Saturday, April 12, 2008

Zooming, Reading and Education

Bob Cringley has written several interesting columns about technology and the future of education recently that got me thinking about my experiences designing a Zooming User Interface (ZUI) for Sony. In his most recent column he talks about the video game paradigm as a model for the future of education. In the spirit of Steven Johnson's, "Everything Bad is Good for You" Cringley argues that the popular and financial success of video games means they have already proven their power as an education platform. Today, gamers may be learning about air guitar but the same paradigm will continue to grow and work for other subjects.

While at Sony, I was part of a skunkworks-style startup developing a media navigation platform based on the concept of zooming. The basic concept was zoom in for more detail and zoom out for more context. The idea was simple and we worked keep the interaction equally simple. This evolved into a web/hyperlink model where you selected something on screen to zoom into it and see more detail and then used the back or “zoom out” button to get back to where you were. This was all before Macromedia/Adobe Flash which can be used to create similar effects. But our software was built on a data space that allowed all types of data, content and media to be placed in the space... even webpages. Once in the space, whatever navigation rules were set would work for all of the content without any further coding. While working on the navigation scheme and rules, one of my designers, Tom Grauman came up with the term, ZUI or “Zooming User Interface” because the combination of scaling content, buttons and interaction rules really was a complete UI experience. There is good coverage of projects in the ZUI space on Nooface and a nice general write-up on Wikipedia here. The genesis for zooming was Pad++, a software application that was developed by Ben Bederson and Ken Perlin at NYU. Ben eventually moved to the University of New Mexico and then to the University of Maryland where he is now.

There are several alumni from the Sony days that have zooming in their blood and have felt compelled to continue the mission. This includes Franklin Servan-Schreiber (project director for the Sony “Galileo” Project), Eduardo Sciammarella and myself. Franklin has kept our old zoomorama domain alive and has been building and shipping several zooming applications in his native France including a zooming version of a show at the Louvre.

After living, breathing and sleeping zooming for several years at Sony, I put it aside to focus on a broader range of projects. But it was always there in the back of my head. Then, in 2000, I started working on maps in my spare time. Recently, I have been working on several with a narrative that progresses as you zoom in. I did a map of border disputes between India, Pakistan and China where you can see the major disputes from a macro zoom level but the most interesting story only reveals itself when you zoom in. The Siachen Glacier occupies a small section of Northern Kashmir but at 20,000 feet, it is known as the highest battlefield in the World. It is the micro-scale example of the overall conflict between Pakistan and India.

As I read Cringley's article, I realized that this is inherently true for maps. Whether it’s a globe, Google Earth, Yahoo Maps or an antique paper map, we interact with it by scanning it and then zooming in on interesting details. That experience of a dynamic visual information space has the potential to be every bit as engaging as a video game provided the subject is interesting.

Reading a newspaper involves the same zooming interaction as a map. You scan the headlines and pictures until you find something you're interested in and then zoom in. It is abundantly clear that the traditional paper newspaper is slowly going away. When you hear how many trees are felled for one issue of the Sunday New York Times, I think, this is probably a good thing. But when I think about the benefit of scanning and consuming news on the large "display size" of a newspaper, it saddens me that it might go away. From a technology perspective, the explosive growth of the Web combined with the much slower growth of better displays has conspired to squeeze newspapers out of existence. In order to recreate the benefit of a newspaper page, displays need to be large, durable, affordable, portable, and legible… a tall order. Laptops, Amazon’s Kindle, and Apple’s iPhone are all attempting to serve the need for a portable display for reading with varying levels of success.

Of course there is probably more behind the decline of print newspapers than display technology. Many would argue that reading itself is becoming a thing of the past but books continue to sell well. Why?

I think the future of the book and the newspaper lies in transforming them into scalable experiences. By scalable I mean two things. First, an experience that can be read at a summary or detailed level (meaning you can read the book jacket or the whole book). The new experience has to fit into the web model where you may only read the Amazon summary and reviews before clicking on one of the "people who bought x also bought y" links. That's how people read now. It’s no different than browsing books in a physical bookstore or library. Scaleable also means that the navigation of that experience can happen in a zooming space where the text, images and headlines all combine to create a visually rich and immersive experience.

The ZUI experience includes features that make zooming more than just a static plane that a camera zooms in and out on. Two examples of this are semantic zooming and "sticky z". Semantic zooming understands that different levels of information are relevant at different scales. So as you zoom in on a piece of information, additional information is added... the caption for a photograph, a link to a related article, the next paragraph or page of the book. Pad++ and our Sony ZUI both programmed this capability into the system by allowing data to appear or fade based on its relative size on screen. Sticky Z was a simple setting that allowed you to place an object such as type or an image in space and lock its size on screen. This can be combined with other scaling media and semantic zooming to create an endless set of dynamic information displays.

The launch of Amazon's Kindle took the evolution of the ebook to an important next level. Building a wireless connection into the platform allows it to connect to the Amazon store, Wikipedia and news sources all the time. The e-ink display allows a relatively high resolution display to be visible in bright light or dark rooms. I’m not a huge fan of the physical design of the first generation Kindle but they got the overall service offering right. I ride a corporate shuttle to work every morning and often read the SF Chronicle on my way. I noticed recently that there are never more than 1 or 2 people on the bus reading a paper but many riders are surfing the Web on their laptop. It may take a while but the last hurdle to get ebooks into the mainstream is a better and faster display, one that is capable of quickly moving and scaling content on screen. When you bring up the subject of ebooks to general consumers, so many of them say something like, “Oh, I’ll never use an ebook… I’ll always prefer paper books”. To this I have a number of responses but the best argument I’ve ever heard was the simple case of the environment. Eventually, consumers will realize reading single use documents on paper is a waist of resources. Paper will continue to make sense for some documents and books but be phased out for more transient media.

As Cringley hints in his article, kids gravitate towards the most engaging media and right now that is video games. It is hard to believe but at one point newspapers were a very engaging media. Its combination of local and international coverage and its large, flexible and portable media made it as good for reading the Sunday leisure section on the sofa as it was for the Monday morning news on a commuter train. As a writer and visual designer, I believe in the importance of words and reading. I believe that reading is not going the way of the dinosaurs... just transforming itself in the wake of new technology and stiffer competition. TV has been the dominant media for 50 years but the Internet is slowly gaining on it. TV and video are powerful persuaders but video can sometimes persuade without getting you to think. Words almost always compel you to think about what you're reading. Meaning is created in your head, not on screen and this makes it more powerful. The hyperlink allows both the writer and the reader to connect to related content throughout the process.

In some ways, video games represent the ultimate combination of all these technologies, visual, text, interaction, play, even socialization. But reading and visual media will be with us for a long time to come. As the Kindle and iPhone are starting to show, zooming will almost certainly play a part in making it more engaging than a static piece of paper.