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Peter TorpeyMedia Experience Artist

Continuum for Interactivity

Published by Peter Torpey on
06 May 2003

A Continuum for Interactivity:
Control in Emerging Media

Computer technology was created to serve as a tool in computational tasks. While computers continue to aid humans in accomplishing many activities, their technological scope has since grown to encompass other needs, namely entertainment. Emerging virtual reality technologies employ the computer's ability to perform functional and artistic entertainment operations in real time. As Brenda Laurel cites Marshall McLuhan's notion of antienvironments, virtual reality technology provides a forum for critical analysis of the roles of media and tool. A continuum, proposed as follows, can be drawn from functional applications to artistic works that can characterize a medium in terms of how it is used and to the degree that it is interactive. This continuum model aids in the understanding of issues of control and freedom with respect to society, entertainment media, art, and computer-human interaction.

At one end of the model, we find traditional media such as film. The consumers of such media are often called viewers suggesting a passive role. Indeed, in film, the viewer has little control over the progress and presentation of the narrative, resulting in a highly non-interactive experience. A viewer is encouraged to absorb the story as it unfolds on the screen in a temporally bound linear format. Control of the story and sensory experience is maintained solely by the creators, and then only until the production is complete.

Moving toward the other extreme of the continuum, television viewers are offered slightly more control over their experience. Stories are often episodic, so the experience is not bound by chronology, varying with viewership and syndication of programs. The viewer has the ability to choose which episodes will be viewed. At any time, the viewer can change the channel or turn off the television set, a luxury not offered in cinema.

Literature is reasonably interactive in that the inflection of dialog and visualization of the plot is carried out entirely by the reader. As with television, the reader can choose to stop reading at any point. He or she is also afforded another new degree of control by being able to segment the experience of the narrative at any time by beginning, stopping, and resuming reading at any time. Home video technologies have given this same aspect of control to viewers of television and film.

Video games enter in to the continuum as user control increases. The consumers of this medium are called players, denoting a more active role than viewers and readers. Traditionally, video games have a linear structure, as well. Players move through a space completing certain tasks in order to proceed. The exact details of each task may have varying degrees of freedom. Older video games enforced the temporal linearity by actually moving the player's avatar through space and time simultaneously. The player has no means of control with which to navigate space or time. Later generation video games of this type provide increased freedom in space, uncoupling space from time.

Thus far in the continuum, the user has had no control over the actual narrative. In a puzzle game, such as a jigsaw puzzle or certain video and computer games, the user can accomplish tasks in numerous ways and in many possible orderings. This allows the user to control the actions that lead up to the goal. The narrative now has a tree structure with all possible actions and sequences converging on a common objective. Players have control over the process leading up to the outcome, but not the outcome, itself. The web art project Unawakened fits into this category. The user is encouraged to decipher the interface and appropriately navigate through the site. Since several paths through the project loop back on themselves, many sequences and branches can be taken. However, an appropriate sequence of followed corridors leads to a common outcome. The inverse of this converging structure is a branching narrative in which the user makes choices at certain junctures and may arrive at distinct outcomes. This is the type of structure associated with the notion of interactive films. While the genre of interactive film is still young, one established example of a branching narrative is the Choose Your Own Adventure series of books.

Next, nonlinear structures fragment the story such that the narrative, if any, has no temporal context. A nonlinear experience, as in most websites, exists without an essential beginning or end. The user is free to consume any number of segments in any order. Nevertheless, there are still a countable number of possible experiences. Each segment is defined by the author and the user has no control over the experience of a segment. The web art project Virtual vs. Reality has a nonlinear structure. There is no restrictions placed on the user as he or she has sufficient control to view all of the media and collages in any sequence. The experience is not objectively determined by the user-defined sequence.

On the continuum, we are approaching media with infinite variability. This set of experiences gives the user such a high degree of control that it is unlikely that any two experiences will be identical. Many virtual reality projects would fall into this category, such as Rebecca Allen's Bush Soul and Char Davies's Osmose and Ephémère. In such works, the user's experience the focus, superseding any narrative that could be applied. The experience is defined by the user's ability to navigate a virtual or conceptual space, given large degrees of interactive control. The user can affect the space or objects it contains as part a result of this control. However, the control is somewhat illusory in that it is the computer that maintains the logic that interprets the user's interaction. The author or artist creates this logic to enforce the bounding parameters of a desired experience, which embodies message of the artwork. The highly active role of the user, in conjunction with the system defined by the artist, produces a co-created experience. As such, the user of the system is often referred to as participant, a title that suggests a voluntary combined authorship or the artwork.

