Designing the Electronic Community

I'm going to talk about two topics today. The first one is: understanding virtual sex. That'll take about 30 seconds. It'll be followed by a short quiz, and a cigarette. The rest of the time I'll talk about electronic communities and some of the design issues that face us on projects today.

Virtual sex is not about whether it is better than real sex, but is whether virtual sex better than no sex. Please raise your hand if you think virtual sex will improve your situation? Hmm - Not many.

I was happy to hear the many calls to action to designers from some of the previous sessions, and to continue that vein, what I'll be talking about are some of the more specific design issues with emphasis on a topic that just might be the hidden pearl in this big oyster that we're calling digital interactive media.

I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest that 50 years from now when we look back at the latter part of the 20th century, and we think of the big developments that really happened, we're not going to be talking much about interactive media or QuickTime or CD ROMs or visualisation or virtual reality, but we'll talk about a couple of big events.

And particularly interesting ones to us, I think, one: that computers were invented, and then secondly, that as soon as people could, people used computers to create new social groupings, which I am calling electronic communities. I believe that the advent and proliferation of electronic communities may be where the real long-term impact of interactivity will really lie.

Why? A lot of the things that we're doing, both in my group and in many other excellent things we see coming to the market today - with interactive with information, interaction with content - a lot of those things may one day seem as compelling as interacting with your bank machine today.

Masuyama hinted at this when he pointed out that interaction is the normal state of affairs anyway. I believe in the long term, the most stimulating interactions will continue to be with human beings, and with human proxies.

I'll leave the definition of electronic communities to the philosophers and approach the question by looking at the real design issues that we need to face today. I'll highlight some areas that are critical to a lot of the people here today: how are the problems framed? What are the real issues we need to fix or solve? What is the composition of a team that deals with these issues? What kind of skills do you need. Obviously they seem very broad: engineering and design, a lot of social/philosophical areas that need to be addressed.

Finally, what sort of solutions are offered? All of the projects I'll show are either competed or underway. I'll show examples from two very different projects, but a lot of the elements they have in common have to do with the issue of electronic communities.

We just completed this project for the Chicago Museum of Science. It's called Imaging Science and it's a permanent $4 million exhibit open today. The requirement was to put a lot of interactivity in, with some of the highest technology currently available in front of a broad public, from four-year-old children to 90 year-olds, people with a lot of knowledge about computers to those who've never touched one.

In addition to presenting a lot of information about the technology on show, there were a number of other issues that we thought were required.

These are some of the topics we dealt with: rendering, visualisation of sound and so on. They're all interactive.

At the highest end of the exhibit we were asked to create something to show the public what virtual reality was. They wanted to use the absolute state-of-the-art Silicon Graphics Reality Engines, and these had never been seen in a public location before. We spent six months telling them not to do it, they insisted, so we had to pull it off, with some interesting results.

The problem we framed, it was not presented to us by our client, was that we felt the selection of technologies was so broad that there was no unifying concept that would draw people into what we were talking about

We felt there had to be some way to engage the visitor to care about what was happening, providing some kind of thematic core to the design. So we decided to do something with the visitors faces.

A series of stations were scattered around the 7,000 square feet of exhibit that acquired people's faces as they came in, processed them in various ways that were pertinent to the topic of the exhibit. On the left side a large database of faces would roll up and these things were repeated on large screens above the exhibits.

The faces on the left would be sent out on a network and start appearing inside the exhibit, and in fact start appearing in other exhibits around the museum.

This is related to the special effects people see in films. The challenge is to do something when you don't have the time they have in the films with a lot of time. How could we use a person's face just acquired and do some interesting things like 3-D morphing, slice 'n dice, and so on.

We used faces from a Macintosh then sent to a Silicon Graphics and mapped on to a head in real time, then people could do lots of things to their own faces - or their parents or friends.

When we first showed the prototype, you could do things like strip the face down to the skull and slice it up - we were worried the museum would find it too violent, but they said `the kids'll love it- leave it in'.

Again at the high end: a virtual reality exhibit. The challenge was twofold: how do you get this high level technology to work every day in front of the public, and what equipment do you use? Devices are still fairly primitive. But the most troublesome issue was how do you allow a four-year-old or someone who has no idea what this stuff is all about to experience a virtual reality when most so far have been designed for sophisticated users doing engineering or visualisation? Most VR environments are purely navigational so you have to know what to do to move around. The challenge was to create a VR experience that could combine elements of narrative, story telling and interactivity of some kind, and be educational.

These are some screen shots of what we did.

We designed an environment where their person had a point of view but they were pulled along a tether like a water skier at the end of the rope. Other people were allowed to change things in the world. The experience was about 6 minutes long but with a high level of interactivity and with a storyline. People who are developing a lot of interactive titles these days are coming up with this tough nut to crack all the time. How do you tell a story, how do you give structure, how do you give pacing to an interactive narrative if a person can do anything they want at any time? So this was a compromise that worked reasonably well.

There are a number of touch screen control stations to control time of day, levels of fog and so on, and the results can be watched by the people in the environment.e into the New York kitchen:

These rooms are going to be shared by a lot of people so multi-purpose use was key.

Little zap-it pads can be placed around the walls to fire off messages.

These two projects were very different in some ways. One was for a public space and accessibility was paramount, people use the systems for a few minutes having never seen them before. The other was very different: well lived in, people have a high expertise and can learn a lot about how it operates. Spatial orientation for organising information was very important, achieving serendipity. How people learn their jobs was a big factor.

The fact that electronic communities already exist prompts my closing thought - the Internet has 15 million users for example. Electronic communities today are being built on systems that were never designed for the specific purpose, of the kind of things people think about now - socialising for instance.

The question we're most concerned with and the one I'll leave you with is: what would happen if we designed something that helped people do things that they've always done?


updated 1993