Wanted to bring a few upcoming events to your attention. First up: on this coming Monday, November 19 at 10:00 am PST, I’ll be joining Dmitri Siegel, designer, writer and art director for Urban Outfitters, and Peter Lunenfeld, media theorist and professor at Art Center College of Design, as part of a panel on ‘Designing for Convergence,’ sponsored by Adobe and the new interdivisional program in Media Arts and Practice at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. This panel will be simulcast as an interactive online forum via Adobe Connect and you are welcome to join us! If you would like to attend, you will need to register first.
Two weeks later, on Monday, December 3 from 1:00 pm - 5:00 pm PST, I’ll be teaching a Flash Platform workshop focusing on programming in ActionScript 3.0 and MXML and at the basics of working in Adobe Flash and Flex (and how you decide when to use either one). This workshop will also be simulcast via Adobe Connect; I don’t have the registration link as yet but will post it when it becomes available. UPDATE: The Flash Platform workshop has been cancelled until further notice.
You can get more details about both events.
Also, I’d like to thank Scott Fisher for inviting me to speak at the USC Interactive Media Division’s weekly forum last night. ‘Seeking Eloquence in Interactive Space’ was the topic I tackled, and we ended up having some good discussion afterwards; got to chat with a few former students of mine as well. A pleasure.
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.
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.
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.
A quick update: I wanted to call attention to a great series of articles on AppleInsider previewing interface novelties in the upcoming Leopard incarnation of Mac OS X. This isn’t your usual Apple fanboy boosterism, however—each article places a single new feature of the OS in historical context, with screenshots from earlier operating systems (I find the comparisons with NeXTSTEP particularly interesting).
Here are links to the articles published in the “Road to Mac OS X Leopard” series to date: