Planetary app turns music library into galactic art (Q&A)

45 Minutes on IM: Bloom President Ben Cerveny sits down with CNET to talk about how his new company's approach to data visualization could forever change the way people interact with information.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
8 min read

As a new kind of device, the iPad has forced developers and users alike to toss out their traditional notions of what data is and how it is presented. While smartphones like the iPhone and those using Google Android kicked off that transformation, the iPad, with its 9.7-inch screen and almost infinite number of ways to present data and information, has kicked things into a higher gear.

Already, people are using the iPad to change how we interact with games, magazines, productivity tools, and other software. But now, a start-up called Bloom is hoping to radically alter people's normal approach to data. As Bloom quotes tech publishing pioneer Tim O'Reilly on its Web site, "People think of data visualization as output, and the insight that I think [Bloom has had] is that data visualization will become a means of input and control...Being able to manipulate data in real-time is an important shift. Data visualizations would then become interfaces rather than reports."

Planetary, the first iPad app from Bloom, presents users' music collections using a galactic metaphor. Bloom

Today, Bloom--which recently scored funding from Betaworks, SV Angel, and Flickr co-founder Stewart Butterfield--launched its first iPad app, Planetary. Designed to radically change the way users approach their music collections, is it also the company's first serve in what could be some very interesting potential partnerships with services like iTunes and any other that has plenty of data but no visually interesting way to present it.

The company was founded by four people with many years spent in leading design and user experience businesses. Among them is the company's president, Ben Cerveny, one of Flickr's earliest employees, who also has worked for companies like Stamen Design, frogdesign, and others.

Last week, Cerveny sat down with CNET for a 45 Minutes on IM interview to talk about Planetary, and about how Bloom hopes to use its visualization "instruments" to change the way people experience and feel about data.

Q: Thanks for taking the time to talk to me. I guess we should start with the name of the company, Bloom. Where does that come from?
Ben Cerveny: My pleasure, thanks for having me. So, we deal with data every day in our daily lives. It flows around us but we don't always know it's there. But really, data is beautiful stuff: all sorts of mesmerizing structures and patterns. At Bloom, we'll make the invisible data visible. We'll make it Bloom.

You're launching with Planetary. Explain briefly what it does, for those who aren't already familiar with it?
Cerveny: Planetary is a beautiful new way to explore your own music collection on your iPad. We present your collection of tunes as a galaxy, where artists are stars orbited by album planets, and each moon of the planet is a track that you can tap to play the song through a seamless connection with the native iPad music player. By using intuitive gestures, you can move between artists, create new constellations of music, and compose incredible scenes generated entirely by your own musical tastes.

Ben Cerveny

Why did you choose this approach as your launch app?
Cerveny: We wanted to demonstrate how beautiful landscapes composed of data can be, and to show people a new way to be playful with composition of their own resources. We view this release as just the beginning of our adventure with users through the galaxy of music, This initial release is setting the stage for all sorts of experiences that layer right into this space-faring metaphor that will come later as updates and in-app purchases.

So when it comes to music, are you imagining partnerships?
Cerveny: We're definitely exploring the idea of partnering with one or more of the streaming music providers. The idea would be to offer a galactic view on their entire collection, populated by other users in your social network whose favorites and playlists could be visitable in star systems you could travel to from your own. A massively multiplayer online jam, perhaps? In order to provide really powerful search and filtration tools in the future, we're also looking to other sources of metadata to augment the somewhat unreliable ID3 tags attached to tracks in iTunes libraries. So many possibilities from more structured data sources could provide countless ways of seeing the constellations of tunes in new ways.

Why is music such a good fit for Bloom? And what are some other areas that make a lot of sense for reaching the mass market?
Cerveny: Music is an emotional part of people's lives that they spend countless hours organizing and playing. If we can provide a new layer of experience to how they appreciate the music that they love, this is a visceral connection. But of course, Bloom is about more than music. Our long-term vision is to create a constant flow of experiences that transform people's relationship with the data that they inhabit, making information from social networks, media services, and locative applications into dynamic instruments that users can explore, perform, use, and share. We believe that the tablet and the living room screen will quickly evolve a new paradigm for fluid, playful interaction with the network and the resources found there, and our bite-sized, beautiful, constantly evolving applications will help lead the way.

