Games and Interaction design

Thursday, July 13, 2006


Well its time to move on from Blogger. I've deciced to merge my blog and portfolio site into one easy to use place - and so I've moved everything over to handcircus.com with a brand new wordpress front end.

So. Point your browsers and bookmarks to:


And update your RSS feeds to point to


Tuesday, July 04, 2006


Keeping the GBA Micro well fed and watered, Nintendo are obviously serious about continuing to support it rather than force migration to the DS lite. As it gets to the end of its lifecycle, its interesting to see titles like Bit-Generations appear. A cousin of the "Touch Generations" range on the DS, the focus appears to be a "back-to-basics" approach to game design - very simple (one or two buttons) to encourage the lapsed or intimidated gamer to play. With a nice mixture of visual styles (perhaps edging towards the crude at times), many look like simple flash games in nature.

Read more at N-Sider.

Code as performance - Livecoding

Theres an article up on Wired about "Livecoding", the live writing of code to create performance - for both audio and video.

This is something I find really interesting - someone with a deep level of understanding of the algorithms and patterns involved in the generation of music or engaging visuals, combined with a good eye for aesthetic and/or music ability. The two should allow someone like this to create a genuinely new type of performance. The trouble I have with it though is that writing code seems to be the most inappropriate way to generate or manipulate these algorithms as its so inefficient.

Writing code is too general. Although I might be being presumptious, I'm assume that the kind of creation and manipulation that would go on in these kind of performances would be things such as the combination of existing modules and the tweaking of parameters, with some live input from more tactile devices (keyboards, mice, joypads?). This is something far more suited to schematic programming (ala virtools, max) than raw typing in of code. Unless you are planning on writing and debugging a brand new system from scratch, its much more efficient to be able to drag on a pre-built system, configure, tweak and link into your composition. Entering text, while potentially "glamorous" in that it appears that you are working at a low level, is simply not efficient for these kind of operations and performace in general. Do the low level stuff beforehand, creating your modules etc, but why type to make those connections?

Thursday, June 22, 2006

A Physical desktop interface that works

As soon as 3D graphics became achievable on desktop PC's (and probably way before that) people have been drawn to creating 3d interfaces to visualise information and manipulate objects. Often its done clumsily. Mostly its done for the sake of it - because theres something so appealing of a whizzy 3D interface. But occasionally its done for all the right reasons, is well thought out and truly presents a progression and new ideas in the way that we manipulate and view objects and data.

This is the case with BumpTop - created by Anand Agarawala and Ravin Balakrishnan. At first glance I was pretty sceptical - it looks like many other "Physical desktop" interfaces that have cropped up before, with items physically represented by boxes that interact with each other according to rigid body dynamics. But what the BumpTop team have done here is to create a sophisticated gestural based vocabulary to manipulate these objects. This come in more obvious interactions, such as sorting piles and throwing objects around - to filtering objects, sorting into a grid and a wonderful technique to allow the insertion of items into a pile by flipping through adjecent items in turn. The team have really taken the time to think about the advantages of a standard tangible desktop and what people do with the items on their desks. This is really evident in the BumpTop's ability to fold over the corners of documents to mark them, or to leave them poking slightly out of the pile. They've also thought about what additional operations could be performed that wouldnt be possible in the real-world, such as the ability to scale individual items.

The number of different interactions working so well together is remarkable, and they have obviously taken inspiration from some outstanding existing interfaces such as Maya's marking menus to simplify the interface as much as possibly. The ability to perform such complex operations in a single drag as a real achievement (I LOVE the rounding off the tail operation to sort into a pile).

Anyway its well worth a watch. Cant wait to have a play with the beta.

Via Fun-Motion.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Retro Technoplastic

There is something so charming about futuristic toys from the past. Fortunately, there are people like Eric from Germany to collect and catalogue such treasures and publish lots of pictures and details on sites such as Miniorgan.com (specialising in vintage musical electronic toys).

For vintage electronic games (from Game and Watch to bizarre Godzilla games) there's no better source than Electronic Plastic. The creator of the site, Jaro Gielens, has created a garish, nostalgic (and highly recommended) coffee table book of the same name, designed by Buro Destruct.

