VPL
  • PRIME a 3D node&wire VPL
  • Natto (another node&wire VPL) now has React state boxes I'm a huge fan of making data tangible and visible, and this is a step in the right direction
  • importantly, VPLs - "node and edges" ones - are not a solution here: they swap variable names for drawing edges, but the idea stays the same - you can touch anything immediately, regardless of how "far" it is
  • VPLs, understood as "nodes-and-wires", usually provide some sort of infinite canvas to lay functions on, I'm curious if this combination is necessary - can the code still be text (or some other structural approach), while I can still "keep some functions here on the right of that other thing" - basically thinking spatially about my code
    • notable work in this direction is Dark (also featuring the "embodied data" idea):
  • node-and-edge languages (VPLs) are DAGs describing computations - they are best modeled with streams, event emitters, etc.
  • it's interesting to look at "simulator" problems from the point of view of VPLs - visualizing program state/execution is more useful than visualizing the AST - this, again, ties into Solving Things Visually

    What kind of a thinker would you become if you grew up with an active simulator connected, not just to one point of view, but to all the points of view (...) so they could be dynamically tried out and compared?

    — User Interface, a Personal View - Alan Kay

  • VPL is usually understood as nodes-and-wires (or colorful boxes) - but these approaches are not really "visual" in a sense of visualizing the problem domain - they visualize the program shape - the one-dimensional text buffer turns into two-dimensional canvas, and the naming of intermediate values into wires between them
    • but, this is rarely useful! - the shape of the program doesn't tell us much, the problem space of the domain does, but it rarely maps 1:1 to the shape of the program
    • additionally, in most VPLs, the output "happens somewhere else" - the domain of your problem is at best a second-class citizen (dropping a "canvas" component somewhere in the graph), at worst there is a single "output" in the end (seeing the output in a render box)
  • thoughts from Ivan Reese's post (VPL here means "nodes-and-wires"):
    • Max/MSP / PureData seems to be a local maximum
    • most VPLs weaken naming - instead of giving names to things, you make connections between unnamed things
    • VPLs require constant jumping between mouse and keyboard (something I tried solving with DAS-UI)

    I don't think that the complexity issue (...) is essential. I think it's self-imposed by current visual language designers. Perhaps that's because the handful of visual languages that got traction (and thus the benefit of countless hours of design & development effort) are created for people who aren't computer scientists. These languages only need to be sufficient for solving a domain problem, not for advancing the art of the visual PL.

    • some ideas/prompts from Ivan:
      • use more of "visual" - borrow ideas from what designers are used to
      • layers - like in Photoshop
      • color-with-meaning - tags in Finder
      • shapes-with-meaning - using shapes to represent types, etc.
      • animation-with-meaning - step-debugger that plays things "slowly", Hest has even playback in reverse
      • possibly allowing programmer to specify what meaning they want to attach to which visual representation

    The fact that current visual languages are built of monochromatic text, a few box shapes, and a few colors of line, is a tremendous failure of imagination.

Secondary notation is poorly developed in the box-and-wire notations we examined, which we believe makes them harder to understand (although as yet, large-scale studies of comprehension have still to be reported). To achieve their aim of making better use of the visual medium, VPLs need facilities for colouring, commenting, grouping, modularizing, etc. (We recommend an explicit 'description level'.) Techniques to reduce the cluttered-wire problem would greatly increase the scope for using spatial layout as a form of communication.

— Usability Analysis of Visual Programming Environments - A "Cognitive Dimensions" Framework

Protoboard nodes by design encapsulate code instead of other nodes, compared to some VPLs where even basic math equations have to use blocks and connections.

Szymon Kaliski © 2022
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