Visual Metaphors for Interactive Products

I'd like to preface my presentation with a few observations:

Interactivity is the sixth sense that we're now developing and beginning to explore and use. We've had sound and vision and all those tactile things; interactivity is actually the first sense that really engages your mind. This is really the first two-way medium we have had. Everything else to date: books, television is something that programmes you the viewer. Interactive media is the first medium to allow you the viewer to interact and mould the experience into something you want to watch .

I'm interested in the audience today because I believe you are mainly visual thinkers, and people who can think visually are the fundamental people who will be creating these new media - which are not be text-based.

We're trying to design things that are non-linear, devices that you move around in directions you create on the fly. We've had a tyranny of communication methods that have taught us that the only viable way of communicating with people is through a written form where one idea follows another. What I'm proposing is that we should think much more in terms of network structures and tree structures, and really go with the way that your brain actually thinks.

(Virtual Nightclub) We worked with lots of people from London, such as this room which has The Shamen in it. In the Shamen Room you can jump inside the head of one of the people they've got a lot of their ideas from, Terrence McKenna, who some of our West Coast colleagues may be familiar with.

We have this concept in the Virtual Nightclub of `Headspace'. And what this is aiming to be is a visualisation of a lot of the hypertext systems that people are talking about. Inside Terrence's head are various bubbles that represent different ideas.

From there you can travel off If I move round to a different side of his head we have an interactive interview effectively, where we start with one idea and trail of in various directions, there are lots of hidden extras that I call Easter Eggs.

If I go back to where we started, the Foyer of the club, the whole Club is a non-linear structure - what I call a multi-net because there are lots of different networks that all kind of interrelate. It's not really a computer game, although there are lots of toys in it. There's some work by an artist called Mark Wigan who does graffiti art works and who we collaborated with. Multimedia is often a collaboration.

We have an art gallery, and we've tried to create a metaphor for people to find their way around. It's using one of the most common things which people have the capability of, which is the spatial metaphor, which is basically creating a physical or virtual space. We learn very early how to avoid walking into doors and things like that. We're taking up on that practice in here.

What we're trying to do here is not have too much a high theoretical thing. We're actually just appealing to people's basic instincts. I believe that interactive things are basically more fun if you can just click and do something, it's just more enjoyable as an experience.

One of the problems with hypermedia is because you have so much control over the medium, and you can access things so directly, you lose the possibility of chance encounters with material that you didn't know existed. When you're flicking through a magazine you're often surprised by an article you didn't expect to be there, and what we're trying to do with the Club is these little clips that pop up are collected and de-linearised as a way of introducing you to new ideas.

What is important is the content. People are talking about virtual reality and headsets and things; for me, virtual reality is about content; it's about what is in the environment. It's not interesting just roaming around clicking on a few polygons saying how wonderful the hardware is.

One of the great things about this medium is it allows you to make truly multi-layered products. One of the difficult things about writing a book is worrying about the different people who might be reading it. You can create different levels of activity.

One of the very important things that is happening for me as a designer of this new medium is the tools that are available to really create these kind of things. This is where the Macintosh is such a valuable thing: it's almost as if the Mac is the 808 drum machine for multimedia designers. It's like the electric guitar was for rock `n' roll music. It allows you to doodle and sketch with different ideas and work with a new palette of techniques.

Whereas the traditional graphic designer might work with fonts and colours, the interactive designer has to deal with things like time and responsiveness and a lot of elements like the cursors or the sound effects that happen when someone clicks on something. There's something that we're always trying to achieve which is what I describe as a `synergistic hit' - when you actually click something and something splashes at the same time as you hear a sound effect, it creates a feeling inside you which is really hard to predict and hard to describe.

Some people seem to think that the evolution of computers as enablers for our brains ceased with the word processor. The word processor, as far as I'm concerned, is about 3 to 4 years behind the ideas we need to visualise now. Tools like Macromind Director or HyperCard allow you to experiment with your thinking much more quickly than now. They haven't quite reached the stage of being like musical instruments where you can quickly play things and experiment, but they'll get there.

