El.pub Analytic Issue Number 15

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Analytic 15 - Looking back - seven years of El.pub (Part 2)

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Authoring and the digital revolution
IPR and content management
User centred design, personalisation and VR
Accessing knowledge and the arrival of digital libraries
Interoperability and standards

Authoring and the digital revolution

The digital revolution is the change in our ability to manipulate sound and image after capture that has come from the use of computers to process digital representations of analogue information. It is difficult now to imagine the amount of manual work involved in photographic input to magazine ads in adding text, manipulating colour and foreground / background objects before the arrival of digital manipulation as epitomised by Photoshop and similar products. Even less can one imagine the difficulties of using masks in film work where every frame used, had to be manually over-painted by hand. Any amateur photographer or filmmaker can now be an expert in post-processing with the software available on the market.

No such digital expertise carries over to the conceptual side of creativity. The idea that hyper-text would open a new world of non-linear story telling has been shown to be empty, by example. In traditionally non-linear areas such as reference works the shift to linked electronic chunks of information has worked. The ability to make video, sound and animation part of the end product is a big step forward, multimedia, but is not a consequence of non-linearity. The only areas that have successfully used non-linearity are videogames and electronic learning.

Videogame authors exploit the ability of the computer to render alternative paths through the story to achieve two aims. First, the user feels in charge of the experience as it is his choices that determine the unfolding narrative; second, the game can be regenerated (renewed) many times through a combination of option setting and changing the choices made in the play. These possibilities define interactivity, which is a new and exciting addition to creative tools. There are some indications that the traditional worlds of film and book are beginning to merge with the new world of interactive fiction to create a greatly enhanced experience for 'readers'.

In education the ability to automatically provide alternative paths through material based on user responses (answers to questions) clearly enhances the text-book and make user-paced learning easier to achieve. The place of electronic and distance learning in the wider education and training picture is still a matter of experimentation and discussion. However, it is clear that there are many areas where distance learning will be important, and for those who enjoy learning as a form of entertainment interactive online courses are a big improvement over the printed book.

Both videogames and distance learning show the conservative nature of large-scale R&D funding programmes. One could argue that every videogame is an R&D project. It is inherent in the entertainment market to keep pushing for new experiences and new presentation possibilities, whether it is bungie jumping or pop-up books. Unfortunately the funding of formal R&D tends to be in the hands of professional administrators who seem to believe that entertainment is not work and that only 'serious' subjects should be funded. Only the size of the entertainment market in terms of numbers of jobs created and turnover, has led to some easing of restrictions on public R&D in areas such as film creativity and videogames. The problem with this motivation is that decisions on what to fund and how to fund are then driven by perceived market outcome rather than a peer-reviewed map of R&D requirements (as is the case with pure science R&D). Distance learning R&D has been hampered on occasions by another form of conservatism, entrenched opposition from incumbent practitioners who feel their profession is under threat. This response is as old as innovation. So far no real meeting of minds has taken place between the creative world and the administrators, although there have been attempts both in Europe and the US (for example, "Beyond Productivity: Information Technology, Innovation, and Creativity" http://www7.nationalacademies.org/cstb/pub_creativity.html).

In a world in which entertainment is such an important economic sector and in which the computer is expected to become embedded in all facets of every day life, it is clear that R&D needs to address questions of interactivity and the interface between people and computers. Our understanding of the relation between language, consciousness and action is limited. Games and learning are an observable manifestation of this relation and we should expect an R&D programme that was directed to this area to yield valuable results. Whether the will to create such a programme exists is unclear. In the meantime we should see a big growth in new forms of distributed multi-user games. The past two years has a seen growth in this area with a transfer of older style games to online competition. New lines such as social games are expected to emerge soon.

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