Nearly infinite variability can be found in other interactive experiences. Simulation games such as Sim City and The Sims give the user control enough to create an environment or run the life of a person having the ability to make vast permutations of choices. Still, the behavior of the creation is governed by the mathematical models intrinsic to the program. General purpose computing environments and applications exhibit nearly infinite variability. They provide tools, often in metaphor, for accomplishing general tasks such as word processing or drawing. The resulting document or image is not defined offering the user a great deal of control. On a smaller scale, the four o'clock group project allows for nearly infinite variability. A mosaic image is formed by the sequence in which the user views videos on the webpage. The permutations of the sequences of twelve videos result in an enormous number of possible twelve-tile mosaic images. The user may perceive that he or she has control over the final image, yet the logic that affords the user this control is intrinsic in the program, as defined by the creators. In this example, the complexity of the freedom is limited and a user can eventually learn the algorithm used to place tiles, allowing him or her to deliberately create any image possible within the system.

We have seen that new media forms and computing technology has the potential to provide the user with an increasingly greater degree of control. As interactivity increases, the narrative structure denatures. The amount of predefined information that can be encoded in a medium, the message intended by the artist or creator, is directly proportional to the extent in which the medium is narrative. A film or book, at one end of the continuum, can have a moral or critical message explicitly encoded by its author. At the other end, virtual reality artists rely on the user's subjective phenomenology of a virtual environment to create meaning. No goals or expectations are outlined for an experience with nearly infinite variability.

Additionally, methods of control that must be employed by the user grow in complexity. The limited control of older video games is reflected by a single action button on an Atari joystick, for example. General-purpose computers, at the other extreme have several input devices each capable of initiating many actions. A standard U.S. computer keyboard has 110 buttons over which hundreds of additional application specific actions can be multiplexed. Every degree of freedom afforded to the user must be given some sort of control, requiring more interaction from the user to accomplish a task. For example, a complex avatar in a virtual space, such as a user in the Corridor virtual file system presented in the film Disclosure must carry the actions of locating a file drawer, opening the drawer, and removing a document. This is a result of the control the user has to move through space and act on objects within that space. An environment, such as Unix, that does not offer spatial control and the nuances of moving the appendages of an avatar, is significantly more limited, yet a single command can display the contents of a document. As control increases, so too does the complexity of the interactions required to perform a task.

In the case of simulation games, particularly The Sims, users have a large amount of control over the functioning of the avatar within the system. Additionally, due to the nearly infinite variability, there exists no ultimate goal in the game. Overall, the experience closely imitates the machinations of a real life. The labor involved in maintaining a virtual life in addition to a real life seems as though it would be an unappealing pastime. This is especially apparent when compared with a passive medium, such as film or television, which can clearly serve an escapist role. The appeal of enhanced interactivity is the control itself. Humans may be inclined to enjoy passive forms of entertainment. However, the drive to gain control is a strong survival response. Thus, pleasure can be derived from manipulating an avatar, solving a puzzle, or exploring a space as such activities, despite any degree of complexity, empower the user.

The dialectic to the desire to control is the fear of being controlled. Human nature suggests that we are not found of operating in limiting situations, such as existing in a confined space or working under the demanding fist of a power-hungry employer. These fears of control are often transposed onto computing technology, particularly virtual reality technologies. The user is not satisfied with limited control. Knowing that the computer bears the logic and constraints of a system threatens the user's belief in freedom of interaction. The metaphors of computing server to reinforce analogies between human cognition and the behavior of computers resulting in an anthropomorphized view of a computer. Such pathetic fallacy facilitates the notion of computers threatening human control and self-determination, leading to antagonistic depictions of computers in film. Computers can be viewed to torment a user, as in Tron and 2001: A Space Odyssey, and as a tool gone bad in Total Recall. The invasive combination of human intellect and computers' logical powers is portrayed as destructive in Lawnmower Man and as addictive in Strange Days. Fears of computers evolving an intelligence superior to that of humans are revealed in The Matrix, where computers enslave the physical bodies of humans while pacifying their minds with delusions of a reality.

In no example in the continuum did the user possess complete control. Control is offered by the designers of a system which leaves the control spread, to varying degrees, in the user domain, the system logic, and the creator of the work. The spread varies based upon the medium. Interpersonal communications is becoming more and more frequently mediated by computer technologies. In doing so, various communications, art, and entertainment media as outlined in the continuum model affect the way in which we interact with the technology itself, as well as others. Concern as to what extent control should be afforded to a user in order to allow flexibility and efficient interactions can be investigated using an antienvironment. Virtual reality and new media technologies create an antienvironment that allow for critical analysis and classifications, such as the continuum model proposed above.