Antirom Tops the Digital Archeology Leaderboard


I’m totally late blogging about this, but I was very happy and proud to see antirom top the votes of the Digital Archeology project leaderboard while the project ran at Internet Week NYC back in June. So, officially we “won”, but since you can still vote for projects, our old friends from K10k are now topping the list.

I take my hat off to Jim Boulton, Deputy Managing Director of Story Worldwide in the UK who had the idea to put the project on and to all the people who helped make it happen. As Story Worldwide’s website reports:

“[Jim was] concerned that the evidence of this explosion of creativity may be consigned to digital oblivion, set out to harvest and recover landmark websites from the web’s short history and present them in a exhibition “Digital Archaeology”, within Internet Week. Jim, curator of the show, has persuaded a network of digital pioneers to hunt in their attics for the coded jewels that can be seen no more on the web, and generously share them for the show. Some needed restoration to bring the screens back to life.”

There is a great archive of photos on the project’s Facebook page. Apart from it being a cool trip down memory lane for many of us in terms of the projects and people, it was great to see them dig up the old machines for them to run on. It always saddened me that I couldn’t really show my students that early work anymore and, like Jim, I think it’s important to be aware of your heritage. Imagine if filmmakers couldn’t look back into the archives or writers only had John Grisham to read as inspiration.

Here’s a video of Tom Roope talking about the history of antirom. I don’t remember there being quite so much Japanese porn in there though. I think Tom’s fantasy is running wild. (There was some porn, though, but cunningly disguised):

Games, Play and Web Applications

[Dan Saffer’s](] latest presentation called Gaming The Web: Using the structures of games to design better web apps is a great summary of many of the themes I’ve covered over the years, which is gratifying to see.

In his presentation Saffer looks at the way games are structured, the difference between games and toys and also interactivity and flow, which I also wrote about a while back.


The flow principle was developed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and, amongst other things, looks as the border between boredom and anxiety. The idea being that when a task is perfectly pitched to our abilities – not too hard and not too easy – we become fully engaged in it. Games designers have been using this process for years building up these skill levels via game levels.

Toys, Play and Games

Much of what Saffer has to say about toys versus games is also really valuable and echoes what we were banging on about back in the 90s at Antirom. Toys are things without goals and rules in the way that games have them. There’s a lot to learn from toys because people simply pick them up and play with them, sometimes becoming quickly bored, but other times becoming absorbed and inventing games from that play. It’s a great way of getting people to explore and learn a new interface and it’s one of the things that Apple do very well.

Part of my ongoing PhD is about this very aspect of interactivity and uses OS X as an example. As Brenda Laurel argued way back in 1993 in Computers as Theatre, computers have grown from the paradigm of being a ‘tool’. Windows has always separated the ‘business’ side of computing from the gaming side and the OS itself (prior to Vista) has always had quite a utilitarian attitude. The Mac OS has always had a sense of humour and this leads to nosing around and playing and thus discovering its hidden secrets. That irritates those wanting to ‘just get the work done’ but it also emotionally engages people and is, I think, one of the reasons Mac fanboys (and girls) are so passionate about their emotional attachment to all things Apple.

Saffer breaks down the structure of games thus:

Mechanics create Dynamics which create Aesthetics

and argues that this is how most development works. The business or technical mechanics come first and then the aesthetics are bolted on top, when actually we should be thinking the other way around (or perhaps not thinking directionally at all):

we should really be designing like game designers do: you start from the opposite side of the equation. We should figure out the aesthetics–what should this feel like? what is the emotional response to this application?–and work backwards from there. What dynamics will create these feelings? And what mechanics will support that?

It’s one of the reasons the iPhone interface looks like it does and most other mobiles are a complete nightmare to navigate and configure

The point is that in a world where so many interfaces are competing for our attention those that fail to engage from the first contact (and this is usually an aesthetic, playful moment) fail entirely. Put simply, if someone can’t be bothered to play with your GUI all the technical wonders in the world behind it won’t ever get seen or used.

Cultural Play and Change

The main thrust of Saffer’s presentation is about web apps, of course. The last chapter of my PhD is about social play in this realm. A few months ago I wrote that StumbleUpon is the Antirom of the Web as an example. Social software is about play and discovery and ‘work’ or ‘business’ benefits are spin-offs from that, not the other way around.

I would go further than Saffer, though, an argue that it’s not just designers and developers who need to get playful with their design, but that corporate and company structures need to become more playful. In a presentation to Neue Digitale in Frankfurt last year I spoke about play and playfulness not only being useful design outcomes but also an essential design approach. But for this to happen the playfulness needs to be structured into the company workings not just bolted on in the same way as we argue that design should be integral to the entire process as it is in service design.

Much of this I’m going to be talking about next week in my session at Flash on the Beach in Brighton – if any of you are there, please come and say hello!

