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Sometimes I Wish That It Would Rain Here

Sunday, November 26, 2006

previews for previews

remember the "good-ol-days" of walk-in stills at movie theatres? you know, the still picture advertisements that would show on the screen while people were coming into the theatre? you remember when the theatre companies started adding television-like commercials, interviews, and other cruft, such as regal's "The Twenty"? yeah, I didn't like it much either. well I saw something today that takes it one more level. during one of these pre-show segments, I was actually instructed to be sure and arrive to the theatre early next month to catch the segment on some other upcoming movie. it wasn't enough to bombard me with advertisements, they actually had to advertise for their other advertisements.

that's right, folks, we now have trailers for trailers. what are these, meta-ads? meta-previews? meta-trailers? oh my.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

rejecting jesus dolls

Toys for Tots recently rejected a donation of 4000 Jesus dolls that quote Biblical passages, such as "Love your neighbor as yourself," and (somewhat less neutral) "I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again." the purpose of these dolls is pretty obvious. now, I'm not disagreeing with TfT's refusal to accept the donation, but I find it rather interesting.

I can't think of a single toy, or any artifact, for that matter, that doesn't have values either explicitly or implicitly built into it. taking an example from the defamiliarization work of Bell et al. (2005), as well other folks, look at all the kitchen appliances that have efficiency as a built in priority, as in fact the most important priority. my food processor will slice an onion in 20 seconds, puree garbanzo beans in 45, and mince 3 garlic cloves in under a minute. how long does yours take? what isn't focused on in the design of these appliances is the important familial and social roles that cooking can have in home. the artifacts incorporate certain values, and disregard others.

or, if you want to go with toys, just look at traditional action figures (obviously aimed at boys) and dress-up dolls (obviously aimed at girls). even the action figures and dolls themselves and predominantly male and female, respectively. I'd say there are some pretty strong gender-centered values built into those toys.

similarly, the Jesus dolls focus on certain values, namely Christian ones, and not others, i.e. values from any other religion. TfT's actions are interesting on two grounds. first, it seems to implicitly state that other toys don't carry implicit values, or perhaps that the values they implicitly carry are not ones with which the Marine Reserves (the organization behind TfT) disagree. you don't see them turning away Barbie dolls because of the unrealistic impressions they could give young girls about body image, do you? the second interesting aspect is that, by rejecting the Jesus dolls, the Reserves and TfT are stating that religious values are of an entirely different nature than other values. yes yes, separation of church and state and all that. why is it that I should separate my religion from my government, but not my philosophical or moral values? if a toy somehow posited the existence of objective truth (which it might be argued the Jesus dolls do, in addition to their religious message), or supported a phenomenological approach wherein the child was encouraged to recognize their own construction of the object rather than the object's a priori existence, would these charities be so quick to reject such toys?

furthermore, who's to say that children would, upon hearing the pre-recorded voice of a Jesus doll, accept as irrefutable truth that "no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again." perhaps children would just dismiss it as the silly thing the doll says. or perhaps children might question, what is this "kingdom of God?" what does it mean to be "born again?" it might even lead them to an early discovery of, thinking about, and questioning of religious ideas than would have otherwise occurred. but no, our children's fragile minds our world view must be protected, lest they be corrupted by the things with which they come in to contact in daily life. we don't believe that children can actually think, let alone think for themselves. do we?

Bell, G., Blythe, M., and Sengers, P. 2005. Making by making strange: Defamiliarization and the design of domestic technologies.
ACM Trans. Comput.-Hum. Interact. 12, 2 (Jun. 2005), 149-173. DOI= http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/1067860.1067862

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

air guitar meets wearable computing

apparently, not only can you look really silly playing air guitar, you can now sound silly, as well. an Australia research group has made a tricked out air guitar t-shirt that connects your body movements into guitar riffs. this is not to be confused with other uber-lame air guitar shirts that make you look really silly and don't even play music. with this shirt, the movement of one elbow is linked to chords, the other to strumming. technical details are sparse, but those more familiar with wearables may be able to take good guesses. the BBC article linked above (which, I admit, seems to be totally oblivious to nearly all previous work done in wearable computing) lists "practical applications" (ugh) such as feedback for sports players. however, it seems like it could also be great for motion capture, especially for large groups when tracking the little ping pong balls gets more difficult. now the only thing I need to pretend I'm Claudio is a voice that's about two octaves higher.

