My dissertation proposal defense is finally over and, since I passed, it’s time to get back to work and really get the functionality on the Spatial Experience Engine ramped up. During my presentation and in the Q-and-A with my committee afterward, I kept coming back to the issue of interaction in the virtual world. I’ve been ruminating on this quite a bit over the last few months, once I got the basic terrain and model drawing stuff out of the way. I think the key to making all of this work and be compelling for users is of course the UI (User Interface).
This might seem like a no-brainer to a developer or a gamer, but I found it really hard to explain to academics who were all proficient users of expert software like GIS and remote sensing packages. We’ve all gotten used to the standard UI of GIS packages: a map viewer, usually on the right and some form of data layer list, with toolbars and quick launch icons, etc. It would be very difficult to imagine a GIS interface that would be so radically different as to not have some recognizable elements of this standard UI.
The same thing is true in the gaming world. There are commonly used interfaces and elements of design that are easily recognizable to gamers and, based on experience, they intuitively know how to interact with these UIs in different game environments. More importantly, these mechanisms for interaction help to enhance the sense of immersion within the virtual world. And that’s one of the key things I have to figure out for my own project: how to keep the user’s sense of being immersed in the virtual landscape, while still providing them with useful (I hope) information on the elements within that landscape.
So, what are some of the examples of interactive UI elements that I can employ? The simplest is for the user to navigate and explore the virtual world and, when he or she comes into close proximity of a particular feature that I want to give more information about, some piece of digital media will pop up. It might be a historical photo, a snippet of text information, an audio clip, whatever. The main thing is that this type of interaction is pretty passive; the user doesn’t have to do anything other than get to the spot where the media is located. This is close to the methods of spatializing multimedia we first tried in our research into extending traditional GIS interfaces a few years back, and various forms of embedded media are common now in web maps and virtual globes.
What I want to do, though, is get beyond that, and bring more dynamic interaction mechanisms from game design into my virtual world. For example, in RPGs (Role Playing Games), the typical interface is a series of menus that that give you access to various functions you can perform or status updates you can view. These menus do take you out of the virtual world briefly, since they pause the drawing of the graphics and slide the menu screens over the view, but experienced users can quickly scroll through options, perform tasks and return to the landscape view without losing their sense of immersion. As an RPG (really, Final Fantasy) fan myself, that’s the first example that comes to mind, but there are lots more interaction types that I want to consider. This diary entry is getting pretty long, though, so I’m going to save them for next time….