Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Food for Thought: Challenge-Reward Dynamics

Every once in a while I have the urge to complete all sidequests in a game I'm playing. Usually this urge happens with Japanese RPGs. But that's not the point of this post. What I would actually like to discuss today, is this topic: can we apply the challenge-reward dynamics present in games to user experience of non-game applications.

To recap briefly, challenge-reward dynamics are one of the reasons games are addictive to play (but definitely not the only reason). Obviously this should not be big news. A typical game provides challenges to the player, and rewards success. Typically the reward is provided in some form of in-game goods or information, although modern games also offer external rewards such as trophies and some digital goods (desktop themes, whatever). Most of the time, the concrete reward is tied to a sense of accomplishment, that familiar pride of overcoming a difficult challenge. Sometimes there are challenges in games that have no concrete reward, but the challenge itself is interesting enough and the sense of achievement is the only reward that's needed.

Applications on the other hand do not usually provide any internal challenges or rewards. When we think about programs like word processors, the challenge is definitely external (well, aside from the challenge of learning to use the application, which by the way is usually not very fun or rewarding). Applications are like tools. You don't want that hammer to provide any internal challenge or reward - you just want to build your house with it. Obviously applying challenge-reward dynamics to tools is probably a bad idea, but who knows? But not all applications are tools these days. Entertainment applications stand somewhere between tools and games, and are a field where ease of use might not be the obvious way to go. This is the application domain I'm primarily interested in.

While usability design principles generally agree that applications should communicate their system model to the user clearly, I think this particular principle should be challenged in entertainment applications. The value of an entertainment (or edutainment for that matter) application is mostly measured by how long can it engage its user. This roughly translates to how long the application can throw something different at the user. Games are definitely champions at engaging players; my personal record for a single player game is over 300 hours, but for online games this is more like the norm! On the other end of the spectrum, let's think of something like a virtual museum.

The idea of a virtual museum sounds good on paper - it's a museum anyone can visit from their home. But think about the concept for a while. Is there any real motivation to keep engaged to the virtual museum experience, which I assume can only be a fraction of a real museum experience. Why just simulate walking in a museum, when a virtual world allows many more options that are relatively cheap to implement. If we introduced challenge-reward dynamics, maybe part of the experience could be actually finding the attractions. The point being, if we want the users to get interested in paintings or whatever the museum is displaying, you might as well make them rewards that are challenging to get in some way. Modeling the virtual world after the real museum should not be the point.

People value things they have attained through some effort. This is something to keep in mind while thinking about entertainment and especially edutainment applications. Exploration and challenge are important keywords for this context, and are not (necessarily) in line with the user model / system model principle. Sometimes hiding meanings can make them more meaningful to the person who discovers them.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Interactive vs. Intelligent

At the very beginning I mentioned I will be working with interactive spaces, and briefly noted that they are basically in the same ballpark as intelligent spaces, but have a different emphasis. Now I'll proceed to open up that topic a bit more.

Judging by what I've seen, the general goal of intelligent spaces is that the *system* understands the user. Emotions and such can be detected from voice attributes, facial expressions and posture (among other things) using cameras and microphones (and possibly other kinds of sensors). The idea is that the computer will adapt its behavior to suit the current situation, automatically. It clearly acknowledges the user's presence, which is a good thing. This is, at least to my knowledge, a relatively technological approach, although there are of course challenges in understanding human behavior as well. This area has a lot of research going on, and I'd take a guess and say we can start seeing some impressive results in the near future.

If we skip all the technological problems related to intelligent spaces, I still think there's an additional problem: they might be seen as intrusive, because whatever the technology, the system needs various surveillance techniques to detect the user. Another thing is that people are different. Really, really different. For the system to understand any given user properly, personalization seems almost necessary.

The goal of interactive spaces on the other hand is that the *designer* understands the user. This is of course a very typical approach in usability design. We don't call it user-centered design for nothing after all (although the trend seems to be toward action-centered design, which is slightly different). An interactive space is a space containing many simple interfaces. The design consists of two primary layers: placement of interfaces in the environment, and design of individual interfaces. Each interface is placed in a relevant context. The key word here is interactive. Everything that happens, is directly dependent on how the user interacts with an interface. Basically, we like to keep the user in control of all the strings.

So instead of focusing on machine vision, voice analysis, artificial intelligence and so on, in interactive spaces design the focus is on designing interfaces that are highly context-aware by design, and are fun and interesting to use. The interfaces are not intrusive but rather blend into the environment, making themselves readily available when the user needs them.

In the end, like I said, we play in the same park. Be it intelligent or interactive spaces, both design and technology are necessary, as is putting the user first. But as you can see (at least I hope so) the emphasis is different. Maybe in the future we have just intelliactive spaces, combining the best of both worlds. That should be the goal, and to get there, the problem needs to be approached from both perspectives.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Of Word Processors and Context-Awareness

I hate word processors. In my opinion, they are an excellent example of something, that is really natural and easy for humans to do with pen and paper, done so hard that it baffles me every single time I need to do something I previously didn't need. Or indeed, do something I do rarely. Sure, the people who've been using these unnatural abominations for years and years know how to operate them, but if the casual user wants to do something as radical as putting an image somewhere in the document and wrap text around it they can be in for a world of pain. Or, let's say I want page numbers, starting from the very first page but not displaying them for the first ten pages.

It's all in the help of course, but knowing where to look is not always obvious. Open up your word processor's help and look at the size of that thing for a quick reference of what I'm talking about. This is basically understandable, as word processors have (and I guess they need to have) a plethora of features. A lot of these features are stuff needed only by selected few of us - each user group needs only a fraction of the entire feature set. The problem is, with this many features, finding the one you're looking for is difficult. Everything is organized, but before you can make any use of that, understanding the categorization logic is necessary. Simply put, they are not context-aware.

What games (good ones anyway) do effectively and word processors do not, is providing information on how to use them when you actually need that information. Sure, Microsoft tried with the Paper Clip of Mighty Annoyance, and that didn't turn out well, but is also no reason to stop trying. One problem of course is that it's quite hard for the application to understand what the user is doing, due to its monolithic design. Still, the application should at least provide a help shortcut on each and every one of its dialog windows, to open up a list of help topic relevant to that particular dialog. Help should also be action-oriented. When I want those page numbers, I don't want to know what each and every gadget on the dialog goes, I just want to know how to get my page numbers exactly where I want them.

Of course, games have the definite advantage of much better understanding about what the player is about to do, due to their predetermined nature. Games with linear progression are obvious, but also sandbox-games where the player can go where he pleases can still usually have some idea what the player might need to know next. But it's not like we can't make word processors context-aware. Perhaps it'd be best to actually break down their monolithic design, and try an object oriented approach, something programmers should be very familiar with, but which strangely doesn't find its way to user interfaces too often. I think it's better to provide an example scenario.

I start writing a document, and at the moment the word processor only provides the very basic features for writing text and positioning it intelligently. This is all the word processor itself does: manages positioning and text input. Then I realize I want a picture, so I paste in a picture component. When I click on this component, I only see tools for picture management, which is again something I don't need to see when I'm not setting properties for my picture. I write again for a while, until I need to paste in a table component. Lo and behold, there's a table, and when I select it, I have all the table-editing tools at my fingertip, and nothing else. Finally, when I'm done I realize I want to alter the positioning. So I summon up a grid, tell my components and text paragraphs to snap to it (to keep them neatly lined) and drag them around until I'm happy with the results.

See? Context-aware word processor. I actually quite recently found out that Word 2007 (been using Open Office in Linux) does a lot of this, so perhaps there is still hope for word processors as well. The last part of my example scenario on the other hand is something I can do in Excel or similar programs, but not in word processors. There could be a very good reason for this, but it's also a real possibility that there isn't, because software generally tends to follow old conventions. Of course, it is nice that all the new software works somewhat like the one's we've been using before, but if no one breaks this cycle, we're stuck with usability models that have been outdated for a long time, and bringing new people, with little experience using computers, becomes harder and harder as time goes by and feature numbers creep up.

