O Danny Boy

Never confuse activity
   with action. —Ben Franklin

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September 29, 2004

Interactivity and Intensity

What's the relationship between interactivity and the intensity of the experience? I found myself asking that question the other day as I watched my daughter ride a carousel around and around. There's very little interactivity on your average carousel, and very little intensity either. You just go around in circles and possibly up and down. It's great for kids, but you don't see many teenagers and childless adults on most of them.

But then there's this one: the Looff carousel on the Santa Cruz boardwalk, ridden by teens and adults alike. Its difference: interactivity. It's one of the few remaining carousels where, sitting on the outside horses, you can grab a ring (hence the term "grabbing for the brass ring"), then try to throw it into a hole farther around the circle to make a buzzer go off and lights clang. Granted, it's not very sophisticated interactivity, but it is more satisfying than just going around and around (although you certainly can just do that too).

For more intense experiences, we seem to be willing to give up some interactivity. There's very little interactivity on your average rollercoaster: you strap yourself in and it moves on tracks over hills and loops for a few minutes. The experience is so intense, we don't care that we can't do much of anything.

Very complex interactivity doesn't seem to lend itself well to intensity. Imagine if your email client was as fast-paced as a first-person shooter. Or your online banking application. Or if your car worked like Space Mountain. The intensity has to be low so that you can concentrate on your activity and thus accomplish your goals.

One interesting exception to this is, of course, gaming. There are often complex procedures that need to be executed, often while being virtually shot at or being digitally punched in the head. Successful games find that balance between interactivity and intensity, providing oodles of both. One reason this works, of course, is that it's a game. Losing and replaying is part of the experience. No one wants to lose with an online stock trade, for example. Restart doesn't quite work when you've lost real money.

If we want our interactive products to be more intense and immersive (and I suppose that's a debate in and of itself), we're going to have to build more play into them. And that's going to be a big challenge: How do you play when things of importance, like money and health and well-being, are on the line? How can you create a heightened sense of reality like a game or a rollercoaster if there is no Do Over when real consequences happen?

Posted at 07:41 PM | Link

September 19, 2004

Spam Visualization

Check out this chart that plots every single piece of spam and virus email that arrived at this guy's work email address since April 1997. You can really get a sense of how spam has grown starting in about 2002. Remember when it used to be fairly rare? Neither do I.

Posted at 04:14 PM | Link

September 18, 2004

Model Trains and the Design of Interactive Systems

Every year for about 40 years, my grandfather set up his American Flyer model railroad set during the Christmas holidays. The set sat on a 10' x 6' platform about a foot off the floor and, while not huge, had a pretty interesting variety of trains, cars, houses, and paraphernalia running on two looping tracks. It's very post-WWII; one of the freight cars even carries a rocket that launches.

The whole set-up has a chunky panel that contains the controls for the set: everything from the main power source to the whistle to the button that fires the rocket and everything in between. Some 25 controls, all told. My grandfather determined when you were ready to drive the trains, which was usually around when you were 6 or 7 years old. Smaller kids could blow the whistle or lower the Semaphore Man, but not actually drive the trains themselves, which involved not only controlling the speed of the trains (usually two trains were running at any given time) but also how the trains switched tracks. Switch a train to the wrong track and you'd get a collision and that would be bad, probably resulting in losing your train driving privileges for the rest of the year.

The set would not have been as fun without the controls. If the trains had just driven themselves when you flipped a switch, the set would have been fun for about five minutes, but because you could drive the trains and control the environment of the set through the lights and whistles and small bits of interactivity like loading the coal into the coal car, it entertained us for hours. There was enough variety so that no matter what your skill level, you could still do something, even if it was just blow the whistle.

I've been thinking about the train set because in its simple way, it relates the creation of larger systems. "Interactivity" isn't just watching something move (a la a Flash animation), it's being able to affect what is going on in a meaningful way (play is meaningful). It's providing enough entry points to a system that beginners can immediately affect it and enjoy it, while advanced users can more fully utilize the system. It's making enough parts, seen or unseen, to provide a variety of interactivity to make the system interesting.

One level my cousins and I never really got to was putting the train system together, designing the shape and functions of the set for the year out of the pieces provided. That, I think now, would have really taken the train set experience to a new level: that of collaborative and experience design. The industrial designers who originally made the train set built in enough flexibility so that you could put the pieces together in many different ways. It was up to the hobbyist (designer) to decide what was the shape he (and it was usually men building these things) wanted the set to be in. He was limited only by the unchangeable parts (what Dewey would call the form) in crafting his aesthetic. He would put these forms together to create a new form, one that would hopefully be pleasing to the user, fulfilling intellectual, emotional, and aesthetic needs.

Few of the things we use or the systems we're forced to exist in are as pleasurable as that train set was to me when I was young. Perhaps the toys of our youth should be dusted off and reconsidered; they might have much to tell us.

Posted at 02:00 PM | Link

September 11, 2004

9/11: Year Three

I woke up this morning at nearly exactly 8:46, the time flight A11, the first plane, struck Tower One of the World Trade Center three years ago. I had a sick feeling in my stomach, as though my body remembered before my mind did. Outside, it is a perfect early fall day with blue skies and warm temperatures, eerily similar.

Three years ago at 8:46, I was about to get on a train, headed straight for Manhattan and straight into a day I won't ever forget, even as the ache of it fades and its memory becomes less raw. Even as the day itself has become an abstraction, a tool to be used for political and geopolitical gain.

Some of its images are mine alone, unfiltered by television or commentary: The television on MacDougal Street, with people huddled around it, watching the scene taking place only a mile away downtown, obscured by smoke. The tower collapsing, slowly, in bits, and the glimpse, the horrible glimpse for just a moment of the perfect blue sky there in the place the tower once stood. The men in suits trudging up Broadway, covered in ash, moving like zombies. The plume of brown smoke rising up over the tip of the city like some monstrous hand and index finger, pointing down to the devastation. The thousands fleeing the city on foot over the bridges. The signs of the missing on walls and telephone poles. The flowers at the firehouse I used to walk past each morning. The gap in the skyline, so jarring looking down 8th Avenue.

The smell too, is still immediately accessible to me: an acrid stench of burning tires and smoldering plastic and charred flesh and hair. It lingered for weeks, riding on the crisp autumnal air through the streets of New York. Ill winds.

My daughter's fourth birthday is tomorrow, so like every year, there is little time for grieving, what with the party preparations and the last-minute gifts to buy. This hastily-written remembrance will have to suffice. I have to keep looking forward, and maybe that's for the best. I have that luxury. Let us never forget the 3,000 people who do not.

Posted at 10:58 AM | Link

September 01, 2004

Blog Database Hosed

Well, through some unfortunate accident (or else someone's malice), my blog database was deleted and is impossible to rebuild. So while I do have all my older entries, I've basically had to start over with my blogs. Oy. It's an annoying and painful loss.

Posted at 09:09 PM | Link


October 2004 »