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7th Floor Media has been thinking seriously about interactive digital media for culture and education for over 20 years. Here on our much less formal blog, staff discuss discoveries and issues that arise from the fascinating work they do. This is 7FM "outside the box," where ideas and opinions are set free.

You are invited - nay, encouraged - to participate in the conversation.

Is Flash out?

By Pamela Sevilla-Anderson on March 29th, 2010

With the coming launch of the new Adobe CS5, I searched for the next big thing in Flash CS5 and found a post in a funny blog by George Hahn, a professional Flash Designer. His first few paragraphs struck a cord. He writes about the demise of Flash on websites because of the non-Flash support on Apple’s iPhone, iTouch and iPad.

So is Flash out?

Being an iPhone user myself, I often get frustrated with all-flash sites that present a big blank spot in the middle of the page. Even though I am the Flash “person” in our office, I find myself agreeing with Mr. Hahn, as there are plenty of other ways to present a moving, Flash-like environment.

Here’s one example of a photo gallery with jQuery. JQuery is a javascript library that allows developers to add movement and added functionality easily to a page. Mobile users can see that extra magic and it downgrades nicely when done properly for non-javascript enabled browsers.

And, dust off that old video codec: Quicktime (mov). For developers, the conflict of trying to accommodate all browsers often gave us the arduous task of having to provide a choice of video formats such as Quicktime (mov) and Windows Media (wmv) or else risk alienating some of our audiences by only supporting one camp. When Flash started adding video support and with it’s mass adoption, the answer was easy. Coders could stick video on a site with Flash without worrying about what browsers people were using to view their site. Now, with the iPhone, iTouch and iPad, it seems like we are back to square one. Luckily, Apple owns Quicktime, so for clients looking to add video to their site, exporting video to mov is a no-brainer. And, rest assured, it will happily be supported on the Apple family of devices. Take a look at Quicktime Trailers on an iPhone or iTouch. It works beautifully.

And finally, when they can agree on which video codec to use as a standard, HTML5 video and audio tags could potentially wipe out Flash media players altogether.

Bottom line: I agree with the proponents Mr. Hahn writes about, Flash may be on it’s way out for delivering online content. And, not to mislead you, Mr. Hahn really wrote about how some sites really benefited from being entirely built on Flash. But, looking back on a few, I’m sure they could have done it in an entirely different way.

Kid’s Online: It’s not whether they’ll be there, but what they’ll be doing

By Julie Zilber on January 21st, 2010

A colleague recently forwarded me a link to an article in the NY Times entitled If Your Kids Are Awake, They’re Probably Online. The article reported on the results of a study conducted for the Kaiser Family Foundation on the amount of time American kids between the ages of 8 and 18 spend using some form of media (defined as TV content, music/audio, computers (including mobile devices), video games, print and movies).

The key finding of the study, as reported in the article, is that kids in this age group spend on average more than 7.5 hours per day with these devices and, because they’re often multi-tasking, this equates to an average of 11 hours of “media time” daily.

A couple of findings in the study will undoubtedly be pointed to by those individuals who believe that time spent watching television or videos, using computers, or playing video games has negative consequences for youth. The study identified a correlation between poor academic performance and heavy media use (47% of those who used media more than 16 hours per day averaged C’s or less compared to 23% who used media for no more than 3 hours daily). Furthermore, the NY Times article states, “The heaviest media users were also more likely than the lightest users to report that they were bored or sad, or that they got into trouble, did not get along well with their parents and were not happy at school.”

Gasp! I can hear it now: “Heavy media use causes poor academic performance and social and emotional problems,” says the Fox News commentator, ignoring what is, in my opinion, the most import line in the NY Times article:

“The study could not say whether the media use causes problems, or, rather, whether troubled youths turn to heavy media use.”

As I was reading the article, this need to distinguish between correlation and causation was nagging at me. Do these findings say something about the effects of media consumption, or – more likely – suggest that the kind of family that regulates media usage is probably highly involved and concerned in their kids’ lives? Let’s face it, in today’s society limiting your kid’s exposure to media to less than 3 hours per day requires active intervention on the part of parents and guardians.

