Texture, Pattern, Fractal, Feature
There’s typically a strong tendency to separate and process a single visual scene into two categories, called “figure” and “ground”. The ground category specifies some manner of background information. In a photograph, the “ground” may literally be the ground… for instance a grassy field stretching off for miles in every direction. Then there’s the “figure” category, specifying some sort of feature that is contained within the ground. In a photograph, the “figure” could easily be a person. (There’s a nice article on scholarpedia that gives a more authoritative description of these distinctions.)
In these cases, perception is a process of splitting the figure from the ground. In most cases, the figure is the most “important” feature to attend to in a visual scene. The ground component of a scene is typically comprised of low level, high frequency “textural” patterns (the dunes of a sandy beach, the rows of a cornfield, even the grid of a city street). It may be pleasant to look at, but typically not engaging without some form of figure present in the scene.
I was thinking about this with regards to fractals. Fractals are well known for their bizarre shapes and emergent patterns. They form patterns reminiscent of simple geometric shapes, but these shapes hide incredible complexity. I think that part of what makes them so visually compelling is that they consistently blur the line between ground and figure through the course of their animation (typically, a long zoom on one portion of the fractal image). A seemingly simple shape that we process as “figure” becomes a “field” itself under a constant zoom, and new fractal features leap out at us from the new level of detail. In this sense, a fractal is constantly “becoming”… there is always some new figure that will be generated from the field, and therefore, our brain has to struggle to keep up. Pair this sensation with the sudden realization that many of the fractal patterns reoccur (the main Mandelbrot image set itself will repeat at various levels of zoom), and it’s a constant visual cocktail of emergence, recognition, and momentum.
Anyways, it occurred to me that fractals haven’t been harnessed for any sort of visualization application. I wonder what aspects of fractals can be used to attract/focus attention, express relationships, or designate some form of measurement?