Terry Gilliam on Interactive Narrative

I've long been a fan of Terry Gilliam - I think there are few filmmakers that are able to create such vidid, fantastic, engrossing worlds on-screen. I've been reading the excellent "Gilliam on Gilliam" over the past few days, and came across a section where he discusses his opinion (in 1996 I believe) of the effect of interactivity on narrative:

"We visited Expo '67 in Montreal, where there were some wonderful film presentations, including Francis Thompson's six-screen 'We Are Young'. The Czech pavilion had a film in which you could vote on the way the story should go at the end of each scene. When we were making 'Twelve Monkeys', Bob Gale, who co-wrote 'Back to the Future' with Robert Zemeckis, made a film where every member of the audience was able to vote at key moments, and it was terrible. My daughters went to see it with me and it was us against two men behind us: we were outvoting them on every point. My daughters thought it would be a good game at home, but it's not why we go to the movies. Movies aren't about that kind of interactivity: the moment you do it you're pulled right out of the experience. My daughters understood that film is about storytelling, like sitting around a campfire at night, giving yourself over to the storyteller - he's the guide, not you."

Its interesting to see the differentiation that he makes between home entertainment and movies/campfire storytelling - clearly seeing home entertainment as being less involved but going to the theatre as much more engrossing. I wonder whether he would apply this to watching DVD versions at home? I definitely agree that going to see a good film at a theatre swallows you up - its so easy to forget where you are, but I'm not sure that I agree about interactivity pulling you out of the experience. Bad interactivity combined with bad content certainly, but belief that you are in some way responsibile for the action on-screen I would argue would make you feel more involved.

The movie he mentioned was called Mr. Payback: An Interactive Movie. The reviews are indeed very poor. I like the final comment though: "Perhaps the experience would have been more palatable had I been drunk. That's the only way I can imagine getting anything worthwhile out of this.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Powers of 10

Powers of 10 is a ten-minute documentary that was a source of inspiration for Will Wright's Spore created by Charles and Ray Eames for IBM.

From Kotaku.

Monday, June 05, 2006

My brother in Wired

My brother Toby and his wife Sharon recently started a company called PathIntelligence. They have been working on technology to allow the behaviour of people within a space to be measured passively without the need for any user-participation (and any invasion of privacy). This is done using software-decoded radio and the triangulation of radio signals transmitted from mobile phones during their communication with base stations. Analysis of this data allows measurement of correlation between spaces, density within spaces and much more.

Wired recently interviewed Toby for an article on GNU Radio. You can read it online here.

over_play @ onedotzero 10

On Friday, onedotzero 10 kicked off at the ICA, and the first event in the innervisions series of talks was over_play, billed as "an exploration of the future of gaming".

First of all, one of the biggest disappointments of the festival is the absence of "lens flare" - a look at motion graphics in the gaming sphere. While I was never really a fan of the original line up (basically pre-rendered fmvs), I think its starting to get to a point where gaming aesthetic (in-game) is really worth taking notice of. From the abstract worlds of Rez to the heavily-stylised graphics of Killer 7, (and Viewtiful Joe, Loco Roco, XIII, Katamari, Jet Set Radio Future all deserve a mention), its the fact that these are rendered interactively and that the scenes can be manipulated them by the player that makes them so unique. FMVs (for me) were nothing more than tacky candy added on that usually added very little to the experience. I know that traditionally Lens Flare has excluded anything outside of cutscenes, but games progress, these cutscenes will disappear. The next generation of graphics will bring the potential for almost any graphical style that can be imagined to be represented in realtime, and there should be more focus on the achievements and explorations in this sphere. The death of the non-interactive cutscene should be celebrated.

Anyway - back to the point in hand - over_play. While not strictly about gaming, it was essentially a discussion by two artists working in the digital sphere (Andrew Shoben of Greyworld, and Matt Adams of Blast Theory) of their work, and the thinking behind their projects.

Greyworlds work revolves around the creation of public art. Their most famous work (although not strictly public) is The Source, a gigantic installation created for the London Stock Exchange, consisting of a 9x9x9 grid of glowing spheres. The spheres can be configured to move to any position on the wire that they are suspended upon, allowing the collection to move to a vast number of different configurations, allowing them to represent anything from words to figures. As the glow of each sphere can be configured seperately, the light itself can animate across the installation even when the spheres are static.