More importantly, whether we like it or not, we’re not going to put the genie back in the bottle. I agree with the pediatrician at the Children’s Hospital Boston quoted in the NY Times article: with media use so ubiquitous, it was time to stop arguing over whether it was good or bad and accept it as part of children’s environment, “like the air they breathe, the water they drink and the food they eat.” The question is not whether kids should use media, but: given that kids will use media – how can we identify and support uses that will have a positive impact on their lives?

Proof that Christmas fails all usability standards

By Mo Goshinmon on December 11th, 2009

Or, Look out! This season has no “off” button.

After experiencing many Christmases while working in the field of usability, it is perhaps inevitable that I eventually developed the following theory:

If Christmas was a website, it would fail to meet most interface usability standards.

Oh sure, Christmas-as-a-website would look great on the surface. But right off the start there would be problems with integrity (who’s really behind this thing?) and overuse of flashy attract items.  There would be massive functional problems – for example, exiting the site would not be allowed. The user might try to escape by way of the throbbing and vibrantly coloured shopping cart, but this would actually be a bottomless pit powered by the barely legal spiral descent-to-hell algorithm.

Look out! This season has no "off" button.

Look out! This season has no "off" button.

When my theory met with guffaws at the office, I decided to  test it out, and this being a university environment I was encouraged to apply myself whole-heartedly to my research in the interest of establishing the facts.  So I took an hour or so and did just that.

METHOD:
Naturally, I  chose to employ the much respected set of 10 Usability Heuristics produced and promoted by usability guru Jakob Nielsen, along with a Christmas interface represented by a regular Canadian family of three (mother, father and child) who are purely fictional in fact while being painfully recognizable in spirit.  Then I made a chart. If a particular interface element satisfied the Neilsen heuristic, I gave it a pass. If it failed, I gave it a fail.

RESULT:
My theory was proved to be more than just “viable,” as the fancy university phrase goes – nay, it is at least 110 percent correct. Clearly illustrated by the chart below, the Christmas-as-a-website interface fails to respect standard usability principles on pretty much every single level there is.

IN CONCLUSION:
I wish you all a very merry Christmas, filled with Aunt Martha’s pies, exuberant activities and subsequent compensating behaviours, and joyful usability failures of all kinds to be remembered fondly for years to come.


The (not yet) internationally famous chart that proves

Christmas fails all usability standards

Heuristics

(by Jakob Nielsen, the famous usability guru)

Christmas interface elements

(includes regular family of three; Anne and Joe and their little daughter Milly, with special visits to Aunt Martha and Santa Claus)


Pass/Fail
1. Visibility of system status

The system should always keep users informed about what is going on, through appropriate feedback within reasonable time.

Anne: Should we bring something to Aunt Martha’s or not?

Joe: I don’t know. D’you think she got us anything?

Anne: I have no idea.

Joe: Maybe if we just bring a bottle of wine along or something…

Anne: But that’ll look so cheap.

Joe: You wanna talk cheap, isn’t that Christmas cake your mother gave us the same one we gave her last year?

FAIL
2. Match between system and the real world

The system should speak the users’ language, with words, phrases and concepts familiar to the user, rather than system-oriented terms. Follow real-world conventions, making information appear in a natural and logical order.

Anne: G’night sweetheart. Remember to listen for the sound of tiny reindeer feet on the roof tonight!

Milly: G’night Mommy. Why will there be reindeer on the roof?

Anne: These are special flying reindeer that carry thousands, no, millions, of tons of toys, and Santa – who’s no lightweight himself – in a special sleigh, dashing through the starry night sky, going from house to house where…

Milly: Really?

FAIL
3. User control and freedom

Users often choose system functions by mistake and will need a clearly marked “emergency exit” to leave the unwanted state without having to go through an extended dialogue. Support undo and redo.

Anne: Joe, what’s this VISA charge for a “Romantic Gift Basket?” I don’t recall opening anything like that…

Joe: Oh, um, that’s nothing. Just something I, um, returned to the store.

Anne: Returned to the store? Well, I don’t see a credit here.

Joe: Huh. That’s strange. Must be a mistake of some kind. Yeah, that’s it.

FAIL
4. Consistency and standards

Users should not have to wonder whether different words, situations, or actions mean the same thing. Follow platform conventions.

Milly: There’s a tag on this one!

Anne: That’s right, honey. It says, Love from Santa.

Milly: What about this one?

