Archive for the ‘ Producing interactive media ’ Category

Stand back and watch the iPad war play out

Photo illustration by Brook R. Corwin. Original photo licensed by Creative Commons for commercial use with modification

The iPad hits stores today, and in making the choice to buy one, you’re not just picking out a product.

You’re picking a side.

The $500-$800 tablet computer is perhaps the most polarizing device to hit the communications industry in the past decade. It has spawned both adoration and disgust among veteran tech writers. Journalists are having a field day speculating on how it might redefine the industry, with views highly mixed. Web content developers have either cried fair or foul with the iPad’s inability to run Flash, depending on what they think of the software program that runs the vast majority of animated and multimedia content on the Internet.

(Full disclosure: most of the websites I design, including my portfolio site, have heavy Flash components. So it’s hard for me to get too excited about a product that, if successful, would force me to redesign my work or pay money to another company to convert for an iPad audience)

But these are debates for tech heads and newsies. How will mainstream consumers pick their side? It won’t come down to whether it helps the journalism industry. It certainly won’t come down to love/hate of Flash.

Design and functionality will play a huge role. If society is ready to abandon the click culture that has conditioned our computer use for decades, then the iPad’s slick use of touchscreen will forever change how we access and share information. The iPad will never replace a mobile phone (it’s simply too big to take everywhere) but it could replace a laptop.

That gets us to the big question, a cultural query that ultimately decides whether the iPad redefines all media or fails miserably. How exactly do people want to use the web? Are they looking for an open-ended, creative experience without expectations? Or do they want a simplified, controlled environment streamlined to their established tastes?

Those falling in the first category will be frustrated by the iPad’s limitations. It runs only one application at a time, can’t handle complex software and doesn’t even have a U.S.B port. Applications must be purchased from the Apple app store to make the device useful. In short, it’s pretty lousy for those who want to build their own content, ironic since the initial appeal of Mac computers was all the built-in software that let you start creating right out of the box.

An iPad dominated world also severely restricts the audience for amateur content. Applications must be approved by Apple. The company’s rejection of Flash, one of the world’s most popular software tools, shows just how far it can flex its muscle to restrict what gets seen on its devices. Is this the next generation of the AOL model, which relies on herding consumers to partner websites rather than the web’s wild frontiers?

Then again, maybe this is just what the general public is looking for after a decade of exhaustion trying to navigate the web’s limitless choices. If all you want out of your computer is the ability to send email, share photos and get information online, then the iPad makes life easier. Its company-approved apps will tailor web content to meet your daily needs. Information will be personalized to the extent that you’ll never feel the need to wander. And how many people really need to use a built-in webcam anyway?

I can’t predict which camp attracts the majority of consumers. But the iPad will do a wonderful job of sorting, and from there we can start tailoring our communications strategies to fit the revamped model of Internet consumption. Hedge your bets and stay neutral for now. We’ll know soon enough which side wins out, and how they’ll rule the new era.


Flash vs. Dreamweaver: let the debate begin

At the start of my iMedia graduate program, web design was introduced via the sole conduit of Adobe Dreamweaver, the highly detailed but somewhat clunky (at least to the uninitiated) industry standard for building websites.

As those of us new to the task stumbled through mismanaged div tags, misplaced folders and just general mishaps, the web designer veterans promised something better was one the way. Something called Flash.

Three months later, Flash is here in all its smooth, dynamic and easy-to-grasp glory. Sure, some of its intricacies can be tricky, but you won’t gum up the whole project because you misnamed a file or tagged the wrong item back in the beginning. Everything is stored in a single document, compared to the mess of folders and assets that must be properly tracked through Dreamweaver.

Put it this way. It took me several days to create this somewhat flawed site in Dreamweaver. But it took just a night to create some satisfying pieces in Flash like this festival promotional piece, these web banners or this slideshow.

So the verdict is in right? Dreamweaver is relegated to hard drive exile in favor of its hipper cousin in the Adobe Creative Suite.

Not really. Rather than embrace Flash, my program is doubling back to Dreamweaver, with a reboot of lessons on the program’s detailed interface in my two production classes. It’s become apparent that for all of Flash’s pizzaz, it does a poor job at presenting large quantities of information. And sometimes its fancy graphics aren’t needed as much as a more clean-cut organization of content.

Learning more about Dreamweaver is a good thing, because in my three theory classes I’ve got at least four major website projects on the horizon. In interactive media, it’s not enough to simply write a report on a topic, you’ve got to visually demonstrate your research online.

For each project, I’ll have to make the choice of Flash or Dreamweaver as my program of choice. It’s a good debate to start having now, because companies and organizations are constantly evaluating which of the many software tools best gets their message across.

In the book Groundswell (a bible of sorts for the theory component of this program), one of the key warnings is not to employ technology just for the sake of using it. Even great software or fantastic social media platform falls flat if its function doesn’t fit with the strategy at hand (assuming you even have a strategy to begin with).

So as I get more proficient in both Flash and Dreamweaver through the next couple of months I’ll be taking notes not just on how to make the software work, but also what kinds of projects each is best suited for. By semester’s end, I expect every one of my web projects to have a little bit of both.

Seeing death in dots

nyt-homicideStep into the whirlwind pace of New York City, which I do once or twice annually to visit family, and for every recommendation of where to go see you’ll be implored to avoid a different location at all costs once the sun goes down.

