Archive for the 'Music/Books/Movies/Games' Category

Galaxy hopping on a new UI

Most of you know I’m a casual to semi-serious gamer… (Yes, I hear you… “Ah-the-nerd-picture-is-complete-now-monkey-boy.”) Ahem. Anyway, ever since I obtained the Wii few months ago my hands have been glued to the controllers.

There’s something fascinating about encountering a new interface for the first time. Nintendo has taken a large risk in expecting users to learn a brand new way to interface with the console. Gone are the arrow keys, only to be replaced with the Wiimote, which, depending on the software, controls the interface as you physically move the controller up, down, toward, away, side-to-side, or roll it right-to-left.

Rather than enter into the XBox/PlayStation/PC realm of muscle car-like computing power and 3d rendering perfection, the Wii is attempting to blaze a new trail that brings focus back on gameplay. The gamble is that Nintendo has asked their customers to abandon the conventions that they have become quite used to, and re-learn a new way of interfacing with their favorite titles and characters.

A usability research company (Serco Usability Services) found that the Wii offered an opportunity to learn more about HCI. Some initial analysis led them to conclude:

So this novelty may be a double-edged sword… On the one hand it means that there are multiple new ways of allowing users to interact with games, which is a whole new world of fun; a massive potential. But, on the other hand, there are no conventions yet for how users expect the controller’s actions to be used in a game… The last time we remember such a blank canvas for interactive design was in the early days of the internet. Pages were colourful, flashing and had different fonts. Standards… were not in place… Sites were exciting, but hard to use. However, gradually, over the years, the fun of the web remained, but design conventions were derived from the sites that people found easiest to use (and consequently used most).

The company conducted a usability study on the Wii, and their results included the following:

In general, there is a tendency among users to assume that the two elements of the controls are the same as a regular controller, but chopped in half; the nunchuck is the left side of a controller; the Wiimote the right. It’s as if despite the conscious feeling that the controls are completely revolutionary, the user’s motor memory is not fooled by the hype! It treats them the same as if they were a ‘normal’ controller.

Time will tell if Nintendo’s customers stick with the new interface. As of this writing, Wiis are flying off the shelves. But the true test of success with any interface comes with widespread acceptance of it. If customers continue to buy Wii software titles, and the software companies continue to produce them, then Nintendo will be able to declare success.

Serco Wii usability article
Wii web browser usability review
UPA article on Wii usability (membership only)
Super Mario Galaxy review written by yours truly (oh yes, I went there)

Helvetica, the film


Nerd alert: The upcoming film Helvetica has begun screening worldwide.

Helvetica is a feature-length independent film about typography, graphic design and global visual culture. It looks at the proliferation of one typeface (which will celebrate its 50th birthday in 2007) as part of a larger conversation about the way type affects our lives.

I know I have a lot of readers from the OSU area… Be aware that the film is coming to the Wexner Center on May 3-4.

Look for a screening near you

Image copyright Gary Hustwit

Virtual memorial

So, last week the blogosphere had this thing honoring Carl Sagan on the 10th anniversary of his death. I’m bringing up the rear, here, but wanted to throw my two Abe’s worth in.

sagan2One of my fondest memories was watching Cosmos as a preadolescent and feeling for the first time the Sirenic-call from astronomy and physics — a secular passion which dominated the next 20 years of my life. I spent the 80s and 90s immersed in astronomy. I invested in telescopes, subscribed to astronomy magazines, devoured countless nonfiction works from Sagan and his colleagues, led one of the largest and oldest amateur astronomy organizations in the Midwest, volunteered at observatories, lectured at science museums, and majored in astrophysics while at college.

As happens to us all, my priorities changed as I got older and my family grew. Astronomy plays only a little part in my secular life now, as a modest hobby. But whenever I stand under the quiet, velvety expanse on a clear night, armed only with a small telescope and a red flashlight, I hear the sirens calling, and I know that it all started with the seed planted by that PBS series in 1980.

So I respect and appreciate him for that.

On the other hand, I have always had mixed feelings about Sagan. Superficially, you’d think I’d be the biggest fan of the world’s most famous science writer. But I was intrigued, for instance, by how little respect Sagan got from academia. The public’s view of Sagan was one of a man esteemed by his colleagues, leading the field of 20th-century astronomy; in fact, that’s not necessarily the case. Certainly, Sagan did his share of research, and his scientific career was nothing to slouch at, but he wasn’t necessarily known as a leader in his field. Many colleagues were irked that Sagan got his academic appointments based on his fame, not his credentials. Rumors abound of an underground “anti-Carl” attitude at Cornell, where students and faculty quietly fumed at how rare he actually appeared on campus, in between book tours and Tonight Show appearances.