Friday, November 03, 2006

clichés, RPGs, and design

for anyone who plays (or like me, used to play) console RPGs, there's a really fun list of console RPG clichés, (via Ars Technica’s FF XII review). most of these are taken from Square and Square-Enix games, predominantly the Final Fantasy series (will there even be a final one?). it’s actually pretty amusing, as many of them are verbally described not as clichés but rather as mathematical theorems: the MacGyver Rule (you can use anything and everything as a weapon, including paintbrushes, dictionaries, and umbrellas), Zelda’s Axiom (if anyone tells you about “five magic crystals” you’ll have to track them all down), and Garrett’s Principle (you are somehow able to steal items from people’s houses right under their noses and it’s totally OK). these some pretty amusing observations to anyone who’s played these sorts of games.

however, I think they offer far more than just amusement potential. finding ways to break from these clichés could offer a unique resource for game design ideas. for example, the Law of Cartographical Equivalence states that “The world map always cleanly fits into a rectangular shape with no land masses that cross an edge.” this has always really bugged me. the beginning of Final Fantasy VII takes place entirely within the city of Midgar. during this portion, you don’t get any sort of over-arching map of the city. instead, you get the cognitive map you make for yourself while exploring the city. you get the sense that the world is full of intricate and complex detail. as soon as you leave the city, you get the standard, rectangular shaped world map. once the entire world fits in a neatly defined box, it doesn’t seem nearly as deep or expansive. according to the aforementioned Ars review, one of the changes in FF XII is doing away with the world map, apparently “something longtime FF fans have lamented.” I say, it’s about time, and the reviewer states that “FF XII has a more interesting, open, vibrant, and large world than FF titles with the overworld map.” breaking the cliché leads to new depth in the game.

another interesting one is the Setzer Rule, or Stop Your Life. in FF VI, Setzer is a gambler and ladies’ man who, when he joins up, apparently gives up his wild life of partying and hangs out on the airship when not in your active party. what if we were to violate this cliché, and allow characters to continue their lives outside the party? perhaps that character has adventures of their own that play into different plot paths. perhaps the character discovers a new item or technique that it may have taken hours of play time to come upon otherwise. perhaps the character decides that the player’s quest is for naught, and the player discovers upon his next visit that the character has become a pacifist hermit. allowing characters to develop independent of the player’s interactions could very well be annoying, but by breaking the cliché of party members just hanging out on the airship, we might create the impression of deeper, more complex, more interesting characters that not only have lives independent of the player, but also that the player’s actions or inactions have a real, tangible effect on the world.

this technique of finding and violating clichés could be quite useful in other types of design. for example, some of my research is in developing character-based interactive installations. I’m not sure if I’ve been involved in the research long enough to pick out what the clichés are, but one might be that characters respond visibly and often meaningfully to the actions of participants. what if the characters responded, but in a manner opposite the apparent intention of the participant? would this lead to curiosity, frustration, boredom, or some other reaction? this is somewhat like questioning one’s assumptions, but I think it’s a little different, because assumptions tend to guide work, whereas clichés are properties that the work (completed or in process) exhibits.

obviously, some clichés are in place for a reason. some, such as the Law of Scientific Gratification (whatever device you need is near completion but needs you to fetch some final piece from a monster-infested dungeon), are used as plot devices, if not the best ones. I’m not saying to try and rid ourselves of clichés. just like assumptions, clichés will always be with us. rather, the point is that making a list of clichés and then asking how we can design not to follow those clichés can be a useful resource for reflection upon, and inspiration for, design. indeed, it may be a strategy for reflective design (pdf).

Thursday, November 02, 2006


the office where I go for physical therapy has some interesting decor. on many of the walls are old-skool sports paraphernalia accompanied by a complimentary drawing in the style of a colored wood-block print that appears to be from the same era as the equipment itself. for example, one wall has a set of old, leather boxing gloves next to a picture of what appear to be two shirtless proper gentlemen in a rope-encircle ring with a judge and several onlookers outside the ring. on another wall hangs a pair of wooden badminton rackets, accompanied by a picture of proper folk playing badminton on the lawn not very much unlike this one (via Google images). overall, it’s actually very tasteful, if not particularly appropriate since many people there are recovering from surgery or old-age induced injuries unrelated to sports.

the most interesting, however, is a catcher’s mitt and mask that appear to be from the turn of the last century. next to them hangs a picture the purportedly depicts the winning run of the 1880 game of the “New York Giants & Chicagos.” the picture shows a runner sliding into home plate and the catcher reaching down to tag the runner. what I find particularly interesting is the title of the picture: “How is it, umpire?” if such a scene were to unfold in professional sports today, it would likely entail the runner and catcher both telling the umpire how it is, not asking. furthermore, half the runner’s team would be waving their arms as a “safe” call, while half the catcher’s team would be jerking their thumbs in an “out” call. I just thought it interesting to see how the tenor of professional sports has changed in the past 125 years.