The warnings are understandable, given that there are an average of 540 homicides a year in the city and tourists make easy targets for muggings. But are the warnings of where is and isn’t safe based on sound logic, or just urban myths?

This interactive piece by the New York Times helps clear up the debate, while at the same time drawing attention to crimes that too often get buried in the newspapers. It’s a an easy-to-navigate map identifying the locations of every murder during the past 6 years, with additional sorting information available with a click or two. Once you get past the initial shock of seeing the degree of violence in certain sections of the city (parts of Brooklyn are brutal) and dispel myths that whites or women are most frequently targeted, it’s easy to pinpoint the dangers of the places a tourist could realistically end up.

Which brings us to those urban myths. Chief among the warnings that ring out to New York travelers is not to walk in Central Park at night. They never stopped me. A walk in the park (which is well-lit) after the sun goes down is among the few ways to escape the bustle and enjoy some quiet introspection looking out over the city lights. Have I been tempting danger?

Not really. As the map shows, even the most touristy parts of midtown Manhattan have served as the place some have met a violent end (check out those homicides near Times Square) but inside Central Park there hasn’t been a single murder during the past six years. Forget dangerous. You could argue it’s the safest place to be.

On the other hand, the map provides evidence for the other big tourist warning — not to fall asleep on the subway. The danger here isn’t that you’ll be killed in your sleep, it’s that you’ll wake up in Coney Island, the last stop for four different subway lines. There is indeed a cluster of murders to be found here, as there also is on other end-of-the-line stops in the Bronx and Brooklyn.

So the city isn’t perfectly safe, but at least interactive pieces like this help us identify the danger zones on fact and not rumor. As I’ve written before, virtual maps have lots of great uses (blog 10,000 words has numerous examples) and this is one that could come in handy for any city hoping to lure visitors or new residents. It’s delusional to think any city is perfectly safe, but it’s empowering to know via interactive media exactly which locations hold the least danger.

How maps survived the threat of GPS and even became cool again

The extroverted children played with action figures. The introverted ones sketched pictures.

I was a weird hybrid of the two archetypes. I charted maps of the neighborhood.

Now I might get to revisit that outlet of youthful imagination.

Just when it seemed that maps were dying a slow death at the hands of GPS systems, interactive media has opened up a limitless range of new possibilities to put visual representations of streets and terrain to practical use. These are uses that go beyond what Mapquest offers or even the voyeuristic appeals of Google Streetview and Google Earth. Now both the content and the design of each map can meet the unique navigational needs of each user. They can also help spotlight a particular subject and function as the perfect establishing shot to orientate audiences to a new interactive world.

Take North Carolina wine, a product that figuratively speaking really has struggled to get on the map against better known European and Californian competitors. Dozens of new wineries have popped up across the state in recent years, but they’re usually in remote areas and hard to discover navigating with traditional maps alone. Enter the North Carolina Wine and Grape Council, which put together this interactive map that makes it easy to plot out your own wine trail and compile info on each stop along the way. It cuts out all the clutter and simplifies the interface around the target objective — getting visitors to explore multiple wineries no matter where they live.

On a much more advanced level, the Los Angeles Conservancy is also using an interactive map to build awareness of the city’s historical attractions. It simplifies what is usually a crowded-looking metropolis on any map into an organized set of info that invites users to plan their own trips and see the city as a living museum. You can scratch the surface, go into details or use it to figure out which sites to see in person. In this map, they no longer have to compete for attention with L.A’s plethora of distractions, making it both a navigational tool and a promotional spotlight.

On the news side, check out this interactive map on the potential consequences of global warming. You can see what parts of the world will be underwater if the oceans rise by various amounts. At 1 meter, my brother in Wilmington is still safe. Beyond that, his city starts sinking.

These sites are just scratching the surface. Imagine being able to access an interactive grid of power lines or water pipes next time there’s a break in your utility service. Envision learning about military history by scanning  maps of old battlefields to see where troops were positioned and how enemy ranks were broken. Consider getting wrapped up in a fantasy/sci-fi tale by scanning a map of the fictional world to learn about the culture and zoom in on any location for more detail.

Maybe it’s just that kid in me who’s still charting roads while on his bike or marking down landmarks while  hiking trails, but interactive maps are among the most exciting and dynamic uses of the the communications technology already available to us. Over the next few months, I hope to come across countless more examples of their potential being realized, and reengage in my own love of map-making  all over again.

Tapping into the stream

Last time I completed an assignment for school, the year was 2004. Social media had barely budded on college campuses, much less corporate offices or mainstream media entities. Smart phones were almost the exclusive property of the business world and had yet to puncture nearly every aspect of pop culture and personal recreation. Streaming video online was nowhere near a viable way to reach a mass audience. Video games were still tethered to thumb-operated controllers. Newspapers were still turning large profits.

Yet if the pace of communications seems swift during that span, it’s but a trickle compared to the rapid stream of progress the public relations, marketing and journalism fields are poised to face in the next five years. The possibilities are exciting and dynamic, but it will require tremendous diligence and curiosity to keep pace.

I’ve started this blog and a new Twitter account to maximize my engagement in learning and practicing the latest in interactive media as a student in Elon University’s M.A. in iMedia program. The stream of new discoveries will match the breakneck pace of new developments in communications, and I’ll chronicle my new knowledge, research, projects and opinions here. I can’t wait to accelerate my understanding of connecting with audiences in an age where acceleration is constant.