Fruit gum guide to the hypermedia universe

May 9, 1997

Planning a multimedia production? Roy Stringer (below) presents an original approach to nonlinear thinking, and colleague Charlotte Corke offers a guide to working successfully with multimedia professionals

All works of literature are based on structures. Each literary form, from poem to movie script, has its own rich set of conventions and rules that are essential for coherent expression in its own medium and provide the architectural models upon which particular literary works can be constructed.

In the past 33 years, an avalanche of new extraordinary literary works has emerged under the broad category of hypermedia, a word first coined by Ted Nelson in 1963. The forms range from simple hypertext documents constructed in HTML to broadband interactive television services. The problem with this new stuff is that none of us really knows how to "read" it let alone "write" it. Because the conventions and rules haven't yet been established, authors share little common ground with the "reader". Furthermore, the historical legacy of linear presentation, so crucial for textual narrative, means that adding the ability to jump around between sections adds to our confusion since those forms were never intended to be read in such a way.

This is normal. New literary forms evolve with infrequent and unpredictable leaps of creativity. Lasting forms are rarely invented by technicians. It took the film industry nearly 40 years to evolve its own distinctiveness from theatre. But the computer as medium is taking much longer than either film or television to emerge as a distinct "space of expression" in its own right.

Amaze Ltd was established by Liverpool John Moores University two years ago. We have been developing multimedia products on the basis of some simple structural models that try to take account of the unique properties of what is referred to as "nonlinearity" but which I prefer to call "polylinearity".

The distinction between these two words is important, the first implying that a work contains no linear material, the second describing multiple connections between multiple discrete linear content elements. Linear elements - chapters, sentences, phrases, picture sequences - enable us to make sense of literature since we experience the world through the overarching constraint of time, a fundamental linear feature of the universe. A completely nonlinear work must, by definition, be nonsense.

The most obvious structures one might use to guide polymedia composition are polyhedra, the simplest of these being a tetrahedron, four triangular faces connected by six edges and four points (connect four fruit gums with six cocktail sticks to make one). Imagine writing a polymedia work on music. First, identify four topics that cover everything you want to describe, for example: (1) the physics of sound; (2) the technology of making sound; (3) music in communities; (4) musicianship. Assign these to corners (fruit gums) on the tetrahedron. Then write the topics so that a reader could start with any one of them and read the whole work, moving along any of the three available edges to a new topic, until all four have been completed. As each topic is directly connected to the other three, you must write them so that they can be read in any order by making each a complete work in its own right.

A tetrahedron is easy as each point is connected to all of the others, but for a large complex work we have to break the subject into more topics. Try a cube (six faces, 12 edges and eight corners). Now each point is connected to only three of the others. If you break our music subject down into eight topics, one for each point, they would be very different from the four chosen above and the process of naming them, placing them and writing them would involve much more care.

The most complex product Amaze has developed to date is a CD-Rom, Immunology by David Male (Mosby, ISBN 0 7234 03 8). It uses 14 topics, each with an average of five minutes of full screen 3D animation, placed on the corners points of a slightly mutated icosahedron (normally 12 points). The configuration took David three weeks to plan and is an incredible example of complexity containment.

Try it yourself. Build a cardboard dodecahedron (12 pentagonal faces), and, using a subject of your own, develop a topic title to write on each face such that each topic is next to the five most closely related to it and all 12 together fully describe the whole subject. You could also try placing single words or pictures on each face to create polylinear poems or cartoon strips.

The past 30 years have brought us not only the computer technology needed to store and present polylinear literature, but also the intellectual tools necessary to create it, through the efforts of Stafford Beer and Gordon Pask and their works on Syntegrity and conversation theory. Anyone seriously interested in polymedia authorship would do well to study them.

Roy Stringer (r.stringer@ cybase.co.uk) is creative director, Amaze Ltd.

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