I N T E R A C T I V E  D E S I G N  F O R U M
Interactive design or new media?

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Why not call it
"New Media"?

The name we give a technology is based on our view of what it is and shapes our vision of what it might become.

Early automobiles were called "horseless carriages." They looked like horse-drawn wagons without the horses. People saw and imagined nothing beyond that. Yet today's cars bear little resemblance in form or capabilities to their horse-drawn predecessors.

This has happened time and again. People view any new technology in terms of what came before. Early photographers took formal portraits, as painters did previously. The first commercial movies were stage plays and vaudeville shows performed in front of a camera "sitting" in the best seat in the house.

So it really isn't surprising that many "multimedia" programs attempt to create electronic books. It's no coincidence that we talk about web "pages." Like the carriage without the horse, some see electronic media nothing more than books that you read on a computer.

As usual, this will change as we begin to understand what the new medium can do. The words we use should broaden our vision, not force us to wear blinders.

The key to understanding what's new about the medium
is the word "interactive."

"Interactive design," "interactive media,"or "interactive multimedia" describe what makes computer-based media not just new, but different from what came before: books, radio, movies, television.

You can argue, of course, that to a limited degree all media are interactive. You have to turn the pages of a book. You have the option of choosing to read them in any order, although normal book structure is highly linear, and most of us read every page, starting at the beginning and continuing to the end. Movies, when seen in a theater, are extremely linear, giving you no options other than falling asleep during the boring parts. Television since the advent of the remote control offers lots of choices, yet the stories told on each channel follow a beginning-middle-end sequence that is again beyond your control.

Where we are
The computer allows for more than simple playback of sounds & images. It allows you, the user/player, to choose a path through a body of information. The earliest and most common way this is done is called hypertext. Hypertext expands the possibilities of reading text by providing words or sections (usually different in color or style) that you can click on to follow a branching path of information. The Internet, specifically the World Wide Web, is primarily hypertext. It is highly interactive, but in a very limited way.

Hypertext-style interactivity can be intellectually interesting when done well, but becomes boring and annoying when done simply for its own sake. Celia Pearce calls this "ATM-style interactivity." It doesn't engage you, stir your emotions, change your life (all of which are done regularly by "old" media). It simply dispenses the information to anyone who clicks in the right place.

Where we're going
If you think about hypertext as a remote-control lecture with a variety of choices, the next level of interactivity offers much more intriguing possibilities. Instead of a lecture, imagine a conversation with a profound and witty person who is a good listener. This person responds to you as an individual, tells stories, makes you laugh or cry or both. You don't just get information, you have an experience that you enjoy, that is different depending on what you bring to it.

This conversation model of interactivity offers at least one way to explore the potential of computer-based interactivity. There are others, including games, which already offer far better experiences than 99.9% of what's referred to as "multimedia" software; virtual reality, which promises profound multi-sensory experiences; and others that we haven't even thought of.

My mantra: chant this regularly for best results
The starting point, I believe, is to follow the advice of Brenda Laurel, author of Computers as Theatre: "It's not about information, it's about experience."

From here the possibilities for developing an art form that speaks to people as eloquently as other media lie ahead, waiting to be discovered.

[Agree or disagree? Another view? Email your comments.]

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