The Electronic Design Notebook: performing medium and processing medium

The traditional Engineer's Notebook is a volume of bound paper pages. This archaic system is still the medium of choice for mechanical engineers during the conceptual phase of design. In making this choice, designers are taking a performer's view, choosing freedom and agility in the initial making of drawings over processing power. The paper notebook allows the designer to quickly write and draw whatever she or he desires. During conceptualization, a designer is functioning as a performer, like a musician. And also like a musician, her instrument must be agile or the performance will be cramped and ideas lost. But in current Computer Aided Design systems, agility has been neglected in favor of processing power       the ability to do something with the drawings in addition to just making them. Described in this paper is vmacs, a prototype Electronic Design Notebook which combines these two capabilities by being both a performing medium and a processing medium.

(1996 update: since this paper was first published in 1989, vmacs has evolved into Webmacs, an EDN for the Web.)

But, how can we let the designer just write and draw whatever she wants and then process later? Well, perhaps we can take advantage of a useful characteristics of text and graphics generated during problem solving ...


Observation: visual entropy decreases during the design process
(or, spatial organization of text and graphics increases over time)

The spatial organization in design drawings results in the coagulation of local lumps or expressions in visual languages, which can be processed through spatial parsing.

For example, in the figure below, the non specific pieces of text and graphics within the dashed box were first recognized as an expression in rigid body dynamics notation, then the arrangement of the pieces spatially parsed according to the syntax of that language, and finally appropriate semantic interpretation was performed and action taken.


Processing a visual expression in rigid body dynamics notation

The basic theme in the Electronic Design Notebook is laissez faire: first, let the user write and draw whatever she wants; and then, second, provide levels of optional assistance. One kind of assistance is the processing of visual languages, as shown above. Another kind of assistance is navigational aid, where a machine inference system can guide another person through the designer's work. See Mapping Design Information.


0. Out From Behind The Dim Curtain

1. Introduction

2. A Performing Medium for Text and Graphics

3. First Stage: The Simple Electronic Design Notebook

4. Observation: Spatial Organization of Text and Graphics Increases Over Time (or "visual entropy" decreases)

5. A Processing Medium For Expressions In Visual Languages

6. Second Stage: The Complete Electronic Design Notebook

7. Conclusion

8. References

Initially published in a special Visual Language issue of THE VISUAL COMPUTER: International Journal of Computer Graphics, edited by Ranjit Makkuni, Springer Verlag publishers, pg 214 226, Vol 5, No 4, Aug 1989.

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(C) Copyright 1994, 1996 PGC