Other installations that really stood out were Flowerwall (IIRC) - a new work that has just been commissioned that consists of a huge number of giant flower bouquets (very similar to that of a magician with flowers up his sleeve) that sprout out of a wall on request. This gives the user the ability to create a forest of vegetation appear from nowhere. Others that stood out were Railings, a set of tuned railings that play "The girl from ipanema" when you drag a stick along them, and a carpet that gave anyone walking upon it the impression that the surface was not what it appeared.

What really struck me about each project was the way that it used interaction to either augment reality, or to bestow upon the user a "special power" of some sort. Each project is hugely playful. Its great to see such work being commissioned that people can really take joy in interacting with

Most of the videos Andrew showed are on the Greyworld site.

I have to be honest and say that Blast Theory's work really didnt blow me away. While some of the thinking behind the work was certainly interesting - looking at the way that a virtual system can affect the real world (and vice versa) and the effects on the user of two such environments existing simultaneously. Blast Theory's background is in theatre, and it really does show - both the projects - "Uncle Roy is All Around You" and "Day of the Figures" feel very theatrical, the first using actors to interact with the real world players. I have to admit though that it reminded me a little of The Lawnmower Man - and that is definitely not a good thing. That said, the projects do ask some interesting questions even if the actual execution is a little underwhelming.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Josh Randall Keynote @ Cybersonica

On Friday I was fortunate enough to have the apparently to meet Josh Randall, the creative director of Harmonix, as we were doing an interview for PlayStation.com as well as covering the keynote he gave for the first day of the Cybersonica festival.

In both the interview and keynote (entitled "Interactive Music for the Masses"), Josh detailed the background of Harmonix from its inception in the 90s - a venture from two graduates of MIT Media Lab - right up to the forthcoming release of Guitar Hero 2 . Its fascinating to see how the original vision - to develop ways for people with no musical training to create and interact with music - has been fulfilled and how the methods implemented to facilitate this vision have been refined over time. The first product that Harmonix created was "The Axe", a piece of software for the PC that allowed the user to create and improvise music using the mouse or joystick. This was followed by a modified version of the same software, combined with infra-red motion detection, for an installation based at Disney's retro-modern (and butt of several Simpsons jokes) Epcot Centre. Upon realising the potential for the widespread and familiar console controller to become a musical instrument, Harmonix's exposure really grew after SCEA saw an early prototype and snapped up what became Frequency, published in 2001. By scaling down the freeform nature of The Axe, and giving people a more directed sonic playpen, it made the software more accessible and suitable for mass market. While Frequency and its sequel Amplitude (I remember doing an online promotional sound sequencer toy for this while at randommedia a couple of years ago) were critically praised, they didn't sell in huge numbers, and it wasn't until they worked on Karaoke Revolution for Konami that their real break came in terms of sales. Karaoke Revolution's development and subsequent success demonstrated to the team the significance of the player's performance as an essential piece of the interactive music experience, and this is something that they have capitalised on, combining with their previous experience on Frequency/Amplitude to create the much adored Guitar Hero. Just check out some of the links on youtube to see how people have adopted the performance aspect of the game.

Its great to see people like Josh in the industry as the enthusiasm he has for his work (and for the culture surrounding interactive music) is infectious and the perfect antidote for the cynicism that can cloud the interactive entertainment industry at times.

The interview with Josh should be online on PlayStation.com over the next few days. In the meantime you can read an online feature on Harmonix here or more on the festival here.

Thanks to Chris for hooking us up with the interview and press passes - congrats on such an interesting conference.

Over_play at onedotzero

Seminar from onedotzero a week Friday (2nd June):

"an exploration of the future of gaming through emergent forms of gameplay and direct interventions into the physical and urban environment, featuring leading innovators in art, gaming and mix-realities. speakers include members of internationally renowned artists' groups: blast theory [uncle roy all around you, i like frank], who explore interactivity and the relationship between real and virtual space, focusing on the social and political aspects of technology, and greyworld, [the source at lse] who create art that involves human interaction in an urban context, with unexpected articulation of public spaces."

More details here.

Game designer hippies

So this is what game designers do when they retire

"These days Ea nourishes his soul by sun bathing on the rocky shore of Peaks Island, Maine, lets his soul speak through drum, dance and song, and ponders the remarkable implications of quantum mechanics for "miracles" which many rational "scientific" people claim are impossible"

Curious? You should be