This is from a past life of mine as a graphic designer, and I'm converting one of my books into Interactive Typography. This is thinking about interactivity as a really fun way of learning about things. I believe someone earlier today said a picture is worth a 1000 words, a moving picture is worth a lot more words than that. What we have now is interactive pictures, and I'm beginning to lose count really.

There's a main handbook with ten sections and every page has an animation or a game or something. They make it fun, but we also leave it open for people, so that we avoid telling them the right way and wrong way of doing things. When you write a book, having written a few, you have to decide in advance what way it's going to be when you write it. What we're able to do here is put down a number of alternatives and give those as a palette to the user so they can play around with things and hopefully learn different things as they're going through.

We also have tutorials from four leading graphic designers and these have cross-referenced browsers, so if I want to go off and learn about kerning, I can play with that. We also included flash cards to be skimmed through, with hot spots and sound effects. You can cross-jump between different sections, and this is fun. Reading text on screen I find quite difficult, so we try and give people as much to do with things as we can - so you have to be thinking `what can move'?

What we're trying to do is allow people to manipulate things and play with them but at the same time give relevant content information as well. Fun is a learning tool, so by playing with these things hopefully they'll remember more. It's not something you just consume but something that interacts with your work environment.

Here is some beta version work we've done on the CD-I platform. It's an interactive movie called Burn Cycle. You are the main character and you've just woke up with a bomb in your head and you have 24 hours to get it out. Like ordinary movies, we don't give too much away at the beginning. What we're trying to do is create a new syntax for what we're calling the interactive movie, which is combining things like virtual navigation and travel and being able to be immersed in this environment, with things like cut away shots and all the syntax of movies, and then also things like game play, so for instance here there's ... ah, got him!

We have a fairly pacey intro, after which it starts to branch and get more complicated for us as developers. How do you keep a compelling narrative in the context of an unexpected story? How do you keep suspense going? What you have with such a game is you know where the player is, so you can throw things in and surprise them.

We're trying to integrate some of the very fast interactive components. There are two sliders when you're designing these kind of products: there's the slider of quality of content - the quality of visual material. So that's something that television does very well. Then there's the other newer slider of quality of interactivity: Nintendo titles have a interactivity threshold of a 30th of a second.

What we've done here is balance a lot of those different things; have some sections which are highly interactive game sections, but at the same time we didn't want to use purely super-symbolic sprites to represent everything, we actually wanted to have motion sequences and all those sort of things.

So what we've created is a virtual world that you can immerse yourself in, and at the same time as travelling and discovering all these things that are hidden in the world, we're also driving it forward with this compelling narrative. It's juggling a lot of different things from goal-orientation through to total immersion in an environment, high-level content and, in sections, very fast interactivity. And those are the four different controls that we're trying to mould together to create what we think is going to be the new medium for the next decade.

I have some concluding points to make. People like yourselves, I'd like to see starting now - probably a lot of you already are - to use the tools that available now to create non-linear content. Non-linear is actually, I feel, much more intuitive and much more the way that people have always thought. So I'm suggesting: just free yourselves from the tools that we've already and try and think and create non-linear products.

I wasn't around when TV and film were invented, but I'm around now this new medium is about to burst on all of us and it's such a massive opportunity I can't see how anyone could not be tempted to dive in with both hands. Coming from a design background, that was slightly frustrating because it was mainly packaging other people's ideas and providing a service, effectively. I feel that designers and architectural people are the people who can lead the way in creating visual metaphors for interactive products.

What we're developing with the titles I've shown are content ideas that are design-led; they are spatially-oriented visual concepts. So I think it is very important that designers should really be aggressive in going forward with this stuff, otherwise we'll end up with lots of hypertext, which is not going to be that much fun for people.

Previously, this medium was led by technologists, but in the last ten months or so, that has been changing so creative people with little technical knowledge can get involved. Basically my last message is just to rip off the ideas that I've shown you, and everyone else's, and get on with it and make products and I look forward to coming back to Amsterdam in year and looking at some really exciting things as well.


updated 1993