Stuff We Love: “Process Value” and Physical Explainers (or, why OKGo could make better science videos than Harvard BioVisions)

Do you know what a differential gear is? (Or more importantly: why a differential gear is?) Me neither. Until I watched this, along with 1.2 million other people:

How does this olde-tyme video manage to be so engaging and educational? Two words: process value

That means making it physical. Props, not simulations. Hands, not animations. Shots and edits that are psychologically (or literally) contiguous in space and time. We know that when we watch another person doing a physical action, our brains “mirror” that action using some of the same mental circuitry as if we were physically doing it ourselves. It’s the science-nerd version of that old maxim: "I hear, and I forget; I see, and I remember; I do, and I understand." 

Film and video aren’t interactive (usually). You can’t literally “just do it.” But watching another human manipulate physical objects in “real” space and time is the next best thing. You understand. It sticks.

It ain’t a magic bullet, of course. There are plenty of crap explainers on YouTube that use these methods and still fail. But in general, I think these methods — which I call adding "process value" — tend to work much better than the superslick, sometimes beautiful, but often forgettable digital abstractions that are commonplace today in science and tech shows.

Obviously, engineering topics like differentials are easy to physicalize. But I believe you can apply process value to any video subject, no matter how abstract. The results may rely more on clever visual metaphors than slavish reconstructions of real data — but odds are it’ll work better. Viewers will be not just delighted, but informed. Personally, I’d rather see a video explaining how a mitochondrion works using fishing wire and Silly Putty than sit through another weightless, meaningless CGI wankfest.

Here’s another one of my favorite examples: how a mechanical watch works, using (you guessed it) a giant-sized physical model. Amazing!

  1. small-mammal posted this