So, perhaps it is indeed time to rethink everything from scratch.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Games are Complex - A Case in Point

The purpose of this post is to just take a moment and consider how much complexity can there be in a game that looks quite simple from the outside. Of course I could always take a game that looks and is complex, like a simulator or heavy strategy game, but for those you can really tell their complexity by just looking at them (or their manuals). Besides, I have relatively little experience with them, especially recently. Instead, I'll tackle something I'm quite familiar with, and something that might surprise at least some readers. Let's just call it the Monday morning shock effect.

I'm going to talk about fighting games, a genre which includes quite popular titles such as Street Fighter, Tekken and Soul Calibur. On the outside, these games look relatively simple and straightforward. Each player controls a character on the screen, moving and performing attacks using their controllers and trying to deplete the other player's life bar before losing their own. But let's take a look under the hood. Just poking around inside the game (using Tekken 6 as an example) we can see that each character has in fact more than forty different entries on their command list. These are the button combinations the player needs to press to perform a particular move or canned series of moves. Before you can even consider becoming a good player with one character, you need to know these combinations.

This is hardly mastery though. Moves in fighting games have lots of properties that are not listed in the game. One of the things serious players quickly need to become familiar with is frame data. First of all, frame data tells how many frames (1 / 60th of a second) a particular move needs to come out. Second, it tells frame advantage or disadvantage in three situations: the move is blocked by the opponent, the move hits the opponent or the move hits the opponent who is also performing a move (think of it is interrupting). Just so you have the basic idea, if I do a move that puts me at a disadvantage of 12 frames if it's blocked, then I cannot do anything during those 12 frames, meaning you can get a free hit with a move that comes out in 12 frames or less. So that's four additional numbers for each of the 40+ moves (in reality, you don't need to know the exact numbers for all moves) to learn.

Of course, all this stuff is learned not by reading and memorizing, but by reading, applying in practice, then reading some more and applying, until all the relevant information sticks. Oh, and in addition, you also need to figure out how far a given move reaches and is it circular or semi-circular (i.e. can the opponent avoid it by moving sideways). For argument's sake, let's assume you have learned all this stuff for one character. Then what? Well, there are 39 other characters in the game, and if you play competitively, you can run into any one of them. And yes, in order to be a competitive player, you need to know their moves, frame data and all, as well. Granted, you don't need to know everything about a character to fight against him effectively, but knowing at least the most important moves really helps.

The best way to do this is to first play against someone, then read, then play again, and read some more, until you get the hang of it. This can take a lot of hours for just one character, and the only way to do it is to play against a human opponent. These days you can play online, but as a reminder, when talking about games where fractions of seconds are of importance, even small amount of network lag can make a big difference in how the game is played. So in order to really play the game, traveling becomes a necessity. All this for what gain? Well, most of us just gain the thrill of competition out of it. Of course if you are really, really good you can even make a living, at least if you live in South Korea, the world capital of eSports.

To summarize, to fully understand the system in Tekken 6 (yes, just one game), you need to know the properties of about 20 moves or more for each of the 40 characters - that's around 800 datasets to learn - and of course you still need to figure out how to make use of all this information. Oh yeah, when they update the game to the next version, this information changes, so you need to keep up. So, how hard did you say your college math course was again? Naturally not that many players want to achieve this level of mastery - they just want to mash some buttons and never understand what's going on in the game. Then again, some people just memorize the facts the night before a test, to forget everything in the next week.

This kind of complexity and infinite learning curve is in fact pretty typical for really competitive multiplayer games (for a classic example, think Chess). Their learning curve is in fact pretty exemplary: starting to play is easy, and new things are learned when you need them - when you lose to someone, you need to either figure out new tricks for yourself, or research their tricks and learn some counter techniques (best do both!). Finally, playing competitive games like this is a strongly social activity. Once I have a hard copy of What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy (I've read it via ebrary, which I must say is a good example of horrible usability) I might run an even more through analysis of how the learning principles in that book match with competitive playing of fighting games.