Anne: Love from Old St. Nick

Milly: And this one?

Anne: Love from Mommy and Daddy

FAIL
5. Error prevention

Even better than good error messages is a careful design which prevents a problem from occurring in the first place. Either eliminate error-prone conditions or check for them and present users with a confirmation option before they commit to the action.

Joe: I can’t eat another bite, Aunt Martha. Got to watch my figure, heh heh.

Aunt Martha: But what about dessert? I baked a pecan pie, because I know that’s your favorite.

Anne: Actually, Joe’s doctor told him he’d better cut back on the pie for awhile.

Joe: Ha, ha! Of course she didn’t mean it to apply to the holiday season, Anne. That would be crazy. Bring it on, Aunt Martha!

FAIL
6. Recognition rather than recall

Minimize the user’s memory load by making objects, actions, and options visible. The user should not have to remember information from one part of the dialogue to another. Instructions for use of the system should be visible or easily retrievable whenever appropriate.

Anne: It’s a… it’s a… Why, it’s a pair of earrings! Thank you Joe darling! But wait a minute. These aren’t earrings… they’re… buttons?!

Joe: Well, yeah, of course. Didn’t you keep saying you liked “small precious things”?

Anne: Yes, but I meant –

Joe: Well these are small.

Anne: So, what are you saying? It’s okay to remember “small” and forget “precious”? Is that what you’re saying, Joe?

FAIL
7. Flexibility and efficiency of use

Accelerators — unseen by the novice user — may often speed up the interaction for the expert user such that the system can cater to both inexperienced and experienced users. Allow users to tailor frequent actions.

Joe: Any more of those shortbread cookies?

Anne: What?! I baked fourteen sheets of cookies and there aren’t any left?!

Joe: They were great. Can you bake a few more?

Anne: But I still have the turkey and all the side dishes –

Joe: Just a couple of dozen would be fine. I don’t want you to spend hours slaving over them.

FAIL
8. Aesthetic and minimalist design

Dialogues should not contain information which is irrelevant or rarely needed. Every extra unit of information in a dialogue competes with the relevant units of information and diminishes their relative visibility.

Santa: And what do you want for Christmas, little girl?

Milly: I want a big, furry, blue… a big… I want a big bunny that’s a bear with a backpack like my friend Donny has but ‘cept I want a pink one with a crown like a elf princess from wonderland. And with money in it.

Santa: I see.

FAIL
9. Help users recognize, diagnose, and recover from errors

Error messages should be expressed in plain language (no codes), precisely indicate the problem, and constructively suggest a solution.

Joe: I can’t believe it. I can’t fit into these pants either. What’s going on? Are you running the dryer on Extra Hot?

Anne: You’re fat, Joe. I told you to quit it with the pie.

Joe: Geez, what am I gonna do?

Anne: Run naked through the snow, Joe. Maybe next time you’ll listen to your doctor’s advice.

FAIL
10. Help and documentation

Even though it is better if the system can be used without documentation, it may be necessary to provide help and documentation. Any such information should be easy to search, focused on the user’s task, list concrete steps to be carried out, and not be too large.

Joe: I really don’t understand your mother sometimes.

Milly: Me either.

Joe: That woman should come with an instruction manual.

Milly: What’s a ‘stuction annual, Daddy?

Joe: Never mind, Milly. Here, let’s get ourselves another bowl of that leftover trifle.

Milly: But Mommy said –

Joe: Mommy says all kinds of things. But where is it written that a man should go hungry at Christmas time?

Milly: I dunno, Daddy.

FAIL

The Disabled Guy on Granville Street

By Mo Goshinmon on December 4th, 2009

Or, how I was reminded that accessibility is more than just a set of W3C guidelines

Today I was walking down Granville Street when I saw this guy trying to cross the street.

The problem was, he had this giant corrugated plastic sign strapped to his front that read “DISABLED.”

He couldn’t see directly ahead of him because the sign was in the way.  He couldn’t hear because the sign was big enough to block all sounds in front of him. To get across the street he had to keep turning sideways to grab a quick look at what was ahead of him, then walk forward a few steps, then check again, and so on, like a giant windblown Alice in Wonderland playing card.

So what did I do? I ran after him and took pictures, of course.

