables have trouble delivering the goods. Native HDMI 1.4 handles 4k though: Admittedly at 30Hz only, but that works well enough when the interface reflects finger movements directly. The only situation where the 30Hz is noticeable is when the user pans by flinging.

Gridified tSNE (2019-11-06)

Running image collections through a trained network and positioning them according to their visual similarity is one of those “the future is now”-things. One favourite is Pix-Plot which produces an interactive 3D-visualization. But the touch screen is meant for large images and Pix-Plot is not made to display those. Plotting directly to 2D does not solve the problem:

A bit hard to enjoy all the images when they cover each other

A marriage between Pix-Plot and the existing zoomable grid-based layout was proposed. Some hacking later with the tools ml4a & RasterFairy and… Yeah, kinda-sorta? As can be seen on the screenshot below, there are definitely areas of similar images, but there are also multiple areas that looks like they should be collapsed into one. Something’s off, but that will have to be solved later.

There’s definitely some grouping there. And groups that looks suspiciously similar
There are no image duplicates – we checked!

Frontpage material (2019-11-14)

Thomas Egense wanted something else on the large touch screen, so he extracted all frontpages from the Danish newspaper Berlingske Tidende, available from Mediestream (of course he cheated and took an internal shortcut). It is quite an old newspaper, so “all” means 68,367 pages.

Rendering 68K fairly-high-res images is no technical problem, but as our scans are greyscale the result was somewhat bland and extremely cumbersome to navigate with intention.

A sea of grey

Thankfully newspaper frontpages do possess one singular reliable piece of metadata: The date of the paper. Adding an ugly date picker was easy enough and presto! Intuitive navigation of the primary navigational axis for the material.

Proper tSNE (2019-11-25)

A breakthrough discovery was made today: If you clumsily swap the x and y axis for the coordinates, but keep the calculated width and height, when you plot gridified data, the result is … less good. Corollary: If you un-swap said axes the result looks much better! As demonstrated by these before and after images:

Sorry about doing this on a not-fully-public-yet dataset (the awesome “anskuelsesbilleder” at AU Library, Emdrup): We can only show the scaled-down versions of the properly gridified tSNE layout, but they should convey the gist.

Maybe machines can label our stuff? (2019-11-27)

Since machine learning was great at positioning images according to visual similarity (or rather a mix of visual similarity and content similarity), maybe use it to automatically label our material? Well, not so much with the collection of anskuelsesbilleder: The network (imagenet) is great for labelling photographies but poor for drawings: “Binder”, “Web site”, “Envelope” and “Jigsaw puzzle” were recurring and absolutely wrong guesses. Again, sorry for not being allowed to show the images. Hopefully later, when the rights has been cleared, ok?

Ideas aplenty (2019-11-27)

Karen Williams was the nearest innocent bystander to show the latest experiment with the large touch screen and she upped the ante, asking for drive-by crowd-sourcing capabilities and visualization of sound. So much untapped potential in this!

Organisations gotta organise (2019-11-28)

One does not simply walk down a put a touch screen on the wall. It is hard to have patience with a new toy in hand, but it is understandable that a mix of people from different departments must participate on something that involves display of cultural heritage data in the public areas of the library. Unfortunately it will be nearly 2 weeks before said mix of people are able to meet and determine how to go about the project. Deep breath. Inner peace. Tempus fugit.

Pong detour (2019-12-06)

Annual christmas party time! And Jesper Lauridsen did not miss the oportunity that a big touch screen presented. He whipped up a multi-ball Pong game where the balls were the faces of the people at the party. Will you be hitting your colleague with a bat or let said colleague fall into oblivion? Great success and nobody spilled beer on the touch table! And no, sorry, not allowed to show it due to the face thing. Privacy and all.

Last details finished in the Real Hardware department by leet hacker Jesper

Proper public tSNE (2019-12-09)

The image classification → tSNE → RasterFairy → juxta chain is our new golden hammer, and the next collection to hits were our Maps & Atlases collection. Given that the network was never trained explicitly for the minute differences in maps, it went surprisingly well. And this time we’re allowed to show the result:

Don’t just sit there! Try it yourself

Secure, by which we mean “nearly succeed” (2019-12-10)

There was a meeting with The Right People and it took all of 3½ minute to decide that yes, the large tablet should definitely be displayed in the public areas. Then it took 10 minutes to hammer out the details: The plan is to mount in on wheels and move it around to see where it works best. Progress!

The afternoon was spend trying to make the big screen less easy to hack. It is driven by an Ubuntu 19.10 box using Google Chrome as the browser. As discovered earlier, Chrome has a “kiosk” mode, which disables right click, the address bar and more. Easy!

The real problem was Ubuntu itself: It has tablet support, meaning clever swipe gestures that activates program selection, unmaximizes windows, shows an on screen keyboard and other goodies. Goodies meaning baddies, when trying to build a display kiosk! Most of the solution was to use the Disable Gestures extension (and reboot to get the full disablement), but the on screen keyboard (activated by swiping in from the bottom of the screen) is apparently hard baked into the system (Block Caribou did not help us). We might have to uninstall it completely.

To be continued

About Toke Eskildsen

IT-Developer at with a penchant for hacking Lucene/Solr.
This entry was posted in eskildsen, Visualization. Bookmark the permalink.

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