Glowing Fiber Optics Visualize Human Curiosity In Real Time

Conceived for a library, each of these filaments lights up when a certain keyword is searched for, giving a real-time visualization of visitor curiosity.

Beyond Google’s autocompleting search queries, we never really know the questions that our peers are asking, the knowledge they’re searching for, and discoveries they’re trying to make. And if you think about it, this is a really compelling area to sneak a peek at. After all, humanity’s greatest academic struggle is to learn more about everything.


Filament Mind, by Brian W. Brush and Yong Ju Lee of E/B Office with Noa Younse (Data Visualization Designer), is an installation planned for Jackson Hole Wyoming’s Teton County Library. It connects 908 fiber optic cables to the library’s computer database, each which represents a topic within the Dewey Decimal System. When a user makes a query on, say, law, the information of that query–transferred via wavelengths of light–is channeled through the appropriate fiber optic like water through a pipe.

Onlookers can literally see the flow of information through the library in real time, as photons passing through glass tubes carry bits of information overhead. And since each cable is clearly labeled by topic, people can actually understand what they’re seeing.

“It’s a synthesis of natural and artificial imagery we’re going for. We want people to feel it as much as see it perform as the manifestation of the mind of the library, which in effect is the mind of the community,” Brush tells Co.Design. “We’re interested in turning the library inside out. Rather than celebrating the monumentalized names and words of famous authors and scholars, (which in the heyday of the library as public architecture was the standard practice), we’re celebrating the questions that everyone asks, the curiosities of the public revealed through what they search for at the library.”

How the sculpture of light actually looks is still up for debate. While it will hang from the ceiling like a higher-budget Dr. Who monster, there are practical questions that could alter its meaning. Will it be in one color or many colors? And how should the cables be organized, topically? Should metalworking be near law because they’re close to one another in the alphabet, or should similarity of topic dictate the position? Or do you just ignore positioning altogether to focus purely on color?

“It’s sort of like answering how do you spatialize all knowledge–putting them in a numeric list is easy and rational, but locating them in a physical space to create a relational artistic effect is a whole different problem!” writes Brush. “What knowledge do we want to relate to what? These questions will have a huge influence on the performance of the piece and we will have to put much thought into their resolution.”

It’s a fascinating problem, as designers need to decide just how much to visually editorialize the unfeeling, objective facts flowing through the library. By threading these fiber optic lines, they’ll quite literally shaping the way we view information. But then again, I guess that’s what most of us do, in however roundabout a way, all day every day.


About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started, a simple way to give back every day.