The Disabled Guy on Granville Street

The Disabled Guy on Granville Street

That’s how I met the creative mind behind this semi-political, highly reflective, and very clever mobile work of art, AJ Ivings.  She explained to me that she, with co-creator Carmen Papalia, and living mobile sculpture Eiliott Lummin (the guy strapped to the sign) was out with her creation today to take pictures of people’s reactions. It’s all part of a project she’s doing toward a hoped for M.A. at the Emily Carr University of Art and Design.

So what made this whole encounter so cool for me?

1. It reminded me that accessibility standards are about real people

Lately I’ve been working to meet some stringent accessibility requirements for a website for the Canadian Heritage Interactive Network. These requirements have meant making some design modifications that sometimes seemed to mean jumping through hoops unnecessarily, especially since I’ve never met the disabled users who may access this site. However, just because I don’t see these users doesn’t mean they aren’t out there. Thank you, Disabled Guy.

2. It was a wonderful, poignant, elegant way to say something painful

It reminded everyone on that stretch of Granville Street of the desperate nature of the frustrations that are a part of the daily lives of disabled people, but it did so with humour and grace. Public art can be great that way.

3. I love living and working in a vibrant and creative city

This is a city where taking a walk at lunch can mean stumbling onto something unexpected, bravely executed, and deeply affecting. Yay, Vancouver!

4. There’s just something about a guy strapped to a sign

What I mean is, by the end of the encounter I wanted to hug the Disabled Guy for his symbolic strength in the face of adversity, his commitment to a project so bold and strange, and his compelling vulnerability. I was stopped by the barrier to accessibility he had strapped to his front. But I will always remember you, Disabled Guy.

Penguin Screen Time

By Mary Watt on November 17th, 2009

penguinMy six-year-old is taking a new class this year at school – Computer Lab – and he couldn’t be more excited. It may seem odd for someone who works in the business but until now he hasn’t had much access to screen time. We don’t watch TV and apart from occasional movies and Skyping with far-flung relatives he really hasn’t spent a lot of time in front of a computer. While the characters and games that dominate popular culture are very much a part of his play and interaction with his peers, until recently the exact details have been pretty much a product of his imagination. When he was three, for example, he was convinced that Spiderman was a shoe salesman, having experienced the web-slinger entirely through his merchandising. It’s very clear, however, that screens are going to be a big part of his future, and I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the best way to approach this.

When I think about the kind of experiences I want him to have in front of a computer screen I think about:

- An opportunity to be creative – to look behind the curtain, manipulate the environment, learn how to control what he sees and how it works, tell a story his way
- An engaging way to learn a useful skill or concept – there are some things (like sight words) that just have to be memorized, the more fun you can put into it, the better
- A perspective or experience that’s impossible to duplicate in real life – like venturing inside a cell, or flying low over the African savannah
- Some protection from the relentless marketing and merchandising directed at kids from diapers on up

We’ve been having good fun lately with a free open source application called Tux Paint (www.tuxpaint.org). With large, colourful icons, goofy sound effects and a large dose of whimsy it gives my son plenty of room to play. I love the ‘magic’ tools and rubber stamps and I’m constantly amazed at how deftly he draws with a big clunky tool like a mouse. He loves to print out his colourful creations and then incorporate them into other drawings and paintings.

tux_example_simple2

There’s a lot about the interface for this application that’s interesting from a design perspective too. All of the icons are large and have both images and text. Everything is big – arrows, icons, text – to accommodate users with little hands just figuring out how to use a mouse. The effects descriptions are all very kid-centred. ‘Toothpaste’, for example, is the way to describe a drawing tool that creates tubular images. ‘Real rainbows’ creates just that – realistic rainbows wherever you want them on the screen. A little penguin mascot (the symbol of Linux) pops up to cheer him on and give him more information whenever he seems stuck. Nothing un-undoable happens until you answer the question ‘Did you really want to x?’. The screen is optimized for a 640 x 480 resolution, ensuring that even the smallest, lowest end computer screen can display it nicely. The admin system is completely separate from the program, so that no settings can be changed while using it.

tux_example12

I haven’t tried this yet, but apparently Tux Paint runs well on small handheld computers as well. It probably won’t be long before we see an iTouch interface. It also comes in about twenty languages, from Chinese to Catalan.

