Realism in HCI

At the beginning of the semester, Gillan Smith’s article set up the challenge to develop an “independent language of interaction” that fully exploits the medium of computers — similar to how the early techniques of cinema eventually stabilized into a coherent visual language. While its contentious that such a singular language can be created for HCI, I think most agree that because cinema is a more mature medium, studying its critical vocabulary can be insightful.

With this in mind, I think Christian Metz’ article gives an insightful phenomenological account for why the medium of film is so powerful. Central to his explanation is the notion of realism. Basically he argues that by captuing motion, film achieves a level of realism that makes its images present to us. Whereas the static images of photography convey a sense of reality in the past, the moving images of film convey a reality that is ‘here and now’. The result is that the viewer is able to ‘participate’ in the represented reality — by identifying with characters, reacting viscerally and emotionally to the action, etc.

However this degree of realism hinges upon the distinct separation between the represented space and the audience’s physical space. This boundary of the screen allows the viewer to forget the real world and enter in to the diagesis. He contrasts this with a stage performance in which this boundary does not exist. The audience shares physical space with the represented reality and thus, says Metz, the vehicle of representation is too real. The result is that the viewer is all too conscious of the artificiality of the performance and ends up identifying more with the actors themselves than with their characters.

I think Metz’ analysis holds a lot of insight for HCI. Not only has he revealed realism as a powerful aspect of the film experience, he has also illustrated how it is affected by particular qualities of the medium, namely motion and separation of space. I don’t mean that we should simply try to mimic the realism of film–in fact I can see one problem with attempting to do that–but rather we can think about the degree of realism which is most appropriate in particular design contexts, and give consideration to how motion and separation of space affect the experience. As a starting point for this kind of analysis, I’ve placed some different interactive experiences where I think they might fit into Metz’ model:

realism in hci via metz

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8 Responses to Realism in HCI

  1. This post is exemplary; in fact, it’s supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. Nice work!

  2. houssian says:

    Dave could you give us some examples of physical computing?

    Great graphic BTW.

  3. Dave Roedl says:

    Sorry that is kind of vague. What I meant to say was tangible computing as its described in chapter 2 of Dourish’s book. Any of these projects done by the MIT media lab fit with what I have in mind: http://tangible.media.mit.edu/projects/

  4. Gimhyewon says:

    I should truly think about what interaction is and where we are.
    Physical World TUI Cyber/Virtual Reality
    simulacre Simualtion hmm
    Shit HCI!! it make me confused. 😉

  5. thismarty says:

    This boundary of the screen allows the viewer to forget the real world and enter in to the diagesis. He contrasts this with a stage performance in which this boundary does not exist. The audience shares physical space with the represented reality and thus, says Metz, the vehicle of representation is too real.

    This observation reminds me of the passage in Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance where he compares riding across country in a car to doing the same on a motorcycle. In the car, the windwsheld distances us from he experience, making it feel remote in time and space. On the motorcycle, on the other hand, we feel that we inhabit the places we ride through with an immediacy and intimacy absent in the car.

    Ishi’s work reminds me of this. Telepresence, physical computing, etc. has always reminded me of this concept too, since it seeks to bring the experience of bits outside of the frame of the screen and back into a world of physical objects. No matter how malleable and rich the world behind the screen is, it is still behind that screen, untouchable and unreal to us in so many ways.

  6. Dave Roedl says:

    @Marty, I really like the car vs. motorcycle analogy and your subsequent comments.

    Another thought just came to mind relating this discussion to Dave Royer’s last post about ready-to-hand vs. present-to-hand. It occurs to me that with both photography and theater, the medium is to some degree present to hand. While looking at a photo, the viewer is quite conscious of the artificiality of the representation–the paper, the frame, the act of being captured by the photographer. Similarly with a stage performance, the audience is somewhat aware of the stage and the set, the presence of the orchestra, and the actors efforts in the performance.

    While watching a film however, the audience sees through the screen and attends only to the story and action. Only occasionally does a film-viewer give consideration to the composition of the soundtrack, the presence of the projector, or to the actors as actors, rather than characters. In this sense, all these elements of the film medium are largely ready-to-hand.

    Similarly, I would argue that interaction hardware is usually designed to be ready-to-hand. We tend to look through the screen onto our desktops. We act through the mouse in order to move the cursor. Rarely do we attend to interaction hardware as things in themselves (until of course, the fail to work). As a result, our interaction is focused on the virtual world behind the screen, which as Marty nicely said is “untouchable and unreal to us in so many ways”.

    Tangible computing is an interesting exception then, as it attempts to bring the material along with the digital world to the forefront of the experience.

  7. Pingback: Realism in HCI at David Roedl | Human-Computer Interaction Design

  8. Pingback: Prewriting Process-Phenomenology & Reactable « Interaction Culture

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