Friday, May 7, 2010

It's Easy - All You Need is the Holy Grail

The first two books I decided to read for my post-graduate studies were A Theory of Fun for Game Design (by Raph Koster) and What Video Games Have to Teach us About Learning and Literacy (by James Paul Gee). I chose these for two reasons: First of all, they both deal with the very fundamental basics of why people play games and what games can give us, and well, they were available through the university library as ebooks, while the rest of the books I wanted to read were not. Anyway, no matter the reason, they turned out to be really good reads, and I can recommend them to anyone slightly interested, especially the first one since it's really short, lightly written but has a lot of good points. Gee's book is a bit heavier, but still easy to read and not too long.

The main points are related to learning, which for the second book should not be such a big surprise. In the first book, Koster takes the view that games are fun because we are learning when we play. It is at least very hard to deny the learning part. Gee on the other hand writes about how good teachers games (and game designers through their work) actually are. The claim that we learn things when we play games is hardly revolutionary. Most games are not in fact easy. And quite a lot of them are actually very complex, so when you pick up the controller for the first time, you can't just suddenly do everything in the game. Actually, you might need to learn more things to play some particularly heavy games than you would need to pass a high school course of any given subject (I'm going to give an example in a later post, for now just take my word for it).

Of course, the problem from education's point of view is that games mostly teach skills that are only relevant inside the gameworld (and probably in gameworlds inside the same genre). Although this is not exactly true, as there are several very common abilities that playing games can enhance, there are a lot of school subjects that you really cannot learn from modern games. Of course, educational games can be, at least in theory, created for any subject. However, and hence the title of this post, it is often seen particularly difficult to disguise the learning in such a way that the player doesn't feel he's studying some boring school subject while playing, but just happens to need those skills to proceed in the game. That's the Holy Grail of educational games in my opinion.

If you read through Gee's book, you'll find that we don't actually need this Holy Grail to combine the way games teach us to learning something that is actually useful (I'm not going to argue about the usefulness of school subjects). Gee introduces 36 learning principles that we could just take and try out in school education. I'm not going to repeat them, but one of the general impressions you get from them is that games are effective in teaching how to play them because (at least good games) put all the information into a relevant context, and they allow us to safely explore options and make choices, as well as form opinions. And when playing games, the best performance can only be achieved by understanding how the game works, and by forming connections between facts.

So what about Koster's claim, games are fun because we learn when we play? From the above we can definitely conclude that we are learning, and actually really efficiently, while playing games. From experience or just statistics we can conclude that games are indeed most likely fun. Not always easy fun, but there has to be something going on, because games are so popular. Games are not just passive entertainment. Playing a good game and improving in it gives a sense of achievement, which is also the high point of learning. Not convinced? Well, you just have to read through both of these books and decide for yourself.

So bottom line? Teachers and usability researchers should take a good like at game design. This is one of the central things I'm going to explore in my studies. Finding that Holy Grail, I'll probably leave to others.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Innovative Interaction Concepts - part 6: M-Point

This is the sixth and final post in a series describing student presentations that we were invited to see and comment during the II City project meeting.

The final presentation was given by Eszter Nagy and Riikka Jefremoff. Their idea was to connect two places, two groups of people and two different ways of interaction together to form a whole, that would improve communication and entertain people. In their example, in one place people would use their hands to interact with a screen while in the other, they would use their feet. What could follow is a cooperative game, where people form pairs (one person using hands, the other feet) and play against other teams. Eszter and Riikka had already done game concept thinking on their own, and the ones we discussed were all quite potential, but we will leave them in favor of some more abstract discussion.

The central idea that I think is present here, is the idea of non-verbal communication. People can only communicate with the other group via the interface. How can you suggest someone else (who you don't even know, you've only ever seen their hands or feet!) what to do by using just your hands to make gestures? What about with your feet? It would actually be an interesting social experiment to use this kind of concept and set some cooperative problem solving task for the test groups and see what kinds of ways to communicate they could come up with.