All in all, I’m pretty happy with this one as a fun, creative, useful place for my kids to spend time. Anyone out there have some other favourites?

How To Say “GIF, PNG, SWF and FLA” Like a Pro

By Mo Goshinmon on November 10th, 2009

Correctly pronouncing that file extension can up your coolness factor

Illust_gifJifMost of the time the passing of electronic files back and forth in an office environment is a mute and satisfying enterprise; nobody speaks and the files flit blithely off to where they’re sent. But occasionally something goes wrong; the file doesn’t make it to its destination, say, or something about it isn’t right when it does. All of sudden you have to talk about it, using your actual voice and real words. You find yourself apologizing for – or maybe demanding an explanation for – a non-animating animated .gif, a washed out .png, or a non-looping .swf.  But when you do, will you be pronouncing it correctly? Or will you – as I did – wander around mispronouncing some file extensions the wrong way for years, all the while thinking you’re coming across as a professional, when really you’re the audio equivalent of the well-dressed woman with toilet paper stuck to her shoe?

GIF: Jif?! You’ve got to be kidding me.

It’s true. I hard-g’d the thing for years, but it isn’t gif-like-gift at all, it’s jif-like-gin or geez-that’s-a -surpise. But don’t take it from me, take it from the developers of the format, who surely should know. This is from documentation for version 8.33 of Compushow, a graphics display program developed by CompuServe:

The GIF (Graphics Interchange Format), pronounced “JIF”, was designed by CompuServe and the official specification released in June of 1987.

If you still don’t believe me – and I don’t blame you if you don’t – visit Steve Olsen’s The Gif Pronunciation Page, which has been faithfully serving a list of very persuasive arguments in support of “JIF” since 1988. That’s right: 1988! The whole “gif/jif” debate is probably the longest standing and most passionate of all file extension pronunciation debates, and it still gets people all riled up.

People like me, for instance. Because although I’d like to honour the developer’s chosen pronunciation, I’ve discovered that I can’t.  I tried to say it, but alarm bells rang in my head and my tongue became paralyzed. Maybe pronouncing it “gif” for 20 years has done irreversible damage. Or maybe I still think “jif” sounds too much like a brand of peanut butter. Either way, no matter what’s right or wrong in this case, I’m afraid I’m going with “gif.”

PNG: It’s PING, not pee-en-gee.

The developers of the .png format, in their format specification documentation, declare fitfully but clearly:

“PNG” is always spelled “PNG” (or “Portable Network Graphics”) and always pronounced “ping” in English, not “pinj” or “pee en gee” or any other multi-syllabic disaster. (For non-English speakers, the three-letter pronunciation is fine, however.)

Steve Olsen mentions this one on his Gif Pronunciation Page too, which is generous of him even if it does make him seem a bit of a rule monger.

I’m pleased to say that I got this one right, having always pronounced it “ping,” no matter how many eyebrows were raised around the office when I did so.  Unfortunately, I don’t employ this format so often that I can shout “ping” with the gusto it deserves anytime soon. But when the time arrives, I will be ready.

SWF and FLA: Adobe’s little oddballs

My line of work includes doing a bit of animation now and then, and I usually do this in a program of Adobe’s called Flash. Flash files that include all the source materials have the extension .fla; the compiled versions of these files have the extension .swf.

Now me, I’ve always called them “flah” and “swiff” files respectively, as in “Do you need the flah or the swiff, esteemed co-worker?”  (For some reason these terms don’t raise eyebrows around the office the way “ping” can, but this may simply be because my co-workers were just tired and not into playing word games that day.) So was I right?

Yes. “Swiff” for .swf is correct, according to the first sentence in the SWF File Format Specification documentation. that states:

The SWF file format (pronounced “swiff”) delivers vector graphics, text, video, and sound over the Internet and is supported by Adobe Flash Player software.

But what about “flah” for .fla? I couldn’t find anything as reliable as a statement out of a Format Spec Doc to help figure this one out. Nowhere could I find a written guide to indicate how to pronounce this particular file extenstion. To make matters worse there are those, like Lead Flash Developer Mark Grossnickle, who insist – based on nothing but a gut feeling, so far as I can tell – that “FLA is pronounced ‘EF-EL-AYE’ (NOT Flauh!!!)

