Not jumping with joy

Excuse my crazed enthusiasm. It’s quite hard to explain. It’s not quite the same as being present at the signing of the Futurist Manifesto or trailing Duchamp round the Armoury show or even being in Chuck Moore’s office the week he helped invent Post-Modernism, amazing though they might have been. That sort of thing is to do with great moments in art history, movements, styles. This is more like standing in the dunes at Kitty Hawk when the Wright Bros’ motorised box kite comes sailing up over you, and you realise that a whole section of your world will never be the same again.

All this has been prompted by the multimedia phenomenon. In the glorious late Sixties multi-media involved luring friends and suspicious older people into complicated environments and subjecting them to a variety of media; movies, film, music, slides, live performance, all that stuff with maybe some dry ice, incense and weed thrown in.

The modern day equivalents, I guess, are those astounding rock shows designed for extremely rich jurassic rock groups such as the Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd, over-the-top light shows and – just possibly – the much-heralded Virtual Nightclub.

But less than a decade ago, somewhere in California’s Silicon Valley, the meaning of the word ‘multimedia’ was changed into something like cramming all the above – with the exception of a live performance – into the confines of a 14-inch diagonal, 3:4 format VDU colour screen. So a word that once indicated a session of active, participatory mind-bending pleasure, whose physicality was emphasised by the fact that it involved close contact between people who had just taken their clothes off, has turned one into representing a solitary, vice-like “interaction” where the physical side of the activity consists of manually manipulating a joystick, mouse or keyboard in response to certain visual and aural stimuli.

So, let’s have a close-up here on those words “solitary”, “manual”, “stimuli” and “joy” stick. Because I suspect that the poverty of most current multimedia has something to do with the fact that its designers are under the delusion that they are producing the old kind. They fail to understand that the output is not a miniaturised 14-inch two-dimensionalised simulacrum of the former and are not grasping that the real-life physical circumstances of the interaction are totally different.

What’s really exciting about all this is that nobody has more than a vague idea about what’s going on and how to get a handle on it. Everything about multimedia or screen graphics is up for grabs and the new discipline is crying out for some heavyweight conceptual thinking. How do you navigate your way through the material? How appropriate is the interaction between the world you create and that material? The nature of small-screen viewer perception needs to be addressed, as does the question of how you change frames of reference to accommodate the format ratio and the scale of the 14 to maybe 21-inch screen.

The tabula rasa answer to this is to start over from first principles. Even the early aeronautical engineers were playing around with the well-understood technology of the box kite – to such an extent that the only way they could think of steering was to warp the shape of their fabric wings.

The current multimedia belief in the necessity and primacy of metaphors for real-life activities is called into question by the fantastic, imaginary – and totally convincing – worlds that can be created by games designers. And anybody who thinks of the mouse as a strictly two-dimensional pointer has never used a Harry suite or that amazing PC desktop VR program Superscape.

There aren’t quite as many perceptual certainties as we like to think there are.

I had imagined that there might be something unexpected to be learned from the world of the movies and even television graphics. But I get the feeling that the received wisdom here is that the ‘small screen’ is precisely that – just a small version of the big screen in which you play the standard big-screen visual games.

I had thought that we were in for some excitement, but maybe what we’re really in for is a metaphorical re-run of the long tedious years between the Wrights’ noisily-engined box kites and the space shuttle.

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