Another troubling thing about Sagan to me was his sometimes contradictory attitudes toward critical thinking, scientific method, and even religion. The Demon Haunted World is one of my favorite non-fiction tomes, and if you haven’t read it, I urge you to do so. The book is essentially a lecture against the perils of non-critical thinking, and contains lessons for anyone whose life contains the need for effective persuasion (scientists, doctors, lawyers, educators, parents, etc.). Included is the famous Baloney Detection Kit, a set of guidelines to which successful critical thinkers should adhere.

Sprinkled throughout the book, Sagan excellently debunks the more famous examples of pseudoscience, like crop circles, magical religious healers, and so forth. But on numerous occasions, Sagan falls prey to the same foibles against which he lectures so strongly; engaging in ad hominem and straw man attacks against any who don’t hold his political or religious views.

The same pitfalls were shown in his book/movie Contact, where all non-scientific characters were presented as antagonists, and as stereotypical caricatures (a blundering priest who emotionally scars a young girl; a new-age religious hippie who quits priesthood “because of the celibacy thing”; a terrorist who kills because, well, because his faith directs him to; a fanatical right-wing religious politico; reactionary warmongers; etc.).

I remain honestly puzzled as to the current ‘fad’ of modern intellectuals who practically attempt to deify Sagan. I think he would have found that deliciously ironic.

To me, Sagan’s most enduring legacy should be his contagious attitude about the wonders of the cosmos, and the diminutive, humble place humans occupy in the universe. Second, as a writer, he should be given props for his talent in expressing the ridiculously complex in ways that laypersons could grasp, like in this scene from Travels in Space and Time, where he cogently explains relativistic time dilation:

Often, he would begin a lecture with a single sentence that would completely hook his audience:

“In order to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the Universe.”

Every time I hear that lecture, I must admit I get goose bumps.

That type of effective persuasion and contagious enthusiasm is becoming rare among science popularizers. Those still “holding the candle” include Neil deGrasse Tyson and Brian Greene, two more authors whose works you should devote some spare time to reading.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m getting an urge to watch The Edge of Forever again.


So long, funnyman

Joseph Barbera (of Hanna-Barbera fame) died today at age 95.

It’s unfortunate that most only remember Hanna-Barbera for their poorly-animated-looping-backgrounds cartoons of the 60s and 70s cartoons (“How long have we walked by that pik-a-nik basket, Boo-boo?”) or the Flintstones. In fact, their best work was Tom and Jerry, and the cross-town friendly competition with Warner Brothers in post-WWII Hollywood was where the art of animation really became legendary.

Here is the pinnacle of Barbera’s career:

If you’ve got spare time, go here to see over one and a half hours of Tom & Jerry cartoons that reside in the public domain.

Video via infographics

This video is a few years old, but it still geeks me out.

The music is “Remind Me,” by Röyksopp.

Whitney music box

The Whitney Music Box uses the theories of harmonic relationships to turn motion graphics into music.

At the beginning of each “song,” a line of dots begins to move around a central point. The outermost dot is on a three-minute cycle, meaning it orbits the center once every three minutes, and represents the first harmonic. The next dot in orbits twice every three minutes, representing the second harmonic; the third dot orbits three times every three minutes, and so on.

Protruding from the center is a radius line that “triggers” the harmonic tone when a dot or group of dots cross it (like a music box). As a result, scales, melodies, and chords are formed. If you know a little about music, it’s interesting to see the visual patterns that associate common musical forms, like the “three-pointed starfish” asterism that accompanies diminished chords.

One thing my astronomer’s eye kept noticing was a similarity between the way in which the visualizer’s dots spin and the way that many spiral galaxies rotate. I couldn’t help but wonder what a galaxy would sound like if plotted and visualized in this manner…. Maybe every galaxy has its own “song.”

Playing with the variations in the harmonic and chromatic scales makes for different visualizations and sounds. My particular favorites are variations 4 and 10. The latter sounds positively Kubrick-ian… straight-up 60s sci-fi.

The Whitney Music Box

About the WMB

No school like the old school

Chico Marx on the piano, from A Night in Casablanca.

< - Home