This is one reason why I’m really digging Flex right now. I’m in the design phase with Sharon Daniel on a follow-up project to Public Secrets and we’re talking about dynamically generating a large number of curved forms as part of the design. All well and good, but how do I mock up the curves without drawing a million squiggly lines by hand? Easy—build a little Flex app that lets me set the parameters of the curve and generate as many as I want, then take screenshots and bring them into Photoshop. This is my first app using this many controls, and it only took a couple hours to put together. There’s a lot of ways in which Flex makes building this kind of thing feel as easy as it really should.
The curve is drawn using a cardinal spline algorithm (Update: c-spline source code) I first ported to Lingo back when I was working on Chroma, and then to ActionScript a couple years ago for Mobile Figures. I like it because it’ll run a smooth curve through any number of values without you needing to specify separate control points.
Check out the app: Curve Designer
Eloquence is a wonderful paradox—it’s both impossible to attain and impossible to escape. Professional communicators spend their lives in pursuit of eloquence in specific domains, never feeling they’ve quite “arrived.” Yet at the same time every event, being the instantaneous product of the current state of reality, can’t help but be eloquent of the moment in which it arises. Of course, the distinction has to do with context. Those with a vocation for eloquence often try to reduce the burden of context as much as possible; within their target audience, their aim is to reach as many people as they can (and the way in which they define their target audience—consciously or not—makes all the difference). “Naive” eloquence has no such aspirations, and as such its recognition depends solely on the eye of the beholder.
There’s things I want to say in this life, and there’s people I want to work for who have their own things to say as well. Since interactive media are my vocation, it’s my goal to become more eloquent in my use of those media, not just for the sake of having marketable skills but because eloquence in the right place at the right time can be transformative. Equally as important as developing my own eloquence, however, is advancing in my ability to find it in others. Justice is tightly bound to acknowledgments of eloquence from unexpected sources, and since everything is eloquent of something if only you’re prepared to see it, then the act of readying yourself to recognize unfamiliar eloquence is something of an imperative.
There’s no substitute for the uncomfortable process of immersing yourself in something foreign for a long enough period of time that you begin adopt some of its sensibilities—and thus its eloquence—as your own. What interactive media can provide, however, are “bridge experiences” that allow a person to temporarily adopt a shadow of someone else’s eloquence and thereby recognize it as such. Any quality communication can accomplish this, but interactive media does it in a uniquely tactile way in which you can literally feel and play your way through the contours of someone else’s fluency.
It’s easy to forget that this is what it’s all about. As authors of interactive media we can waste a lot of time trying to make sure everybody knows how articulate we are, when in reality the state of our skills can’t help but be revealed in the work, whether we like it or not. On any given project, commercial or otherwise, we’re tasked with representing a particular kind of eloquence; what’s most important is to ask what we’ve done to enable others to make that eloquence their own.
Sometimes, the things we have to do to accomplish that seem antithetical to how we want to feel about our own work; we want to possess the mystique of the artist, we want to keep things hidden, we don’t want to appear too overt or even helpful. All of which would be valid desires if our feelings were important. But in fact, and again paradoxically, the ability of a particular piece to accomplish what it needs to often depends directly upon our own annihilation.
When Shigeru Miyamoto breaks the fourth wall and has a character tell you to “press the A button to jump” it’s like an evangelist asking you if you know Jesus. Our insides twist up: we don’t really have to do it this way, do we? There’s got to be more subtle, more reasoned, more sophisticated ways to discuss these questions, don’t there?
Perhaps. But in the end, that only matters if your feelings matter in comparison to what the work needs to accomplish. And there’s a distinct possibility that they don’t.
Casual significance is when easy-to-read things point to hard-to-grasp things. Like the taste visualization in Ratatouille. Or Different Trains. Or the color organ in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. They take a stab in the dark, doing things you’d like to build theories around but shouldn’t, and as such they enable you to walk into the unknown with joy and confidence.
I admire Steve Reich’s Different Trains as much as any piece of music written in the latter half of the 20th century because it speaks in a unique language that’s totally specific to its content and yet whose fluency is easy to adopt and understand. Even though it contains constant abrupt shifts in tempo and harmony, even though it takes a programmatic stance on the connection between speech and melody, even though it references the Holocaust, it succeeds in doing all of these things simultaneously while remaining highly accessible to the untrained ear.
My kids have heard the first, joyful movement of Different Trains, and they love it. They enjoy the voices, the repetition, the rhythms, the sound effects, even though it’s like no other piece of music they’ve ever heard. They haven’t been exposed to the subsequent movements yet, and they have no concept of the overall theme of the work, but it’ll be waiting for them when they’re ready, and what will pull them towards it is simply the way in which the work’s strategies unfold in time. That’s casual significance.
So what would casual significance look like in the interactive arena? We’re quickly becoming surrounded by the casual; EA recently stated that they see the casual market as the biggest opportunity in gaming. Most of these games are fun diversions and nothing more, which is fine. The burgeoning “serious games” market is definitely a kind of casual significance, but significance in that context is usually defined solely as social responsibility. I wholly support the growth of serious games, but that’s not really what I’m talking about here.
No, when I talk about casual significance I’m talking about easy-to-read interactive experiences that point to the mysteries of the human condition. Those mysteries might be sensual, or spiritual, or philosophical, and the goal of the experience is not to teach a class about them, but simply to point to them. I love how visual music and synaesthetic works tend to put you in this space instantly and almost effortlessly.
Shining Flower, the CD-ROM I profiled last week, is probably my favorite existing example of this in the interactive realm (though its actual interactivity is meager), as it nails the M.O. of casual significance—simple things pointing to deeper things. Fumito Ueda’s Ico and Shadow of the Colossus come close, but as much as I admire them I think their game mechanics are too prominent to truly classify them as “casual” experiences.
Works of casual significance are high on aesthetics and groove, low on guilt and training, and they index hidden depths. They’re what I wish I was playing when I play the Wii.
Wired recently featured a piece about new work being done using the Wiimote as an interface for real-world training simulators running in Second Life. Surgery, hazardous chemical handling, nuclear plant operations—all are fair game for WorldWired, a consultancy run by David E. Stone, who calls the Wiimote “one of the most significant technology breakthroughs in the history of computer science.”
Well, obviously I think the Wiimote’s pretty nifty too, but it’s only partly for the reasons given by MIT professor Eric Klopfer in the article: “People know intuitively what to do with it when they pick it up because we use it like devices we are familiar with—bats, rackets, wands, etc.”
So much Wiimote boosterism is about where the remote takes you—the mental models it so seamlessly helps you to adopt. All true, but I would argue that of equal significance is what the remote helps you leave behind. Imagine that the Wiimote comes into widespread usage as an alternative PC input device. Not something you use every day, but something you keep next to your work machine, since you can use it as a PowerPoint or iTunes remote, as well as for those all-too-rare moments when you stumble across a Flash game, online comic or art piece that shows you the delightful message: “If you have a Wiimote, pick it up now.”
Instantly, you’ve left behind the world of work and its input devices, and you’re prepared to experience something unusual—the more unexpected, the better. Even if the piece doesn’t make use of the remote’s motion sensitivity at all, the device itself has still managed to carve out headspace where software art and entertainment no longer have to compete with every other application to remap the meanings of your mouse and keyboard. We’ve got transitional space now; we’ve got a lobby to ease people out of the workaday and into alternate realms.
Calling it a technological breakthrough just doesn’t do it justice, does it?