What about game design then, what kinds of ideas we can come up with based on this idea? First and foremost, I feel this idea has some really direct cooperation - two people are both doing their share of a common task. Of course, the lack of verbal communication is the challenge that is present in this particular concept, and because you don't even know who you are playing with, there is no way to achieve verbal communication that I can think of. It is an interesting variation to typical cooperative games where verbal communication channels are available (and in online games, you can usually use an external program for voice communication if playing with people you know).

While I'm writing this, I'm constantly coming up with mental connections to Francesca and Sami's Sphaere. In a way, M-Point is about expressing your presence via the system into another place, whereas Sphaere was about expressing your presence temporally to future visitors on the same site. In Eszter and Riikka's presentation, M-Point puts more emphasis on having fun, and attracting people to play together for example in an airport terminal while waiting for a flight to leave (the point of Sphaere you can read in part 4 of this post series). But of course, combining both ideas would be very possible, and M-Point is indeed in a way about reaching out to others just differently.

For this same reason, I have a little less to say on M-Point, because I already discussed how games can break the ice on social situations in the post about Sphaere. The idea behind M-Point is basically exactly this. Of course, an additional cool thing about M-Point is that after playing it, I can say "I just played this game with some guy from Paris, and only thing I know about him are the shape and size of his feet", which is in some way kind of amazing thing to say I think. At least it will get people curious if nothing else. So thanks to Eszter and Riikka, we had another interesting lesson in communication and advantages of games. Much like Sphaere, the M-Point also contains ideas that I hope to work with in the future as part of the II City project.

Innovative Interaction Concepts - part 5: thINK

This is the fifth post in a series describing student presentations that we were invited to see and comment during the II City project meeting.

The fifth presentation, given by Deividas Djuozulynas and Jill Pearson, was most similar to the second one (I'm seeing a pattern here!) in that it also introduced an actual user interface concept. Also, much like the second presentation, the interface concept is kind of fuzzy, but whereas the second presentation was based on discovery, Deividas and Jill's concept is based on inaccurate control and the idea that just using an interface can be fun, regardless of actual content. So, let's go through the key points of the presentation and proceed from there as usual.

thINK is a blowing based interface, so instead of using physical touching, the interface is instead used with air. The key idea here is that blowing is not an exact science, so it might be fun to just try to navigate around the user interface ("can I get to that icon before I run out of breath?"). Also, creating art in this way can lead to surprising results. Just pick a color and start blowing, then see where it takes you. Deividas and Jill also presented several other ways of using thINK, but for the purposes of this blog, let's see what I can come up with.

Using blowing as a method of control could be easily used as a basis for a game or several. Of course, it's also easy to think of many existing games where this could be used to improve the gameplay experience, or at least make it different. How to use your breath could become another tactical dimension, although perhaps players of blowing instruments might have an unfair advantage here, but then again, maybe they've deserved it (and hey, maybe the game could be used for breathing training!). However, I want to take the discussion up to a more abstract level once again.

The general idea here is uncertainty of control, and the idea that sometimes you may need to put in a little effort to be able to use a certain service. Of course, this would be disastrous for office work and such that needs to be efficient, but for applications that are mostly entertaining in nature, why not? Getting to use some specific applications could be an achievement that requires some practice, which is actually an interesting way to increase the value of services. Again, we can see this in games: many games in various genres have side missions that are much more difficult than what you have to face in the main game, and the reward for beating the ultimate side quest is, in the end, just the feeling of achievement.

Of course, not all people want to master their games to this level. Even I, fanatic fan of difficult side quests, no longer have the time to play all my games thoroughly. I find this sad, but I digress. So, people definitely do play these difficult tasks, train themselves or their avatars in the game world until they are up to the task, then conquer the achievement. So, what if one day we could brag to our friends "hey guys, I mastered that thINK interface, I was able to get to use ReallyCoolApplication!". The application itself need not be even that cool in itself, just the fact that it's rare makes it cool, because not all people have the will to reach it. Of course it also should not be that crucial or important, because then people would feel compelled to practice, or be "left out".

