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.


Nation on the Move: entropic agents at work

Digital Humanities, Interactive Design

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

Interfaces are often marketed as filters that help to distinguish signal from noise in an information-saturated environment.  They enable us, we are told, to reveal messages that would have otherwise been hidden in clutter; they allow us to make information more appealing by removing traces of the things which disinterest us.

In Nation on the Move, our goal was the opposite: instead of rendering complicated things simple, Minoo Moallem and I wanted to trouble simplicity with disorder. Over the course of the piece, a single thread is pulled, teased and stretched into a chaotic web of interconnections between ideas of nationhood, gender, commerce and art that comprise the world of the Persian carpet. At the heart of the work is an acknowledgment of the essential impossibility of “sorting out” these relationships into some well-defined hierarchy.

Paradoxically, this rhetorical strategy is the result of careful interpretation of the extreme orderliness of the database which drives the project.  This database is comprised of “panels” defining each image and video clip the user sees. Each panel contains active locations called “sites” at which one or more pieces of content may live. Each piece of content is then assigned a thematic “thread” which ends up being rendered as a literal thread in the visual presentation. As the user progressively reveals the content of the piece, these threads become more and more jumbled.

The chaotic trajectories of the threads arise from two factors. The first is that our foundation visual element is the image, which we treat as a 2D landscape containing short texts at specific locations suggested by the image content.  Since the individual images have no relationship to each other in their composition, the texts end up being laid out in a fashion which appears almost random. The second factor is the visual persistence of the threads, which are constrained to pass through the location of each bit of content to which they are linked. The combination of these elements ensures that once the user has explored a majority of the images she will be faced with a tangle of threads anchored by content which seems to be laid out at random.

The seeming chaos of the piece is thus quite designed, as it often is in the digital realm. Unlike the physics of disarray we’re accustomed to encountering in the physical world, in the digital world content creators are frequently cast in the role of entropic agents, adding measured amounts of chaos in an attempt to hit the “sweet spots” of human perception. To see a visual representation of the order which the project transmutes into chaos, take a look at the project’s interactive index, an experiment in making the underlying structure of Vectors projects more accessible to the general public. The index is a graphical browser of the Nation on the Move database in which individual elements can be bookmarked for review or citation purposes. Our hope is that features like the index and the project’s video tutorial will help bring greater transparency to our practice and product.


Vectors’ “Difference” issue launched

Announcements, Digital Humanities

I’m very happy to announce that “Difference,” the latest issue of Vectors: Journal of Culture and Technology in a Dynamic Vernacular, is now live. Featuring seven new multimedia projects created in collaboration with a wide array of cutting-edge scholars, it’s a wonderfully diverse collection of works covering topics ranging from the war in Iraq to WiFi networks to Persian carpets. I contributed to two of the projects, “Blue Velvet” and “Nation on the Move,” as designer and programmer—deepest thanks to David Theo Goldberg and Minoo Moallem, respectively, for the opportunity to collaborate in such exciting ways.

I’ve excerpted each project’s peer response below to provide a quick overview of the issue’s contents—take a deep breath, and dig in!

A screenshot from 'Blue Velvet'

“‘Blue Velvet: Re-Dressing New Orleans in Katrina’s Wake’ is a provocative engagement, in all senses of this term, with the ways that neo-liberal policies and the politics and economics of race and class, historical and contemporary, are literally remapping the meaning of the city. A project that is as much aural as visual, ‘Blue Velvet’ defies linearity of time and of narrative while it simultaneously immerses the site’s users in a topsy-turvy environment.”

A screenshot from 'Deliberative Democracy and Difference'

“The ‘Deliberative Democracy and Difference’ project illustrates a devastating tension between the normative dreams of deliberative democrats and the nitty-gritty realities of actual political discussion. Deliberative democrats’ aim of using procedural rules to ensure a discursive environment of fairness, equality and civility is compelling as an ideal arrangement for ensuring democratic governance. In practice, however, it runs up against the problems of who participates in discussion, and how that participation takes place.”

A screenshot from 'Killer Entertainments'

“A project like ‘Killer Entertainments,’ by Jenny Terry and Raegan Kelly, is necessary in a time of war. This project recalls the response of many reporters, teachers and activists to the Vietnam War. That historical antecedent is crucial because we are addressing many of the same issues as forty years ago with our current military involvement in Iraq. ‘Killer Entertainments’ builds upon the Vietnam War’s legacy of gonzo journalism and teach-ins while using new approaches to scholarship and technologies.”

A screenshot from 'Nation on the Move'

“This is a fascinating interactive essay that richly benefits from the interactive form. It is dense, deeply interconnected, and provocative. The interface ... questions the need for a basic unchanging knowledge matrix, and in this liberty it is able to spin new connections. ‘Nation on the Move’ is about carpets, but it is structured more like a spider web or a crazy quilt. This is wonderfully shown in the Index, where specific concepts like ‘the body’ show their shifting relation to contents and themes in a dynamic web-like interface.”

A screenshot from 'Programmed Visions'

“‘Programmed Visions’ presents a tension between the indexical, that which is purely information, and an aesthetics of information. As mediation, it creates a sense of vertigo and a chase. If I touch or move can I still grasp this archive? Can I get it all? How is it held? The slippery motion is indicative of Chun’s point about the semiotics and ideology of race.”

A screenshot from 'Rendering Electromagnetic Distribution'

“Hence the idea for ‘Rendering Electromagnetic Distribution’ (RED): it turned out that the detailed demographics of these neighborhoods ‘a weighted combination of race, age, income, education and density’ explained much of the variation in Wi-Fi activity. So the RED team designed an interactive map generator that uses demographic information to predict how much Wi-Fi use should be expected in a given place. RED depicts Wi-Fi as a scarlet haze floating over the city, denser where use is greater.”

A screenshot from 'ThoughtMesh

“...‘ThoughtMesh,’ a dynamic and compelling mode of structuring and interlinking scholarly texts via shared tags. The combination of a simple user interface with a system of both automatically and manually generated tags that serve as links across all of the texts in the “mesh” results here in a compelling means of reorganizing scholarly publishing as a community-based, rather than individual, activity, one that recognizes the foundations of such publishing in open, mobile discourse.”


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