Young minds behind interactive media environments

By Marjo Laukkanen / Translation: Karelika Ltd

Up-and-coming new doctoral dissertations in the Faculty of Art and Design are developing interactive media environments where users can activate informative image and sound worlds, affect what happens on a television screen or practice crisis management.

Tomi Knuutila, lecturer in digital media, is interested in different forms of participatory image and sound. His doctoral dissertation deals with participation, collectivity, space and body.

The first artistic section of Knuutila’s dissertation was displayed last November at the Saint-Étienne Design Biennale in France. Users of the interactive work, Climatable, activated different image and sound worlds that explained climate change. Art was used to visualise and sonify the scientific data in the work. Sonification refers to a method used in sound art to convert mathematical values into sound.

Interactive media art calls for the concrete participation and often physical action of its users. In Climatable, Knuutila’s contemplations focus particularly on easy use.

"I stripped participation down to its simplest form. I contemplated how the threshold to participation would be low enough."

In France, Knuutila observed the extent, duration and social situations in which users participated in his work. Some visitors walked straight past the work while others became thoroughly familiar with it by trying many ways to participate.

Users become doers

Knuutila says that teaching and research go hand in hand; they are mutually supportive and inspiring. He actively participates in international activities, such as the Dama Nordic network of dance and media art schools.

He tells me that rapid adaptation is a natural characteristic of media and media art, so keeping up-to-date with them sets its own challenges: "But luckily students teach us a lot," he says as he shows me works done by students who have participated on Dama courses.

Knuutila reckons that media sociability will increase when more users become doers. Open contents will expand to such an extent that besides programs, images, sounds, videos and ideas will also become open. At the same time, different information technology devices will be increasingly incorporated into everyday life. He feels that the changes will not come without their share of challenges and problems.

"Designers have a huge responsibility as the world becomes increasingly experiential through user interfaces."

One major problem is national and international technological inequality. There are also several challenges associated with data protection and copyright: "The traditional copyright system is on the brink of transition or change. Departments of media and law have a lot in common to deliberate on."

Knuutila says that producing interactive media is now easier than ever. The change has taken place rapidly, in just under a decade. It has become easier, faster and cheaper to use different programs: "Nonetheless, there are still many problems to resolve in the media field. We still have a lot to think about and do with regard to theory and technology."

Possibility to choose as a means of narration

Teijo Pellinen, substitute assistant of artistic expression, is researching interactivity as a means of cinematic and television narration for his doctoral dissertation.

In his master’s theses at the University of Art and Design Helsinki, Pellinen planned an interactive television programme, Akvaario, which was aired on Yleisradio’s TV1 in 2000. The programme was about the nightly antics in the homes of two city dwellers who lived alone. It comprised previously filmed video loops, and viewers were able to steer the course of events by phone.

"The concrete possibility of choice is a powerful means of narration. My experiences tell me that a large part of the audience finds the opportunity to participate has an enormous effect. The possibility alone is meaningful."

Pellinen’s dissertation examines the history of interactive narration and future possibilities: "Digitalisation and computers have made interactivity in movies possible in a completely new way, but cinematic tradition does not support interactivity; it’s still a deviation from the mainstream."

A cud-chewing sheep gives breathing space

Pellinen’s Purenta.tv, which played on a Helsinki cable network a couple of years ago, achieved huge popularity. The screen showed a video image of a sheep that either stopped or carried on chewing when viewers phoned in. Pellinen says that the programme gave viewers breathing space and its repetitiveness engendered a feeling of security.

"Communications between viewers were limited. A change in the screen image indicated that someone else was watching the same programme. Minimalism and simplicity taken to the extreme were easy for viewers to conceptualise."

The programme led to the first artistic section of Pellinen’s dissertation - Mielensäästäjä, a programme that ran on Yle Extra a couple of years ago. It showed images of twenty different animals that either did their own thing or noticed the viewer when viewers phoned in. Callers received an SMS giving them passwords to an online service where they had their own virtual animal.

A database registered viewers’ actions and enabled their actions to be studied. The programme received a total of nearly 200,000 calls from more than 40,000 phone numbers, but only a couple of thousand callers named their virtual animal on the online service.

Pellinen describes his first artistic section as testing the waters: "I’m now comparing solutions to the programme with historical examples and I’m building hypotheses that I’ll test in the next sections."

Pellinen is working on developing two television programmes: one is a game based on sorting waste and the other is a programme inspired by the text message uproar caused by Finnish politicians sometime ago; it aims at defusing the national trauma following the exposure of private romantic messages.

Calling Mielensäästäjä was free of charge but non-programmes of the same genre generally aim to rake in maximum financial profit for as little production input as possible.

"Interactive television narration has developed slowly over ten years, and it often seems quite pathetic. However, there has been a lot of development over the long term. It may be a long time before we see interactive television programmes at peak viewing hours, but I’m convinced that day will come."

Pellinen also believes that the line between television and internet entertainment will become hazier, even though hardly any working concepts have been published thus far.

Safe interaction in a virtual environment

Pia Yliräisänen-Seppänen works as a planner on the Wellness Campus at the Rovaniemi University of Applied Sciences. She has been involved in planning and developing the ENVI learning environment.

The physical, social and three-dimensional graphics in the learning environment comprise a virtual environment that reacts to students’ actions in real-time. Healthcare and social science students and professionals can use it to practice such things as emergency care and crisis management.

Yliräisänen-Seppänen’s doctoral dissertation examines how user-centred planning methodology can be developed and used to design virtual learning environments.

She believes that using virtual learning environments will become increasingly extensive and common: "They provide an opportunity for students to dry run situations that they may come across at work. Practising in a virtual environment is safe and repetitive, and it allows positive learning experiences.

"Developing and implementing virtual learning environments brings planners and users face to face with new challenges and questions."

A teacher guarantees natural situations

Users in the ENVI virtual environment can move about freely and make choices. Movement takes place using a wireless controller, and there are also interactive characters to talk to.

"In order to make interaction more natural, the teacher is always the intelligence. People act in such different ways that planning can’t take all possibilities into consideration."

For instance, the teacher decides how a girl who witnessed her mother being stabbed will react to students’ efforts to calm her down. The environment has been programmed with different alternatives and the teacher chooses the option that best fits the situation.

"A virtual learning environment calls for the teacher to have a pedagogic eye and to live in the situation. During the planning phase, it’s important to meet the teacher halfway and to find ways that make his or her work easier."

The environment has been developed using users’ experiences; for instance, movement takes place with a game controller rather than a remote control, which also enables users to step back - a characteristic that may be necessary when face to face with violent clients.

"Moving around a virtual environment is easy for most young people but older people usually need more practice."

Yliräisänen-Seppänen knows how she would develop a virtual learning environment if she could ignore financial resources: it would be more body-centred.

"A body-centred user interface would help disengage from technology. Technology would be increasingly in the background and users would engage with the environment through their actions and not through gadgets," says Yliräisänen-Seppänen.