Uncertain control in games has been done here and there (drunk driving in Grand Theft Auto 4 springs to mind immediately), so it's not exactly new but I can't currently recall any game that has a game mechanic solely based on it, but then again, I've been mostly playing very traditional games and kept up with indie games mostly by reading games magazines (which is something my studies force me to change). I think the idea here is mostly that, the game provides an additional challenge. Not only does the player need to reach certain goal, but also constantly put effort so that he retains an acceptable amount of comfort. Some more difficult parts might need more careful focus, while easier parts could be more relaxed. Visiting the blowing concept quickly, imagine running out of breath on a critical moment.

So what I was able to take home from Deividas and Jill's presentation can be summarized as follows: in entertainment interfaces, the ease of use might not always lead to the best user experience, and uncertainty and certain degree of lack of control might actually be great fun. This is another fuzzy concept, meaning I might be involved in researching it further with the II City project.

Innovative Interaction Concepts - part 4: Sphaere

This is the fourth post in a series describing student presentations that we were invited to see and comment during the II City project meeting.

The fourth presentation, by Francesca Ditroilo and Sami Keskikallio, reminded us of another very important and fundamental concept in interaction, much like the first presentation. Their idea was called Sphaere, a wordplay on sphere and share, and was especially about the latter. The Sphaere would be a special area, where users can use pressure-sensitive surfaces (in their example, benches and floor) to leave a presence, and to create kind of living art together with others. The surfaces assume colors - for example, sitting on the bench leaves your body's shape colored into it. Users can also use their hands to "paint" onto the surfaces, and finally the idea of playing music that can be altered by painting shapes was added to the Sphaere.

Much like the first presentation, I don't think the actual application or even interface is as interesting here as pointing out something that is really important: communicating emotions, and dealing with alienation. I mean, the interface is also neat, although it's less an interface and more an art platform or medium, but the really important thing that Sphaere does is allow one to leave a presence, and for others to sense that presence - it's about connection. A single user can, by painting colors and shaping music, effectively express how they feel. Communication is not always easy, and especially communicating emotions is often really hard in a normal social context. Maybe we're embarrassed by how we feel, or feel shame about showing it to the rest of the world so directly - I don't know, I can only guess.

People can share their joy by leaving cheerful expressions on the surfaces, so that others who come can also sense it, and maybe their mood is improved. Or like in Francesca and Sami's use scenario, a woman who is feeling sad finds comfort when she sees the presence of another who has also been sitting on the bench next to her. And even if a lonely person doesn't find comfort in seeing the presence left by others, they can express their feelings of loneliness, indirectly by leaving a presence (tragic colors, sad music) and perhaps awaken the rest of the world to the problem. Maybe someone will notice them one day, and realize that this person who has been leaving these kinds of expressions on the Sphaere is really lonely.

But, like promised in the prelude, I should be giving a game design point of view into this concept. The Sphaere, where the idea is that everyone can freely paint with colors, could be used as a game platform as well. To keep true to the purpose given by Francesca and Sami, I think we should be talking about cooperative games that people can just pick up and continue from the state someone else left it. For example, I came up with a scenario that could help the lonely person mentioned in the last paragraph.

Say, I am feeling kind of lonely and sad, and come upon the Sphaere. I start to experiment around with it for a while, shaping the music to suit my desolate state and at the same time painting with dark colors. The Sphaere could then notice this and start a game. Of course, I'm already a bit down, the game really needs to cheer me a bit before I even to play it. But let's suppose it gets me (well, games a way of doing that for me...) and I start playing. Someone else comes around, and they may feel from the atmosphere in the Sphaere that I'm feeling down, but also the platform could modify the game in a way that the other person can join in, and we can work toward the same goal. The game would then act as a kind of mediator that gets us into contact with each other.

