Reading #3

Brenda Laurel's book has the earmarks of a classic in a world where change is key. Written in 1991 and amended in 1993, this book has its roots in 4th and 5th century BC with Aristotle's Poetics and the fundamentals of dramatic structure. Emerging as an expert in the field of human-computer interaction, Laurel has built her theories concerning new technologies on her graduate studies at the University of California. Since the early 70's, she has progressed through programming and design research developing computer games for Atari and conducting design research on computer interfaces with Apple. She continues to be a significant player in the realm of virtual reality and artificial intelligence.

Laurel first examines the concept of theatre as a serious medium for study. She contends that any imprecision in dramatic representations do not disqualify drama from serving as an example for the precision of computer programming. To her way of thinking, the playfulness of activities found in experimentation are part of the process for developing successful interfaces. She expounds on the idea that computer-based representation works in much the same way as dramatic representation - with real-world consequences.
"Designing human-computer experience isn't about building a better desktop. It's about creating imaginary worlds what have a special relationship to reality - world in which we can extend, amplify, and enrich our own capacities to think, feel and act."

Laurel lays the foundation for her theories by exploring drama and theatre as tools for thought much as the Greeks did. She compares the four causes or forces in nature as they apply to drama, contrasting these with that of human-computer activity. These four causes are characterized as follows:

  1. formal: what form or shape is it trying to be?
  2. material: what is it made of? the enactment
  3. efficient: ways in which it is made; skills and tools
  4. end: the purpose of function; what intention when completed?

Laurel then examines the six elements and causal relations of Aristotle's model versus that of human-computer activity. They are action, character, thought, language, melody or pattern and spectacle or enactment. She notes that the differences, for now at least, are I the ways the senses are affected. She reminds the reader of various experiments addressing touch, smell and taste. She points out some recent theatrical genres that perhaps have had computer games as a model: site-specific interactive plays and performance art.

Next, Laurel explores how plots are constructed and in what ways those principles relate to the design of human-computer activity. These activities formulate potential just as drama does, progressing from what is possible and probable to what is needed. If actions are universal, they can be understood despite individual differences. She also reviews the dramatic format as it moves through complication to resolution. Exposition, inciting incident, rising action, crisis, climax, falling action and denouements are charted. Discovery, surprise and reversal are seen as efficient means for achieving radical shifts in probability.

Moving from this orientation to dramatic structure, we are initiated into the dramatic techniques for orchestrating human response as it applies to computer activity design principles. We are shown the ways in which drama surpasses narration for providing an intense, tightly constructed, economical and cathartic experience. Laurel believes that in orchestrating human response it is necessary to have constraints - some of which depend on technical capabilities and the limitations of the system.

Creativity too, she feels, needs limits. She claims that no direction results in powerlessness or paralysis of the imagination. It is important to reduce the possibilities. We are told that good constraints limit not what we can do but what we are likely to think of doing. These constraints can be implicit, explicit, intrinsic or extrinsic. Preferably, they are established through character and action rather than by the technical characteristics of the interface. Laurel reinforces the aspects of engagement and the first person sensory and cognitive elements as being essential in the design of computer activities.
"Direct, multi-sensory representations have the capacity to engage people intellectually as well as emotional, to enhance the contextual aspects of information, and to encourage integrate, holistic responses."

The responses designers are seeking parallel those of dramatists, that is, they want to accomplish their objectives in an artistic fashion, shaping enjoyable, invigorating whole experiences. The target audiences, through a series of well-crafted events will experience a catharsis which results naturally from the proper deployment of elements. Laurel goes on to outline rules of thumb for designers of human-computer activities based on the design principles found in dramatic structure. The focus is on strategies which result in dynamic programs - those that are modified by learning and experience.

Research projects examined in Laurel's writings include the Oz project, on going at Carnegie Mellon University under the direction of Joseph Bates. Here, researchers are using a virtual reality style interface to create interactive stories and drama. In other references to computer-based research, Laurel describes aspects of the Guides project, which works with computer-enacted agents. She also relates details of experiments in progress at the MIT Media Laboratory.

We are given an overview of virtual reality and the impact this may have on future computer programs. Laurel believes that VR's potency lies not in illusion as much as in helping us to learn about the world and ourselves. Like its predecessor in the field, multi-media, VR brings together a number of progressive ideas as well as concerns. This emerging medium is at a formative stage. It begins with visions, fantasies, desires and ideas as do all new media. Here, Brenda Laurel shares her beliefs surround ing this compelling process. "Virtual reality may be many things. It may become a tool, a game machine, or just a mutant form of TV. But for virtual reality to fulfill its highest potential, we must reinvent the sacred spaces where we collaborate with reality in order to transform it and ourselves."

Laurel sums up her thoughts by reminding the reader that VR is but a phase as we move towards the notion of a multisensory interface and sensory immersion. She imagines a holistic sensorium for the user as virtual worlds emerge. She leaves us with as many questions as answers and with a stunning paradigm for exploration and transformation. In conclusion she adds: "Like every qualitatively new human capability before it, the ability to represent new worlds in which humans can learn, explore , and act will blow a hole in all our old imaginings and expectation. Through that hole we can glimpse a world of which both cause and effect are a quantum leap in human evolution."