The Virtual – Interaction

I am at Södertörn University College’s conference The Virtual 2007, the theme of which is Interaction. I will be presenting a paper “Prefacing Interaction: Copyright and Remix in Online Digital Literature” this afternoon but I would like to write about a couple of interesting speakers who presented yesterday.
First is the keynote speaker for the day, Jeffery Bardzell from Indiana University, School of Informatics (Home of HUMlab friend Erik Stolterman). Jeffrey spoke about ‘Massively Amateur Culture’, specifically Animution, Machinima and Virtual Fashion.
First came a general introduction to the field on interactive design under the rubric of Human Computer Interaction (HCI). Bardzell is critical of the HCI field not generally asking cultural critical questions in developing ideas and projects. He seems to feel that there is an overt focus upon tools in terms of functionality over actual use (I understood it in the retrospective sense whereby functionality is anticipated and use is in the field). I think this is an interesting idea. He stated that interaction design reflects culture and interaction design produces culture. He proposes interpretive analysis in interaction design looking at meanings, affects, moods, intuitions and social inclinations ( I heard the echo of Stolterman here). Interaction should “delight, enlighten and be just”.
Bardzell cited Susanne Bødker‘s concept of waves of HCI as influential to his own arguments.
Three basic assumptions behind Bardzell’s approach to how HCI should deal with cultural critique:
– multimedia tools shape products
– evolution of languages share characteristics
– interaction with mainstream culture

The use of the term ‘Languages’ by Bardzell is something that will stir debate, but I spoke to him after his presentation about it and he explained his use of the word in relation to there being ‘languages’ of HCI interactive design. He said he takes the concept of languages from film and visual theory, citing Christian Metz’s semiotic theories of film as a source of inspiration. Bardzell acknowledges that using language theory to describe a multimodal field is problematic but it does “sustain a productive conversation” at the very least and if it is challenged then that is a good thing. He sees it as a good metaphor.
Bardzell’s concept of language in the HCi context is centred on the tools used. These are not merely ‘tool’ in the functional sense but they create certain types of messages. The more usable a feature is the more it is used (this is illustrated with an example soon). These more used features constitute a visual language and these languages seem to solidify after only 5 to 10 percent of the knowledge about the tool use is obtained by the user. Here Bardzell cited Manovitch (continuing with the visual approach) that Art has become a database in digital contexts.
There are three paradigms for how digital tools shape creativity:
– from scratch (coding, building systems etc.)
– from primitives (geometrical shaped 3D objects that can be manipulated but expanded to mean virtual objects of artefacts here)
– from components (compositions of scratch and primitives)

Primitives are “fast and easy” so they are the most popular choice for shaping with tools. Hence the usability of the tool has determined use.

Bardzell then went on to look at Animutation:
– a Flash genre
– acquisition of primitives (images)
– managed by the authoring tool
– works with the ‘logic’ of Flash

Neil Cicierega (b.1986), Bardzell said was the originator of animutation. Animutation, popular on such sites as Albino Black Sheep, is:
– Pastiche or parody play
– has an aesthetic of ‘crap’ (in a similar sense to B grade fans appreciate films like Attack of the Killer Tomatoes)
– Contains commentary and interfaces with other media
– Is highly self-referential

Bardzell cited the piece Making an Internet Cartoon Tutorial (not Work Friendly. Loud.)

Now Machinima:

Basic outline of machinima film production. What was interesting here was Bardzell divided machinima into two categories, Ludic and cinematic. Pretty clear what the distinguishing features are; one is game lay recounted (ludic) and the their attempts of convey story, images of cultural and social poignancy and so on. Production techniques come to the fore in the ltter clasificaion. Game play is often but not always present in cinematic machinima. Some examples of note that Bardzell showed were:

WoW Funeral
To Heaven
1K project (amazing piece of work)
Still Seeing Breen
Big Bue Dress

The generative strategies of machinima proposed by Bardzell included:
– Feature gameplay
– Comment on games
– Fuse game and othe cultural elements
– Demonstrate mastery of the game (credibility as player)
– Gameplay extends beyond the game.

The Rise of Virtual Fashion:

This section began as an explanation of Second Life as a user generated virtual world which led to the “natural” extension that users created fashions. Avatar design is a form of multimedia authoring and the “canvas is the body”. There are 39 body slots in the SL avatar and layers; mesh, skin, underwear and outerwear (shirt, skirt, pants etc.).
Once again the creation of fashion items is done from scratch, prims and components. Usability problems exist with scratch and components as mentioned above. Bardzell claims that SL fashion is “a language built of prims”. The message of SL fashion is developed from the outfits which carry a “diminished functional purpoe to clothing”. The functional purposes of clothing include protection, modesty and immodesty. As there is no climate in Second Life so the function of clothing is symbolic and as sign. In the stylization of the self through clothing in SL it is easier to construct along lines of fetish and subculture or punk, goth and S&M than with GAP polo jerseys (although this was pointed out as being possible by someone in the audience). There are a large number of SL fashion blogs where the “right symbolic lifestyle” is discussed, portrayed, critiqued, and advertised. Such dialogues facilitate interaction.
The common characteristics of Amutation, Machinima and Virtual Fashion are:
– readily available prims
– composition out pf libraries
– libraries borrow
– fuse external and internal – languages for meaning
– comment on both (parody)
– low production values
– high production outputs

The Star Wars Kid
– emrgent visual langage tracked as a meme
Became part of an add for Volkswagen “Less Flower More Power” and it was taken up by the Colbert Report. I actually thought this as not such a convincing account of the visual meme concept and felt that Henry Jenkins account of the Bert is Evil meme to be a stronger demonstration of the same principle.
Finally, some of the problems of researching amateur multimedia:
– massive numbers of dispersed users. In the first wave of HCI research focused on the lone user. In the second wave it focused on small teams and in the third and present wave it deals with populations, the smallest grouping being mirco-communities.
Jeffrey made the claim the such research deals with the non-textual (I always get defensive when people start discounting the text but in this case I think I have to agree. The creation of these works is not the textual part of the arrangement, while the individual or networked products I think are textual). Meaning emerges in micro-communities in situations knowledge/information versus affect/experience. It is not even democratice but rather personal why people engage with amateur multimedia.
Eric Stolterman’s concept of “sensibility”; of wine for the wine lover and literature for the literature person is “a developed taste for material’s special qualities”. Sensibility combined with Bourdieu’s habitus is something of the area Bardzell is trying to cover. IHe stated that in order to cultivate habitus researchers must participate in the field of cultural production.

Tomorrow I will blog my notes from a interesting architect from Brussels who spoke about invisible space.