[tags]Dan Saffer, interactivity, play, design, flow, antirom, presentations[/tags]

StumbleUpon is the Antirom of the Web

Antirom - Misfits Toy

Or – In Praise of Randomness

Whilst thinking about writing a post in praise of randomness in interaction design, I realised that StumbleUpon is, in many ways, the Antirom CD-ROM of the Web. In many, many ways StumbleUpon is much better, but here is the parallel with the original Antirom CD-ROM:

(Read On for more… this is going be a longer post than usual)

Continue reading “StumbleUpon is the Antirom of the Web”

Another Antirom RGB performance

I was clearing out some old CDs and found a Videobrasil XII one with this Antirom RGB performace on it. I think Gisela may have shot the footage as there are also some interviews with us at the Antirom office (looking very young). But I’m not sure where this performance was and have no doubt violated someone’s copyright.

Sorry about the ultra-compressed low quality, it was a Cinepak, tiny QT movie and the framerate seems a bit broken too, but it gives you a good idea of the flavour and atmosphere of the performance all those years ago.

[UPDATE: I’ve re-compressed and re-uploaded the video above (and removed the old one). It’s still pretty rough, but the frame-rate is better.]

More Surface Information

Chris over at Pixelsumo just mailed me some more links to do with the background and technology behind the Microsoft Surface table. One is from Ars Technica and explores the technology more (much of which is available in the press download from Microsoft). The other from Popular Mechanics has some more demos of other systems, including Jeff Han’s who seems to be the poster boy for multi-touch at present (along with the iPhone).

There are also another couple from Abstract Machine and Fast Company too. The Abstract Machine one by Douglas Edric Stanley is great to put all this newness in perspective (that actually it’s all pretty old, it’s just hit the mainstream now. Almost).

The video of Jeff Han also has an interview with him and he talks about how the mouse is an ‘indirect pointing device’ that is one step removed from the content. This is something we talked about a lot at Antirom. At the time (and still, in much interactive content) there was a preponderance of interfaces that had buttons with labels like “Click here to view the video”. You clicked a real button on the mouse to make the mouse pointer click a fake button on the screen to make the video play, when actually you could just click on the video and/or move the mouse around to change the speed, etc. The image below is of an audio mixer, for example. You just drag the images which have sounds ‘attached’ to them (so when your mouse is closer to each one, it’s louder and the image is less blurred) rather than using a fake 3d mixing desk.

Antirom Soundspace Mixer

Much of our experimentation and invention – that led to thinks like the scrolling engine (Shockwave requried) – were based upon trying to strip back as many layers of interface as possible. In the end we wanted to directly manipulate the content so that the content was the interface and quite often the interactivity was the content. I’m looking forward to the first time I get to have a go on one of these multi-touch interfaces to see whether you really do have that experience.

Thanks Chris!

Interview with Andy Cameron

Andy Google Eyes Cameron

The ever-brilliant and plugged-in Regine Debatty from recently interviewed my previous lecturer and co-Antirommer, Andy Cameron, now head of interactive at Fabrica.

It makes an interesting read, though of course I’ve had this same conversation many, many times with Andy (and are we going to write that book some time Andy?). I still begrudgingly like the way he expresses many of his thoughts on interactivity and play, which not surprisingly align with my own work, writing and research:

I’m increasingly interested not so much in what play is, but in trying to work out what makes it good – what makes this toy, this game, this installation, better than others. Thinking of interaction design not in terms of novelty or innovation but rather looking at each piece critically, in terms of the values and meanings and pleasures it can offer us. Are there any great works of interactive art? Which are they? Why are they so good? These are the questions I’m interested in finding answers to at the moment.

Simple as they seem these are, indeed, the very hard questions. We both feel that the answer lies in understanding what makes things playful I suspect, but that’s a really tough question. As I recently wrote for the Game / Play exhibition we tend to know play when we see it, but have a hard time trying to define it and perhaps that is the charm of it and why it remains engaging.

Easi-Breathe Interactive Exhibit (1998)

Easi-Breathe Exhibit

Easi-Breathe Exhibit Easi-Breathe Exhibit

An interactive exhibit for Norton Healthcare housed at the Science Museum, London. The exhibit used capacitive sensors that work through glass and explored the advantages of a new kind of asthma inhaler, the Easi-Breathe, by making participants co-ordinate the pressing of different buttons simulating an asthma attack and using the inhaler. It was housed in the Technology Futures showcase for The Royal Academy of Engineering MacRobert Award.

RGB Performance (1996-1999)

RGB Performance

RGB Performance RGB Performance

A performance of interactive sound and vision toys with Antirom members, Nicolas Roope and Joe Stephenson. Using two to three computers, vision and audio mixers we combined live performance and interactivity to create a unique audio-visual experience. Several pieces involved physical interaction such as the pressure pads pictured here (I’m the bald blue guy). We performed this in several countries around the world.

Levi Strauss & Co. Kiosk (1995-1999)

Levi's Kiosk - Production Section

Levi's Kiosk - Street Section  Levi's Kiosk - Fits Section

Several iterations of an in-store kiosk for Levi Strauss and Co. Ltd were created over a period of four years. Each season (twice a year) a new set of interactive works would be made to a theme, this also included an interactive shop window.

All material was designed, shot and programmed by antirom. The kiosk included all of the product range, the current advertising campaign and, importantly, a section that contained a number of interactive toys developed by antirom.