Venn Diagram Museum at the Exploratorium

Last Thursday we showed 6 exhibits from the Venn Diagram Museum at the Exploratorium as part of their After Dark series. Here’s what we learned from showing them in a public setting.

1. Virtual Venn Diagram Museum

We put a museum in a museum, by using the Vive VR headset and taking visitors to the Virtual Venn Diagram Museum of Geometry, Topology, and Algebra.

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First: setup. We’ve set up dozens of demos at events, and usually the setup is the most excruciating part. Lugging around equipment, putting up the trackers, connecting cables, getting the software running, securing a cleared safe space for people to stumble around in VR… but this time, we had the power of museum professionals behind us! Kathleen Maguire and her crew took care of the entire setup; all we had to do was log in to Steam. It was seriously great.

The other wonderful thing about working with a great museum is we had helper staff to run the VR exhibit. Despite that all four of us were there, between 6 exhibits and giving a talk we were grateful to have the help. Often when demoing, it’s tough to get even a short break. But we had time to eat and talk to people and everything!

Now here’s a mistake we made and learned from:

The virtual museum exists in a piece of 3rd party software called Anyland. Usually we have the museum set to public so that anyone with the software can visit. However, as with all online social spaces, sometimes people misbehave or outright harass other users, so we decided to set the museum to private for the evening. Unfortunately, there’s no way to have private access to an Anyland space unless you’re accompanying an editor, or are an editor. But we didn’t want visitors to accidentally edit the space!

When we usually demo, we just keep an eye on what the visitor is doing. But to make things easier for our volunteer and ourselves, we came up with the following solution: take away one of the controllers so that it’s impossible to get into edit mode! The museum only requires one-handed interaction, so it’d be simpler all around.

What we didn’t consider was that if the software had to be restarted, it would automatically revert to edit mode. Which, as usually happens through an evening of VR demos, it did. Our volunteer very ably got the software restarted and up and running, but because we thought the edit mode thing was taken care of, we hadn’t bothered to tell him about it, and he had no idea. And so, as was inevitable, the next user had quite a grand time rearranging the world until she accidentally removed the building around her.

We were able to fix it of course, but it was stressful for a few minutes, especially for the volunteers and our unwitting destroyer of worlds! She was embarrassed about it, but if it wasn’t her, it would’ve been the next person in. It was entirely our fault for not thinking about it.

Interestingly, because our world is made by hand from inside this 3rd party software rather than using code and github or whatever, we couldn’t just revert to an old version or restart… we had to place things back by hand. Given that it’s virtual and there’s in essence no such thing as object permanence, there was something uncannily real about having to pick up a mess by hand.

If you’d like to visit, search “venn diagrams” in Anyland.

2. Human Categories

The idea behind this exhibit is simple: we project a slide show of venn diagrams with labelled categories that advances every 15 seconds, and visitors sort themselves into the appropriate categories in a giant venn diagram projected onto the floor.

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Example category sets include “tired, black hair, wearing flip-flops” and “wearing blue, wearing red, wearing green”. All four of us contributed categories to a shared google slide show, which you can find here.

But would people do it? Would they find the instructions easy and intuitive?
Would it be fun? What kinds of category sets would people enjoy the most?

It turns out this simple exhibit was an overwhelming success in a real museum setting! Groups of friends would wander by and immediately be able to participate. Some stayed through the entire length of the slide show (which was only about 60 slides, or 15 minutes). It was gratifying to wander by occasionally and see large groups participating unprompted by us.

We think the timing of 15 seconds per slide was pretty good. Fast enough to keep you on your toes, though maybe a bit slow for some of the more straight forward slides. The best were slides that prompted a bit of discussion, or people telling their friends more detail as to what brought them to that category.

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It was great to hear people reason out loud using natural language: “I like seasons but I love fog, so I’m definitely here.” “I’ve never done martial arts, but I used to run and now I do yoga.” “I love books but haven’t read as many as I meant to to this year.” “Cake, chocolate, or icecream? How about chocolate ice cream cake!”

It was also interesting to see people naturally add continuity to what is in theory discrete. People would stand closer or farther from other circles, in the middle or at the edge, depending how well they think they fit. They even sometimes stood on the borders, or with one foot on each side, to indicate things like “sometimes” or “I used to” or “depends what you mean”. I’d like to think deeper on how we use our bodies and body position as metaphors for concepts like these.

The slides that didn’t work were ones where a significant proportion of players didn’t think they fit into any of the categories, especially if they didn’t know what some of the circles were referencing. Shove everyone out of all the circles for two slides in a row, and most likely they’d walk away.

I think with a little more work on making interesting relevant slides that people identify with and talk out loud about, this exhibit could be a real winner in more than just science museums. It could make a great activity for other kinds of museums and also classroom settings, with different slide sets on different themes. It’s easy to set up the projection, and a giant Venn diagram can be easily be put on a floor using painters tape (which is easy to remove too). If you’re interested send us a note at elevirtual at gmail!

One extra note: while people generally seemed to be able to match the slide show to the floor diagram pretty easily, that disconnect feels unnecessary now that we’re moving away from the desktop metaphor and towards room-scale computation. It’s easy for me to imagine a room-scale slide show app for AR that would allow proper in-place labelling and a giant venn diagram to be layered onto the world, along with whatever other words, images, or 3D objects one might want to have in a presentation! It’s fun to imagine the possibilities.

And now, a few exhibits that grew out of prototypes previously shown in this video:

3. Venn Symmetry

Thanks to Paul Dancstep, who was crucial to setting up all the physical exhibits, we were able to convert an existing exhibit that used mirrors into an exhibit on the symmetry of Venn Diagrams. They already had an exhibit with three mirrors that you can change the angle on, so we made up a laser cutter file that includes different sections of the 2 and 3-circle venn diagram, which can be symmetrized using the mirror and correct angle, or put together on their own, and Paul got them made on the Exploratorium’s laser cutter.

