Thursday, January 1, 2015

Pick-me-up pixels: Reflections on "happy" in the new year

Yes, there's the holiday season, but a lot needs to happen during that time to make sure that 2015 goes smoothly. 

Late at night, recently, I was grinding my teeth about late reviews. I was worried about me being late in reviewing for other people, and other people being late reviewing for me. In general, I was feeling like we were all getting behind before we had even started the new year.

A colleague who knew I was fretting sent me a encouraging email with some beautiful snow pictures.  My favorite one is this one. 

The moment I clicked open the .jpgs of the pictures attached in the email, magical scenes from far away shifted my mind into a state of wonder, and then joy. 

I noticed that if I stop to reflect on how it feels, the effect of an image, a bunch of numbers representing five million pixels, is physically tangible. The experience of looking at a picture like this one delivers the same pick-me-up as a cold lemonade in the hot summer, a stunning cityscape lit up at night, the sound of waves washing over rocks, or a purring cat in my lap on a long evening. 

Goodness knows I have spent enough time reading, writing, and reviewing papers about the affective impact of multimedia, and how it can be predicted by crunching pixels. But now, looking at the photos that my colleague sent, it struck me how real that impact is. As multimedia researchers, we may not be medical doctors, but we do have the responsibility of developing technologies with the power to make people feel better.

It also hit home, that the impact goes beyond the pixels. A good part of the effect is knowing that someone realized I was glum, and also the thought that ultimately I might to have a chance to visit the place where the picture was taken.

It's interesting that the picture came via email. The effect of social multimedia doesn't require a social networking platform. Given a camera, and a display device, people will exchange pictures. The existence of Facebook helps, but is not necessary...and by similar reasoning the practice of sharing pictures will survive social networks in the form that we know them today.

I imagine that the two people in this picture have also just taken a picture of the snowy trees in the lamplight and are pausing to examine it together on a mobile device. Their exchange of thoughts might lead them to discover that they are connected by their reactions to the beauty of the experience. 

Making images us together leads us to share thoughts about our ways of seeing things that we might be otherwise tempted to disregard as irrelevant or not worth further time. Whether we are moved by our similarities, or take delight in unexpected differences in our perspectives, it is a connection that might have been missed without the mediation of a moment of collaborative picture making.

Ideally, the impact of social pixels would be a positive one without exception. The couple in the picture has captured not only pixels, but also the memory of a moment, that they will be able to relive long after the snow has melted.

But we can't know for sure. The moment may be so precious, that it is overwhelming to look back on it. Emotional overload is clearly a danger in the case of heartbreak, but even if our couple is destined to live happily-ever-after, nostalgia can be a burden. 

If no single moment is overpowering, a mass of memories might still be unbearable. The image might represent one of so many moments, that reliving them each would be an exhausting and numbing experience. 

Ultimately, as users who produce and consume multimedia content, we need systems that allow us to save and find the right content, and also the right amount of content. 

We need to be open to the possibility that maybe these systems are not intelligent systems, but rather utterly simple-minded and transparent systems that just happen to be incredibly good at supporting us, as "human users", in saving and finding the right multimedia for each other.

My pick-me up moment caused by the snow images passes quickly, and the more usual train of thoughts clicks in again: 

I start wondering about what are those things in the middle of the path. Are they air ducts? Are they bee hives? How can I find out? Will I notice them if I get there? Are my photoshop skills good enough to get rid of them? Would this make a better picture? 

And then, I am struck by the thought that my mood was lifted by the pictures, but it would really be lifted if the people I am counting on would finish reviews! Which means I should also get back to mine.

The ability of multimedia to relax and revive our inner being is subtle and fleeting. Blink and you could miss it. We feel it, but we take it for granted, and our minds quickly move to other things. We forget its role in maintaining our inner balance, and our balance with the world and each other. Without this delicate equilibrium of our affective states, we would derail....produce no more papers, invent no more cool systems.

And so for 2015, I will continue to devote effort to understanding what people see in pictures, but I aspire to also remember the power that shared pixels have to lift our spirits.