There maybe quite a lot of black boxes in the above scenario, but it does raise another good aspect of games. Board and card games, and similar that you have to get together in some physical space to play, are indeed quite excellent social mediators. They work especially well in situations where no one is feeling quite comfortable - the people don't really know each other, and no one seems to assume the conversation leader role. It's an awkward situation, until somebody breaks out a board game, and, lo and behold, now the people suddenly do have something to talk about. Of course that's the optimal scenario, if people aren't interested in gaming at all (although, I do believe it's just a matter of bringing the right game) then it's another thing entirely. With the Sphaere, the platform itself can be the one who breaks out the game if it detects many individual people who are just kind of sitting or standing apart from each other.

So we have once again arrived to the core of my hypothesis, that games have a lot to give in many more contexts that we usually think about. The other way around, bringing this concept into games, is not as important, and indeed, in a way it has already been done in multiplayer games, especially the non-online variety. Of course, one challenge would be to make expressing emotion the central theme of a game's gameplay. Unfortunately, I don't feel ready yet to tackle this challenge, but perhaps at a later point of time I might return to it. Or maybe someone else does.

Finally, to conclude I think Francesca and Sami's presentation asks yet another very important question: can we relieve loneliness and alienation by using technology to get people to communicate and connect with each other? It is a good question, and their idea is a good example of how we might be able to do this. Finally, at least some of the aspects in this project, if not all, could be explored further by the II City project.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Innovative Interaction Concepts - part 3: Steam

This is the third post in a series describing student presentations that we were invited to see and comment during the II City project meeting.

The third presentation was given by Jens Baert and Marjo Pohjanen, who had worked with an idea involving fog screens. Their project was called Steam, and it combined circular fog screens with a touch floor. This combination produces a virtual environment of a kind, and their example used it for viewing different cities in the world. In the interaction scenario, the user steps inside a circular area, which contains this technology. Printed on the floor around the edge of the area are five arrows, each containing name of a city and the distance, 0 km. Depending on the direction of entry, the user is presented a realistic view of a given city.

The effect is not unlike virtual reality. The user can walk forward to zoom in on details, or walk around to pan the view. While virtual reality as a concept is nothing new, what was really impressive about this presentation was that Jens and Marjo had done some research on the technologies required for implementing this concept, and it turned out all the pieces to the puzzle in fact do exist already. All that is basically needed is to make a fog screen circular, viewable from the "inside". Also, if it can be layered, it will produce a realistic depth effect, which cannot be achieved with simple wall displays.

Similar concepts have been researched already, but mostly in rooms containing wall screens in every direction. The idea of using fog screens adds an additional effect of really being there, as the screen entirely surrounds the user and isn't simply displayed on a wall on every direction. This is what distinguishes this project from usual attempts at virtual reality. Another advantage of this approach is that at least in theory it doesn't require a huge studio-like environment, only some projecting equipment placed on the ceiling. This means that it can actually become accessible to be used in everyday environment, which coincidentally is also the design environment for interactive spaces.

While the described interaction scenario uses only a touch floor for control, we can clearly see the obvious advantages of adding sensor data to detect hand and other body movements. This kind of sensor technology is already on its way to homes, assuming that Microsoft's Project Natal does what it promises. Generally speaking, the idea of using a fog screen to display a user interface, combined with sensor data for tracking hand movements, could be used effectively to produce an effect similar to holographic user interfaces in science fiction movies. Technologies for making holographic user interfaces also do exist already, at least in some form, but it can't hurt to have other means of implementing them.

I find it kind of hard to compare this idea of using fog screens and holographic virtual realities, because in theory they have the same objectives, but in reality, both will most likely look and feel different. However I do think that the same game design ideas are applicable to any virtual reality environments. But either way, if someone goes ahead and succeeds in implementing Steam, Jens and Marjo might have shown us a way to bring this kind of experience outside laboratories, into pretty much any place with a ceiling. And that opens up yet another alley to explore for the II City project, and for generally designing interactive spaces.