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While I enjoyed seeing symmetry visualized this way, I’m not sure how approachable an exhibit in is in this form. It’s good for a demonstration, but less for someone walking up cold. It’s the wrong combination of playful and directed, for those who don’t already know and appreciate the particular symmetry of venn diagrams.

I think maybe ideally it would just be one folding mirror you can sit in front of, and challenged to create various iconic symmetric things, including the 3-circle venn diagram but also other well-known shapes and logos. Perhaps you’d be given a set of pieces and be challenged to match up bits of things with the name of the full thing, using the mirror to check your work.

But for those of you who do already appreciate the symmetry of Venn diagrams, here’s the pdf for laser cutting (or cutting out of paper by hand).

4. Additive Light Venn Diagrams

I wrote extensively about additive and subtractive light Venn diagrams, particularly using red, green, and blue LED flashlights to mix light, in a previous post. Because playing with the flashlights was so intuitive and fun for people I’ve tried it with, I thought it would make a great exhibit for our Exploratorium collection.

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Paul helped us convert an exhibit that already used hanging flashlights, the “Monochromatic Room”, to explore light and color. We used a sheet to make one of the walls white for perfect Venn diagrams, and then visitors would also be free to observe how each individual flashlight keeps the monochromaticness of the room, or collaborate to create white light that would allow them to see the colors of other objects in the room.

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I made a crucial mistake though… when Paul asked whether I wanted to keep the dim yellow light on in the room, or turn it off and have only the flashlights, I asked to have it turned off. I figured the exhibit would be more pure that way. What I didn’t think about was that, for anyone who doesn’t know there’s an exhibit in there, it just kind of looked like an empty dark room. Placed as it was at the far end of the museum tucked into a corner past the entrance to our VR exhibit, which was blocked off with cones, almost no one wandered in without being prompted or seeing us using it. Especially when the flashlights were hanging down pointing towards the floor, it looked like maybe a place people weren’t supposed to go. Lessons learned!

5. Subtractive Light Venn Diagrams

The room we showed our VR exhibit in was previously home to an exhibit called “Color Collage”, which let people play with different colored plastic bits on an overhead projector. Perfect for a subtractive light Venn diagram exhibit!

So Paul cut us some circles of different colors, and moved the projectors to their new location on the floor, next to Venn Symmetry and Human Categories.

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I think ideally, additive and subtractive color Venn diagrams would be related exhibits near each other, along with more Venn color fun like painting and such (see previous post on Venn color stuff). Shuffling plastic color bits around on a projector is more interesting in context, as it was in the original exhibit where a bunch of projectors were in a special room together. For this exhibition, the subtractive color exhibit projector was next to another projector, doing:

6. Polarized Light Venn Diagrams

I decided to add this to the list of exhibits after I saw this video by my friends Henry Reich and Grant Sanderson, about Bell’s theorem and polarized light.

I ordered some polarized filters, cut them into circles, and set up one of the projectors with them. It’s really cool to see the effect in person if you know what you’re looking for. If you don’t, however, results may vary.

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When we first set it up, it was fun to watch people wander by, poke at the circles, and then maybe look really confused when they see that the color of the overlap depends on the angle (and then maybe be motivated to read the sign). Polarization is really cool even without the extra cool part about Bell’s theorem which requires three filters to demonstrate:

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As the night went on though, the polarized and regular colored circles migrated back and forth between the two projectors, which were set up next to each other. Perhaps it made the effects of polarization more difficult to discover, but I wonder if anyone thought some good interesting thoughts through mixing the two?

A proper exhibit on polarized light would guide you a little more specifically… rather than freehand moving filters, you’d have them attached to a thing where you can easily rotate them into specific angles, guiding you to the interesting effects. While I think the freehand exploratory way worked pretty well for a couple people who stumbled into it, the majority did not notice they were anything more than grey filters, especially as they mixed in with the other colors.

7. Bonus exhibit: Reuleaux Triangle that Drills Square Holes

One of the exhibits we talked about doing, but decided would be too difficult on our budget/timeline, involved Reuleaux triangles (which are the shape of the center of a 3-circle Venn diagram, and have many nice properties).

After the night ended and it was time to pack up, Paul took us into the shop and showed us something special: drill bits that drill square holes! This is possible using the geometry of the Reuleaux triangle.

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I was EXTREMELY EXCITED to see them in person because I’d tried to buy a set when I was setting up the original museum prototypes but could not find them anywhere. In my dreams, the Reuleaux triangle section of the Venn Diagram museum has a whole pile of exhibits, including a drill with these drill bits that you can operate to create your very own square hole as a souvenir.

8. Venn Zine

For one last bonus Venn activity, we printed a zine/brochure for our exhibits. On the inside (it’s just one double-sided sheet folded in half), there’s pictures and descriptions of the six exhibits (or, rather, their prototypes). The back has a bio. The front has a Venn diagram activity to fill out through the evening: find the intersections of things that surprised you, things you liked, and things you did with your body.


venn zineArtboard 1World Timeline


venn zineArtboard 2World Timeline

Now that we have pictures of the actual exhibits, it’s nice to imagine a more extensive zine. We’re into zines lately. And I could write on and on and on about Venn diagrams…

Anyway, that’s all for now! Thanks again to Kathleen Maguire, Paul Dancstep, our volunteers, and the rest of the Exploratorium crew, for helping make my Venn Diagram Museum dreams come true.

Vi Hart

P.S. We still don’t have funding. Email us at elevirtual at gmail if you have any ideas.

P.P.S. Here’s that video of the event again for those of you who don’t like scrolling up.