Experience Begets Relevance at Video Games Live

Photo 3When Erik Jung, Peter Wooley and I worked at US Digital as the company’s first internal design team, our office established a small but fun tradition. Every day, control of the room’s sound system would rotate between us. From 2-4pm, the DJ for the day would subject his co-workers to the music of his choosing. It started discussions, inspired creativity and was just plain cool.

All three of us had overlap in our musical tastes (we all dig Daft Punk, for example) but with very broad deviations. I dug a lot of punk and art rock. Erik had a passion for film soundtracks and rare, vinyl-only recordings. And Peter enjoyed video game soundtracks.

I hated video game soundtracks. They seemed to lack any context whatsoever, naked without the gameplay they were composed to support. Experiencing them on their own felt pretentious, incomplete, a mere novelty. Put simply, I just didn’t get it.

Peter and I attended Video Games Live at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall this past Saturday, and I think it changed my mind.

Photograph by Peter of VGL (pre-show)

Any reader of this blog knows how big a fan I am of live shows. Many of the bands I love today didn’t come alive for me until I saw them perform. You can’t know how textural Will Sergeant’s guitar playing really is until you’ve seen Echo and the Bunnymen live. Ray Davies’ pure craftsmanship, certainly audible in Kinks recordings, somehow ignites when performed to an enthusiastic and energized crowd. There’s something about the experience of music that is inherently visceral, perhaps even vital.

In Survival Strategies for Emerging Artists, former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne suggests that we’re hard-wired to feel this way:

David ByrneIn the past, music was something you heard and experienced — it was as much a social event as a purely musical one. Before recording technology existed, you could not separate music from its social context. Epic songs and ballads, troubadours, courtly entertainments, church music, shamanic chants, pub sing-alongs, ceremonial music, military music, dance music — it was pretty much all tied to specific social functions. It was communal and often utilitarian. You couldn’t take it home, copy it, sell it as a commodity (except as sheet music, but that’s not music), or even hear it again. Music was an experience, intimately married to your life. You could pay to hear music, but after you did, it was over, gone — a memory.

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We’ll always want to use music as part of our social fabric: to congregate at concerts and in bars, even if the sound sucks; to pass music from hand to hand (or via the Internet) as a form of social currency; to build temples where only “our kind of people” can hear music (opera houses and symphony halls); to want to know more about our favorite bards — their love lives, their clothes, their political beliefs. This betrays an eternal urge to have a larger context beyond a piece of plastic. One might say this urge is part of our genetic makeup.

At Video Games Live, I experienced the history of gaming in sight and sound with the aid of the Oregon Symphony and Pacific Youth Choir, conducted by Jack Wall (Myst, Mass Effect) and hosted by Tommy Tallarico (Earthworm Jim, Metroid Prime). As I sat among my fellow geeks, cheering at the site of Sonic the Hedgehog creator Yuji Naka, the opening title of the NES Metroid, footage of Ralph Baer testing an early version of Pong in 1968 and Martin Leung playing the Super Mario Bros. theme blind-folded, I realized what we all were really responding to.

It was the experience of these games, the fun and adventure they provided, and the soundtrack that is intrinsically linked to our memories. This music, thoughtfully composed and lovingly executed, is no more shallow than any other genre strengthened by the energy of a live performance.

Needless to say, the show was a wonderfully geeky good time. Read the rest of this entry…

Introducing Brizzly Favicon Alerts

Brizzly Twitter mascotI love the Internet as a collaboration tool. Earlier today I nabbed an invitation to Brizzly, a promising young Twitter and Facebook client with a clean, intuitive interface and a modest set of neat features. I dug the simplicity of the interface, with one exception; the favicon’s abrasive, jagged edges.

I invited my frequent co-conspirator Peter Wooley to the service. After a few messages between us, we went to work designing and implementing an alternate icon treatment with a special notification state to let you know when new messages are available, collaborating via Dropbox.

In short order, we completed the latest addition to the favicon alerts family of user scripts, Brizzly Favicon Alerts!

Brizzly Favicon Alerts (Before, After and Notification)

Used in combination with the Faviconize Tab extension, you can easily keeps tabs on new messages in Brizzly with less screen real estate than usual.

This feature is hard to enjoy if you aren’t a Brizzly user just yet. While invites aren’t as scarce as Google Wave, I’d be happy to provide one to the first five readers who comment on this post and sound off on how much you like (or dislike) the visual refresh.

Install Brizzly Favicon Alerts 1.0

Logos and fashion collide!

One of the biggest thrills of identity work is unexpectedly seeing your design in use. Case-in-point, this snazzy logo-baring garb from David Martschinske Photography and Focus Designs (makers of the self-balancing unicycle).