I was talking about the iPad with someone the other day whose start-up also makes iPad apps, and he said he feels no one really even understands the device yet. That would seem to argue for incredible discoveries yet to come. How will Bloom help with that discovery?
Cerveny: The tablet is a total disruption of how we understand popular computing. The next era of experiences will be driven by visceral gesture-based input, and rich fluid responsiveness in native graphics contexts. I see the potential for Bloom to help define a "killer pattern" for application design. Because apps have been deconstructed into discrete tasks that flow across devices, I don't think one or two "killer apps" will emerge as happened with desktop operating systems, where word processors and design apps were installed when the machine was bought and never changed. Rather, I think we're already seeing the emergence of Feed Aggregator and Game as two of the "killer patterns" on iPad, and Bloom is busy designing a type of experience at the intersection of these categories: the interactions from games allow you to explore the feeds and flows you participate in.

So how will game mechanics be a part of what Bloom builds into its visualizations?
Cerveny: Well, I've been speaking and designing around the idea of game culture's influence on general computing ever since my work on Game Neverending [the Ludicorp game that became Flickr] way back in 2002-3. It has been interesting to watch the rise of the subsequent discourse on gamification, because to me, the focus on "achievements" and such misses the real power of games: they teach us dynamic system models. The instruments we build at Bloom will each provide a different "physics of information," or game-like rule set that maps the variables from the data the user is viewing (how many followers does my friend have) into a set of rules that govern the behavior and presentation of the data (how big is the dot that represents that friend). Once users learn how these rules work, they can perform the system like they might perform a video game, zooming through structures, using tools, and interacting with the environment. Play is the way humans learn how new environments work. We'll let people play in countless environments built by their own network data and resources.

Nice. What is it about what you're doing with Bloom that gets you most excited?
Cerveny: I think this computational transition we're now going through to the handheld, the tablet, and the big living-room screen will be huger than anything this industry has yet experienced. I think in five years, the way we relate to dynamic data and resources accessible over the network will have been completely transformed. I believe Bloom has a good chance of helping to define this new age as one of playful, empowered, fluid virtuosity with these resources.

How did your background get you to this place?
Cerveny: I've been thinking about these types of experiences since I was a boy. I've worked for over 16 years in the design of interactions with computer systems. I've designed mobile operating systems, massively multiplayer games, amusement park experiences, and I've run R&D labs for some of the world's most innovative design firms. But, all along, I've also been a philosopher, and I'm really interested in how emergent complexity is always something that humans are drawn to, and how the most powerful tools for understanding what we build always explore these territories. Both games and the types of generative art that Bloom draws many of our visual mechanics from draw deeply from complex system theory.

What can you tell me about what the next app or two from Bloom? And how Bloom will make money?
Cerveny: You'll notice we don't call the things we build "visualizations," even though they utilize many techniques that have been refined through years of research in that space. Instead, we contend that although we've left "the Finder" behind on the desktop, we're still going to need countless finders to locate the people, places, and things that are important to us. So the things we build are more like playful graphical user interfaces, and we're going to help people get to results they want to act on. These possible actions can be monetized, like "print this photo at (some photo partner)" or "buy this track on iTunes." We'll also be making many application upgrades available as in-app purchases, like the possible playlist-builder in Planetary.

The next few applications we build will continue to explore the various network services people participate in everyday. We're looking at video-streaming services, social-network activity, and locative systems, for instance. In the long run, we'll let people decide which "instruments" they want to aim at which services, and configure the experience like they might mod a video game. Think visual programming tools like Yahoo Pipes.

Last question, and it's my standard last question for this Q&A series. I love doing IM interviews for lots of reasons, including the fact that I get a perfect transcript. But also because IM lets you multitask. So, tell me, what else were you doing while we were doing this interview?
Cerveny: LOL. I was answering e-mail from my colleagues, ordering a latte--I'm at a cafe in Venice Beach at the moment--and watching Tweetdeck as retweets of and comments on our Planetary launch announcement roll in.

Excellent. Well, thanks so much, Ben. I appreciate your time. Congratulations and good luck on the launch.
Cerveny: Thank you.