Finally I stumbled onto an Adobe expert – Flash Engineering Manager Jeff Alquist, who says “flah” out loud about fifty times in his nifty Adobe TV presentation “XML Based FLA: The New Flash File Format.” Thank you, Mr. Alquist, for making it absolutely clear, in myriad contexts, that .fla is pronounced “flah.”  And sorry Mr. Grossnickle, but this time it’s you with toilet-paper-shoe.

O yeah, and FLV

Might as well address one more common Flash file format while we’re at it, and that would be .flv, which is used for Flash video files. You might think, given that .swf is “swiff” and .fla is “flah,” that .flv would naturally become “fliv” or maybe the more whimsical “fluv”… But no. I was unable to find any reference to support any pronunciations other than “eff-el-vee.” Curiously, I’ve never had cause to say this one aloud, although I have heard my co-workers use it and am happy to report that, whether by gut instinct or happy accident, they always get it right.

And all the other file extensions

Of course, that’s only five out of about a billion file extensions, and your problem might not be with these particular ones.

Here on SearchServerVirtualization.com they offer a list of tech terms with audio files so you can hear for yourself how to pronounce them. The list is a bit outdated (didn’t have SWF or FLA or FLV, for instance) and it includes more than just file extensions but it’s worth a quick review.

So will this really up your coolness factor?

Well, much depends on the milieu in which you work, and the passion you bring to the challenge of getting-things-right in general.  To me, anyone who takes the time to figure out right from wrong is cool. So yeah, this will up your coolness factor, for sure.

So just to re-cap – here’s the way to say “GIF, PNG, SWF,FLA,FLV” like a pro:
(drum roll; clearing of throat)

jiff-ping-swiff-flah-eff-el-vee!

Booyah!

Why is there no definition for “takeaway”?

By Julie Zilber on November 5th, 2009

JulieZIn conceptualizing content –rich web sites, interactive exhibits, mobile learning applications and other digital interactive media, a key question we always need to answer is: What is the takeaway? In other words, if a user only takes away one idea or concept from this interaction, what should it be? We know it’s critical to clearly define takeaways. Lovely as it is to imagine that users will spend extended periods of time exploring our content in depth, the reality is that most users will touchdown briefly on a web site, or pause for a short time at an interactive exhibit in a museum setting. In a world of “continuous partial attention”, where users are bombarded with a constant stream of distractions and are continuously paying “partial attention in an effort NOT TO MISS ANYTHING” (Linda Stone), it is essential that we focus on our key message and communicate that message clearly and powerfully. That message, the one idea or concept or impulse that the user will take away from his or her interaction with what we have created, is the takeaway.

Now I know this is not a unique use of the term. If I do a Google search on the term “takeaways” (or “take-aways”), I’ll get a list of results like this:

Takeaways

Obviously these folks are using “takeaway” in the sense I am: the important concept or idea that sticks with you from a presentation, event, publication or experience. Yet when I search online – (for example at dictionary.com, thefreedictionary.com, wordnet, answers.com, Wikipedia, etc.) – this usage is no-where to be found. What gives? And given that there doesn’t seem to be an established definition for this usage, how about this one:

Takeaway ( n. ) (also, Take-away): the key concept, idea or message that an individual retains following an experience.

Touching Alberta

By Mary Watt on October 21st, 2009

A few weeks ago I flew to Calgary for the launch of the Bow Habitat Centre , a new natural science centre at the Sam Livingston Fish Hatchery on the Bow River. The setting is beautiful – surrounded by trees and wetlands, teeming with migratory birds and other small creatures. The Centre is built right into the hatchery so that visitors can walk past tanks of hatchlings while learning about the natural history of lakes and rivers in Alberta.

One of the centerpieces of the ten interactive touchscreen exhibits we created for them is the multitouch map of Alberta, one of the first of its kind in Canada. Projected from the ceiling onto a plexiglas surface cut into the shape of the province, the map is an introduction to water usage in the province, including Agriculture, Nature, People and Industry. Visitors move around and resize images, play video and explore the province, all at the same time and all with the touch of their fingers. It’s a bit like looking at a giant iPod touchscreen. The kids loved it and many of the adults had to be dragged away as well. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an interactive exhibit that was such a draw for both adults and kids simultaneously.

kids_at_table

It was very experimental when we first talked about it two years ago and there were a lot of unknowns about how it would work and what the strengths and weaknesses of the projection and touch detection technology would allow us to do. We worked with a new company in Helsinki, Multi Touch Oy with an innovative multitouch interface that was unique in the field.