David Martschinske hats

David Martschinske and Focus Designs shirts

Despite the recent trend toward highly dimensional identities, I still believe in high-contrast, graphic marks that retain versatility regardless of media. When I see my designs sewn into cloth or laser-cut from aluminum, I’m extremely happy with that choice. As much as I enjoy watching traditional media’s implosion, there’s something to be said for symbols rendered in a tactile fashion.

Thanks to David Martschinske for sharing.

Google Wave Preview First Impressions

It’s common geek knowledge at this point that Google Wave is named after the predominant method of audio-visual transmission in the tragically short-lived science fiction series Firefly (and it’s feature film sequel, Serenity). What’s ironic about this association is how much Wave, at this stage of development, reminds me of Firefly character River Tam.

Firefly's River Tam

River (Google Wave) is a prodigy, exceedingly gifted in nearly every respect, consistently one-upping her older yet still talented sibling Simon (Gmail). As striking as her abilities are, they are only experienced through a fog of schizophrenia and instability. While Simon lacks any of River’s psychic  insight, he is nonetheless remarkable and ultimately more reliable.

Planes, Trains & AutomobilesOkay, maybe I’m stretching the metaphor a bit. My point is that Wave has really cool moments, but they’re fleeting in this early state. While I haven’t experienced the rampant bugs reported by other users, I have noticed that the interface leaves a lot to be desired (it’s shockingly similar to Microsoft Outlook,  neglecting the emphasis on conversation Gmail achieved), and things become cacophonous when a conversation has many participants.

What I dig about Wave are the live conversations, the ability to structure those conversations in any order you please, and the freedom that plugins give the service. What’s wonderful about these high points is that they aren’t unique to Google’s implementation of the Wave platform. Remember, Wave is an open source creation aimed at replacing email as a standard, with Google’s offering the inaugural product. Regardless of the current user experience, one can’t deny the capabilities of the service, which any group of enterprising designers and developers could leverage into something truly wonderful.

That’s not to say we should necessarily write off Google’s interface at this early stage of development. Sure, it’s a little loopy, but who knows? It might kick email’s butt after all.

Image from Serenity

Why 10/GUI is brilliant and will probably never work

10/GUI is a multitouch interface designed to push the typical desktop experience forward with the  “interaction bandwidth” afforded through the use of all ten fingers. It’s smart, inventive and really inspiring.

Apple's solution to your finger obscuring your keypressWhile Microsoft’s Courier concept is fascinating for its application of touch to a decidedly alternative computing experience, 10/GUI seeks to redefine our desktop interactions. I was pleased to see its creator, R. Clayton Miller, thoughtfully address the issue of arm and neck fatigue (a problem cartoonists like myself know all too well). His solution also counters the challenges of the user’s fingers obscuring the point of interaction, something today’s mobile devices sidestep with clumsy fly-up keypress confirmations.

I think 10/GUI is wonderful, and I sincerely hope Miller (or those industrious enough to seek him out) will explore it further and give us some real products to play with. That being said, I remain unconvinced that this type of interface would work in mainstream application.

While listening to 10/GUI’s daunting list of touch gestures required to accomplish basic operating system tasks, I was reminded of industrial designer Dennis Boyle’s account of Palm’s experience selling users on Graffiti text entry over a traditional keyboard. From Bill Moggridge’s Designing Interactions:

I remember that Handspring decided to put the Treo out with both a keyboard and Graffiti, because they didn’t know which one people would choose; they decided to let them vote. The result was quite clear; a large majority went for the small keyboard. [...] [The] little QWERTY keyboard, bad as it is, is such a standard that it requires no guesswork, and that attracts more users.
Palm's Graffiti gesturesDespite the fact that Graffiti was a faster and more efficient method of “typing” on a mobile device, these rewards came only if the user invested enough time to overcome the obstacle of learning the standard. While I find it to be really neat, I can’t imagine gaining enough speed from 10/GUI to overcome the time and pain it would take to learn those gestures.

I’ve experienced this with my MacBook Pro’s multitouch trackpad. While simple gestures like scrolling are easy to learn, more complex maneuvers are bothersome and often unwittingly triggered as my hand brushes past while typing. While some of these features ease the frustration of not having a mouse, they are a poor substitute when used in conjunction with the keyboard, occasionally even to the detriment of my workflow.

I’m not saying we necessarily need to coddle our users, gimping innovation for the sake of complacency. What I am suggesting is that immediacy may be the greatest asset of touch computing. It is natural to select an object by touching it. I love the Courier prototype because it evolves tasks which inherently benefit from touch interaction. 10/GUI appears to require memorization prior to use, more like a musical instrument than a user interface. Put simply, I’m afraid 10/GUI will create more problems for me than it will solve.

But I really hope I’m proven wrong.