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Software brings Johnny Cash back to life

By Richard Galant, CNN
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'Virtual resurrection' of a music legend
  • Artist Aaron Koblin uses software to tell stories derived from data
  • He worked on project based on Johnny Cash's recording of "Ain't No Grave"
  • Users can illustrate frames of the video and rate others' work
  • Koblin: Best use of data is to capture the world in motion and tell personal stories

(CNN) -- Other people see data as numbers on a page, columns of figures on a spreadsheet, even simple pie charts and graphics. Aaron Koblin sees patterns, stories and art, interpretations of data in constant motion that are intensely personal and can at the same time create a community that works together to understand and re-imagine the world.

In a series of online collaborations, Koblin has developed software that tells stories and creates art by sifting through data. Koblin, who got his master of fine arts degree from the University of California, Los Angeles, heads the Data Arts Team at Google's Creative Lab.

One of his early works, "Flight Patterns," is a bright and intricate web of aircraft movements over the United States throughout the day, tracking in vibrant colors the volume and direction of flights as they peak at nearly 20,000 and decline overnight to less than 5,000.

"It was just really compelling data," Koblin said in an interview with CNN after he gave a talk at the TED conference in Long Beach, California, in February. (TED is a nonprofit dedicated to "Ideas worth spreading," and has a content partnership with "It's very granular and it shows exactly where every airplane is over North America in three-minute intervals ... so you can see the ebbs and flows.

"You see people going to sleep, taking the red-eye flights from the West Coast to the East Coast, waking up, the European flights are coming in," Koblin said. "It's also really been fascinating to see the stories that people impart on the data, the interpretations people are making, everything from 'this is an amazing testament to the power of the American way' to 'this is the pollution and kind of the chaos that's happening in the skies above us.' "

How to make data look sexy

Koblin, collaborating with Chris Milk, has done two music-related projects that break ground. In one, set to Arcade Fire's song "We Used to Wait," multiple browser windows illustrate the song, integrating images of the user's own childhood home and neighborhood -- users are prompted to enter the street address of the place they grew up, which then draws Google Earth images into the video.

And in their more recent work, a "global collaborative art project" called "The Johnny Cash Project," users have illustrated 1,370 frames of a film that is set to "Ain't No Grave," a song from an album released nearly seven years after Cash's death in 2003.

Milk cut together archival footage, and they invited users to draw images for each frame. "It's constantly changing," Koblin said. Users can rate images, enabling the most popular ones to make it into the video. Or you can choose to watch the video with the most abstract frames, or realistic, or sketchy ones.

"So it's kind of this virtual resurrection and memorial" to Cash, he said. Cash sings, "When I hear that trumpet sound, I'm going to rise right out of the ground. Ain't no grave can hold my body down," and the video fulfills that notion, demonstrating that Cash's art can't be buried either.

Koblin's passion and commitment to his own art is evident. Yet he admits he's not sure if data visualizations can make for a better world. And he worries about the way data is often portrayed.

"There's something that happens with the collection of a large amount of data when it's dumped into an Excel spreadsheet or put into a pie chart. You run the risk of completely missing what it's about. ... There's this guise of objectivity that happens -- and I don't think there is an objective data visualization.

Data is interpreted by everyone who uses it. "Oftentimes I think it's better to embrace the subjectivity of visualization and ... make a point, tell your story properly because I think otherwise you run the risk of completely missing what it's about."

And, as someone whose enthusiasm is for complex, constantly changing expressions of data, he admits, "When I look at a pie chart, I just go numb."

The video interview with Aaron Koblin was produced by CNN's Brandon Ancil.

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