Here are a few things we learned along the way:

Resolution:

Projected from the ceiling, the resolution was quite low, compared to a traditional touchscreen. Text had to be minimal and, before we added a drop shadow, was difficult to read. Video and images, on the other hand, look great, even after resizing and moving around. Simple background graphics help to keep the focus on the content.

long_view

Capacity:

There’s a limited amount of video that one computer can handle simultaneously, so we couldn’t use as much as we’d planned to initially. The video that we did use looks amazing, playing without a hitch even while resizing and moving around the screen. Very cool.

point_table

Projection:

The building, which was built on an aquifer next to the Bow River, shifted after the hatchery tanks in the basement were filled with water, resulting in some changes to the projector alignment. We were able to compensate for some of that by changing some of the calibration but in the end, the only thing that would line it up perfectly would be unbolting the table from the floor and moving it. Since the tanks are emptied and cleaned regularly (resulting in more shifting) this might be an ongoing issue. Also, the two images of the map projected on the table do not match up perfectly – there’s some distortion in the centre of the screen. Three projectors rather than two might make for a better match. When using multiple projectors, background images without obvious connections running through them (like rivers, for example) might be easier to work with. The irregular border of the province along the Rockies makes for an irregular projection surface – at that end of the table the shadows of people leaning over the table are more noticeable.

table1

All in all, however the ‘wow’ factor for this exhibit far outweighed the technical constraints. The multitouch table really captured the imagination of visitors and met its goal of introducing water use in Alberta in an engaging, creative way. The client was very happy with the results.

I’m really looking forward to working with some of the new multitouch technology coming our way that will allow us to push the envelope even further. But that’s a topic for another blog entry…

The Author-iPod Touch Interface is Nowhere, Yet

By Mo Goshinmon on October 20th, 2009

Why isn’t there a standard keyboard I can attach to my iPod Touch?

Sometimes I write fiction. It’s one of the things I enjoy doing. When I got my iPod Touch, I thought, Great, now I can write anywhere, anytime without lugging a laptop around. But so far, that hasn’t happened.

For now, I use my pointer finger and I keep it brief.  I’ve seen other people use their middle fingers, little fingers or even their knuckles. But the efficient people – the ones who look like they’re really going places in terms of entering text on their iPod Touch – use their thumbs, both at once, swishing them over the tiny keyboard at ninja speed. I’ll bet my iPod Touch wishes I was one of those people, but by now my iPod Touch knows very well that I am not.

Biological adaption for rapid text entry

Biological adaption for rapid text entry on mobile devices.

Thumbers say it just takes practice, but when I see that miniscule keyboard, no bigger than a business card, I find myself asking: Is it worth it? Am I willing to put in the time – a  lot of time – re-wiring my brain so I can do the work normally assigned to all ten fingers with only my thumbs? (That’s kind of like telling me that because I can drive a car I should be able to make myself comfortable riding a unicycle for Cirque du Soleil.) I have a full-time job, for heaven’s sake. And what if, in the attempt to assume this new skill, it turns out that I’ve compromised my typing speed on a standard QWERTY keyboard?

The problem is, while I feel the need to enter text more efficiently on the iPod Touch, I just can’t get excited about entering text with my thumbs. Something is holding me back. Actually, now that I think about it, lots of things are holding me back. Consider the following:

1. Time wasted is gone forever

Remember text messaging on early cell phones using the numeric keypad and hitting a number three times to get the letter “l”? Lots of people got very good at this. Fortunately, I was never any good at it and didn’t bother practicing long enough to re-wire my brain to accommodate what is now a completely useless skill. Most cell phones meant for text messaging now come with little QWERTY keyboards,  like the Blackberry. But…

2. QWERTY isn’t a real word, you know

The QWERTY keyboard was created to maximize text entry using all ten fingers, but right from the start the QWERTY was controversial. There are other options, like the  ABC keyboard, or FrogPad, the one-handed keyboard. And if we’re going with just thumbs, maybe its time for a thumb-based keyboard. Or maybe we should just do the right thing and…

3. Let people plug their iPod Touches into regular QWERTY keyboards

What I’d really like to see is an affordable, smartly designed add-on standard keyboard interface for the iPod Touch/iPhone, but I can’t find one anywhere. Back in the day, I recall using an infrared keyboard with a PDA, and while it wasn’t ideal I was still grateful to be able to leverage my existing typing skill when it came to writing anything longer than a password. Plenty of people seem to want this to happen, but nothing is out there yet. A Bluetooth keyboard – the BTKeyMini,  was rumoured to be available for the iPhone as long ago as March of 2008. But for some reason it is not yet available anywhere. So what’s up with that?

