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Peter Cho, “Typotopo”

Research Report by Kate Marshall
(created 4/27/07; version 1.0)
[Status: Draft]

Related Categories: Text Visualization | Text and Multimedia

Original Object for Study description

Peter Cho’s body of typographic experiments, collected on Typotopo, visually explore the constituent parts of language and narrative. Cho’s work presents a range of graphic design innovations that use digital technology to access forms of letters or forms of texts. The text visualizations showcased on Typotopo ask not only how technology influences typography, but also what happens to the act of reading when letters, words, and narratives are experienced in interactive, dynamic environments.

A literal “man of letters,” Cho cites a longstanding interest in typography and letter forms as the impetus behind much of his design work. He holds degrees from the MIT Media Lab and UCLA’s Design | Media Arts program.

While at MIT, Cho felt the influence of Muriel Cooper’s experiments with typography. Cooper was an MIT professor in Media Arts, and pioneered work in computational design, and co-founded MIT’s Visible Language Workshop. After her death in 1994, her presence was still very much felt in the Media Lab, where Cho designed models for typography in time-based and reactive media. The issues surrounding the “visibility” of language circulate throughout Cho’s projects, which look carefully at discrete units capable of producing meaning.

According to Cho, Typotopo is a “collection of type experience.” The website describes the project thus:

This site represents the space where typography and topography overlap: explorations of type in virtual environments, experiments in mapping, and innovations in textual display. TYPOTOPO examines how the act of reading evolves when letters and words, viewed both as text and image, are placed in interactive and dynamic environments. TYPOTOPO explores typographic information spaces and the possibilities for playful, expressive letterforms.

TYPOTOPO is a collection of works loosely themed around typography, virtual spaces, and technology. Digital technology can allow for new ways to express visual-and textual-messages. “Craft” plays an important role in our digitally-mediated world. Through the experiments on this site, I am exploring how “craft” can apply to software artifacts, interactive systems, and other works created using the computer.

Design, visual thinking and technology can work together to make information accessible. What does it mean to create maps of information spaces? If Borges’ fable of the one-to-one sized map of an imaginary kingdom has become true in the age of the Internet, the role of the map as an all-encompassing tool for representing the entirety of a region needs to change. TYPOTOPO explores how new kinds of maps can make sense of the data overload, maps which narrativize and personalize the journey.

Projects featured on Typotopo of particular interest to Transliteracies include experiments with models of letter forms and experiments with visualizations of narrative.

Takeluma is an “invented writing system for representing speech sounds and the visceral responses they can evoke.” It is a sound-symbolic, phonetic alphabet that has several material incarnations.

The exhibit space of Takeluma includes a large projection in which words spoken into a microphone appear translated into their “line of sound” on the wall. There are also recorded installations which figure recorded sounds, ranging from Armstrong’s “One small step for man” and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I have a dream,” to the “plop, plop, fizz fizz,” of an Alka-Seltzer radio jingle. The ribbon-like, fluid writing produced in the multiple instantiations of this work invites observers to become new readers, and contemplate the relationship between sound and text, and the mediating role of technology in representing language.

Cho’s Letterscapes project is interested in potential of letter forms. It offers an interactive look at each letter of the alphabet, which becomes mobile, three-dimensional, and responsive when selected from a constellation of letters. These letter forms are rendered with depth and often interact with or become a kind of landscape in themselves. Although each letter is dealt with singly, they are read as multiplicities as they move.

Type me, Type me not is also interested in individual letters. Users choose between three type experiments and letters they type appear in the chosen context. The choices include geometrical shapes that fluidly form representations of letters and morph into each other, thin letters that drop and move across the screen accompanied by their individual sounds, and rough letters that appear in chunky pixels. The letter combinations in each instance are determined by the user.

In Code Calvino, the attention to individual letters as constituent units shifts to the level of the word, paragraph, and sentence. This project, developed with Matt Dubord, takes apart Italo Calvino’s novel If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler and offers new ways of reading the work by querying a database which contains the novel’s entire text. The chapters of the book are represented visually by columns, and the number of pixels of each column corresponds to the approximate number of words in each section.

Code Calvino allows users to experience the text in several new modes. In one mode, the software reconfigures the text, beginning by selecting a random word from the first chapter. The software scans the text until it finds the next occurrence of the selected word, then the word immediately following this occurrence is added to the text thread. Then the new word becomes the next search term, and so forth. This technique was used in Claude Shannon’s 1948 paper, “A Mathematical Theory of Communication,” to construct a second-order word approximation of English. Another mode begins with a sentence from chapter three of the novel. When the user clicks on a word, the software randomly chooses a new word to follow from all possible words, which follow the highlighted word in the text.

Research Context:
The fluid relation of these experiments with each other is entirely appropriate given their concern with transformation. The theoretical interests informing much of Cho’s work deal with the boundaries between text and image. He is particularly interested in Johanna Drucker’s work on typography, and the experiments presented on Typotopo take up ideas concerned with the materiality of type and refigure them in the digital context.

Drucker’s scholarship on the history of alphabets, typography, and theories of language’s visible representation is significant for Cho’s work with digital typography. The question of how technology influences typography shifts from concerns with the move from punch cutting to cast metal type-allowing for thinner lines, new shapes, and different printing practices-to the accelerated changes happening in the broader fields of typography and design.

The focus of this work on discrete units such as the letter, word, or sentence, is also of interest for work that considers the molecular levels of reading. Work on writing at the nano scale (the arrangement of electrons into words, “read” by a scanning, tunneling microscope) shares a concern with reading and writing’s constituent elements, and in theorizing the role of technology.

Technical Analysis:
Most of the projects featured on Typotopo use a combination of C++ and Java. Cho develops custom software for his installations: the graphic forms are coded as a series of points, and the animations are driven by algorithms. The Code Calvino project uses a mySQL database built with Calmap.

Evaluation of Opportunities/Limitations for the Transliteracies Topic:

he experiments on Typotopo offer several opportunities for the Transliteracies topic in their attempts to think through interactive reading experience at the level of the letter. In addition, the focus on the “human quality” of letter forms themselves corresponds with the “New Reading Interfaces” focus on text visualizations and alternative interfaces. The graphic design innovations of Typotopo, evoked as “the secret life of letters,” also put pressure on the boundaries between the handwritten and machine-made, and between degrees of the mechanical itself. The goal of understanding digital reading according to its historical protocols can be pursued though these works’ concern with earlier technologies of typography and their implications in the digital realm.

Work with narrative on Typotopo, particularly in the Code Calvino project, also presents an interesting account of how text can change in an alternative communication environment. The remaking of a print novel in this instance provides a new reading of the novel itself and simultaneously creates an entirely new work.

One potential limitation of this project is that these installations are designed as experiments, without a primary focus on utility. While this allows for a greater sense of play and design freedom, they are not necessarily user tested.

Resources for Further Study:

  • Peter Cho.
  • Typotopo.
  • MIT media lab.
  • Drucker, Johanna. Figuring the Word: Essays on Books, Writing, and Visual Poetics. New York: Granary Books, 1998.
  • Brown, Nathan. “Needle on the Real: Technoscience and Poetry at the Limits of Fabrication,” in N. Katherine Hayles, ed., Nanoculture: Implications of the New Technoscience. Bristol: Intellect Books, 2004.
  tl, 04.27.07

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