Ode to ray-traced spheres and Apple logos


Continuing their excellent “Road to Mac OS X Leopard” series that looks at features of Leopard in historical context, AppleInsider posted this image of the Macintosh II from 1987:

The Macintosh II.

I got chills when I saw this—there is so much bound up in this image for me.  I first caught a glance of it on the cover of Macworld magazine in Sawyer’s News in downtown Santa Rosa, while I was still in high school. We had a Mac Plus at home, and I had already spent some time doing experimental work on Macs and Amigas under the tutelage of John Watrous at Santa Rosa Junior College. At that time, many who hadn’t yet fallen under the Mac’s spell were fond of pointing out that the machine didn’t have a color display. Those of us who loved the Mac, however, were able to easily process this criticism as coming from people akin to those who thought black-and-white movies were boring; they just had no appreciation for culture, man!

Apple logo reflected in spheres

When I first saw the old rainbow Apple logo reflected with raytraced precision in the hovering silver spheres (not rendered on a Mac II, mind you, but on a Cray supercomputer), I felt simultaneously exhilarated and betrayed. I was exhilarated because the image meant that high-end graphics like those I had been seeing in numerous CG animation compilations (Sexy Robot, anyone?) were going to be in reach of a machine I might actually have access to. The feeling of betrayal came from a sense that Apple had somehow caved to the masses by offering color. It felt cheap. I remember wondering if the Mac interface would even work in color! Even the shape of the machine felt like a concession to the lowbrow. A big box? What happened to the elegant, compact all-in-one design, where even the various i/o port icons bore the stamp of greatness?

Not long afterwards, I got to spend some time with the box. The junior college had bought one, and while the machine was not located in the art department, John managed to get me a couple of hours alone with it. I still remember the smell of the room. I started poking around, getting a feel for how color had been worked into the OS. It started to sink in that this wasn’t a betrayal at all, it was where the machine needed to go, that the design intelligence was still there, and in fact now had a (literally!) greater palette through which to express itself.

And then I fired up Digital Darkroom. By that time, I had spent a couple years learning the art of one-bit pixel pushing in MacPaint (to hone my skills, over a few days one summer I dedicated myself to recreating corporate logos from Macworld advertisements in bitmap form). Having accommodated to the on/off world of early Mac image creation, to click on the water droplet tool and be able to—what?—actually smear graphics digitally was nothing short of a revelation. It would be another five years before I got consistent access to a color Macintosh, at The Voyager Company, but this image signaled the imminent arrival of a brave new world in desktop imaging.


A non-linear index for fiction and non-fiction RIAs, made possible with SpringGraph

Digital Humanities, Flex, Interactive Design

The interactive index from Nation on the Move.

The interactive index from Nation on the Move.

One of the things I’m most excited about with this latest issue of Vectors is the inclusion of a new “interactive index” feature which gives users non-linear, bookmarkable access to the databases for the projects Blue Velvet and Nation on the Move. My hope is that this feature, which allows you to visually browse each database’s contents through a common ThinkMap-style interface which is completely independent of the ‘designed’ front end of each project, will bring some transparency to our authoring and design practice at Vectors. I can easily see such an index becoming a standard feature for future interactive works, both fiction and non-fiction.

Well-deserved kudos for the technology behind the index go to Mark Shepherd, a Senior Computer Scientist at Adobe who developed the open-source SpringGraph Flex component that made it all possible. Thanks to his terrific implementation, I got the first version of the index up and running in just a few hours. It’s quite easy to use and really stunning (and fun) once you get some data hopping around in there. 

The indexes included in the current issue of Vectors are still rather rudimentary, and any feedback or suggestions you have are most welcome. For future projects, I plan to integrate each index directly into the work itself, so it will truly start to function like the index in a printed book. I see this as just one component of an emerging set of user experience standards that will characterize fiction and non-fiction RIAs in the immediate future.


Blue Velvet: the architecture of poetry

Digital Humanities, Interactive Design

The following is the designer’s statement from Blue Velvet, one of the projects in the Difference issue of Vectors that launched this week.

Music is a much more direct ancestor to interactive media than cinema. The mathematical and logical frameworks, the use of score as a generative source, the importance of live performance—all find strong parallels in digital interactivity.  Poetry, too, shares many of these qualities, and in my experience authors with a poetic sensibility are often the ones who feel the greatest sense of liberation as they engage interactive platforms.

Scholars like David Theo Goldberg, who possess an innate predilection for the poetic, frequently find that their more fanciful instincts, which may be quashed in other formats, can be expressed more freely here. Of course, freedom in this medium, as in the other arts, frequently thrives within well-defined limitations. In interactive media, a good content architecture—realized in most Vectors projects in the form of a database—fulfills this role, taking account of the territory it is meant to represent and shutting down unproductive structural avenues while encouraging the fruitful ones. If all goes well, the author gains an expressive scaffold which resonates with the ideas at hand.

The database design for Blue Velvet initially suffered from overconnectedness—too many kinds of things were linked in too many ways. The common result in this situation is that author and user alike become confused about what they are supposed to be doing. Stefka Hristova was instrumental in identifying these kinds of problems and suggesting solutions. Through collaborative pruning and condensing of the structure, amplified in our case by the decision to give the work a linear spine, we were able to identify and foster a regular rhythm for the interaction—an oscillation between above ground and underwater, placidity and turmoil, complacency and catastrophe.

The ways in which falling words “dissolve” and reconfigure themselves in the piece was a structural conceit designed to give David the chance to explore something I kept hearing during our phone conversations: his penchant for wordplay. He would frequently substitute the expected word in a sentence with a similar word that threw an (often humorous) twist into the idea being expressed. Taking inspiration from this trait, I came up with a database structure that would allow David to define how words would break apart and transform. David took to the concept immediately, which was very gratifying, and resulted in some inspired word associations.

A final note: Blue Velvet includes an interactive index—an experiment in making the underlying structures of Vectors projects more accessible to the public.  Using the index, you can browse the project’s database visually and bookmark specific elements for citation purposes.  The piece itself remains the preferred way of accessing David’s work, but we hope elements like the index and video tutorial will help to bring Vectors projects to a wider audience.


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