4. Twinging is not my problem

Interestingly, one of the reasons people choose a Blackberry over an iPhone is the need to feel a “solid” keyboard button under their fingers. A third party vendor has provided the iPod Touch/iPhone consumer with a remedy should this be their complaint. It’s called the iTwinge. But this still does nothing to address the fact that the keyboard remains too small to be truly useful for longer text entry, which I feel I should be able to do on my iPod Touch.

C’mon Steve Jobs!  I want to write my novel wherever I happen to be – outside Starbucks, on the seabus, or over the rainbow. You have the power. Please make it so.

Peeking into Hitler’s Olympics

By Dennis Smith on October 19th, 2009

dennis_150I’ve been doing research about the 1936 Olympics and how the Nazis orchestrated them to push their racist ideology. The results are in two touch screen interactivities at the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre, part of their “More Than Just Games” exhibit.

It’s a regular part of my job as Creative Director at 7FM to research unfamiliar content areas, and I usually have an interesting time discovering peculiar stuff that is out of my usual sphere of reference. For example, I recently learned quite a lot about Alberta fish species in connection with interactivities we created for the Bow Habitat Station in Calgary. When an animator asks what species of fish would appear in a drying coulee, I’m supposed to know — or find out pretty quickly.

The Olympics research involved learning about Canadian and German athletes whose lives were affected by the Nazi Olympics. A few Canadians decided to boycott the games to protest Nazi anti-Semitism. Welterweight boxer Sammy Luftspring was outspoken about his decision, although he also wished the best for the participating Canadian athletes. He and some other Canadians opted to compete in the “alternative” Olympics, to be held in Barcelona — a stew of anarchist, unionist, and leftist politics in the heady days of the Spanish Republic. Luftspring and his comrades landed in France just as the Spanish Civil War erupted in Barcelona. The games were cancelled.

The really heartbreaking stories are of the German Jewish and other “non-Aryan” athletes. There was a lot of international pressure for Hitler to play by the Olympic rules, so he used prominent Jewish athletes as pawns. Gretel Bergmann, a high jumping star, was forced out of exile in Britain by threats to her family, then dropped from the German team as soon as the US Olympic team embarked from New York. She had served her propaganda purpose. The Jewish hockey star Rudi Ball did play on the German team, but only after he extracted a promise that his family could leave Nazi Germany.

Maybe the most remarkable story of Nazi ruthlessness I encountered was Johann Trollmann’s. He was a light-heavyweight boxer with a remarkably modern style — light on his feet, fast and powerful in a way that Sugar Ray Robinson and Muhammed Ali would make popular decades later. Trollmann was also Sinti, — a German-speaking “Gypsy” and, therefore, a member of an “inferior race.” He fought for the title, and when it was obvious that he was defeating his slow-footed “Aryan” opponent, Nazi officials ordered the referee to declare the fight a draw. The crowd roared its disapproval and the embarrassed (and probably frightened) referee awarded the victory to Trollmann. The Nazis rescinded the title a week later.

But they weren’t through with Trollmann. They said that unless he adopted a more “manly” style, he would be disqualified from all matches. In protest, he appeared at his next bout with his dark hair bleached blond and his body covered in flour, a caricature of an “Aryan” fighter. For four rounds, he stood stock-still in the ring as his opponent pelted him. He fell in the fifth round. Trollmann was drafted into the army, sent to the Eastern Front, wounded, then sent to a concentration camp. For their amusement, SS guards would force Trollmann to fight them, one after another. When they finally had had enough fun out of him, they shot him.

Most of the research I do is not as heart-wrenching. I’m pretty well versed in bathroom water consumption these days.