Four-for-one week

Occasionally in the never-ending search for reviewable websites, I come across examples that, while certainly worth a look and/or bookmark, aren't the kind of productions that would require 900 words to describe properly. This isn't a criticism - some sites need only a single feature (or even a single page) to achieve their purpose, and this week's selections can be legitimately characterized as both basic and successful. Most could best be classified as diversions (though one is decidedly more serious than the others), and all have made the rounds at various times as blogged or e-mailed "cool site" recommendations. Welcome to four-for-one week.

First in the lineup and winner of the Digital Design category at the 2004 Asia Digital Art Awards, Treasure Box is an admittedly peculiar interactive puzzle that challenges the visitor to find a dead king's hidden treasure. Although the introductory paragraph could have used a once-over with a spelling and grammar check, the puzzle itself is an oddly attractive piece - using a pen and ink-style drawing on a virtual parchment that scrolls along as you employ low-tech contraptions to move a ball through a maze. (The maze itself is a cartoon man endowed with atypical physical attributes such as soldiers on his shoulders and a train tunnel running through his torso.) As for what lies within the Treasure Box, you're on your own - I only got as far as "ground level" before having to move on to other tasks. "Tasks," he said for the sake of segue, "like infinite zooming."

From highly interactive challenge to simple visual wonder, the Zoom Quilt is the most basic, yet strangest (even after Treasure Box) exercise in this week's collection - possibly the most bizarre thing I've ever seen on the Web. With a splash page that looks as if was designed in 1995, and an explanation limited to the statement that the presentation is "a collaborative art project," the Zoom Quilt allows surfers to use their mouse to zoom into and out of a surrealistic work of art on the screen. But this zoom doesn't merely magnify the existing image, it literally goes into the scene - following a path that is a mere pinprick at first, but expands and evolves as you move forward, eventually bringing you back to your starting point. (Imagine the world as a rather idiosyncratic doughnut, or that M.C. Escher and Hieronymus Bosch had teamed up to design a website, and you start to get the idea.) Available in HTML JPEG (1.5 M) and Screensaver (2.2 M) as well as Flash (1.6 M) formats, the latter version is the one with the undeniable appeal of seamless interactivity. And for those interested in a look behind the construction, individual stills can be viewed through links beside each artist's credits on the splash page.

Surreal in a very different way, while telling a sad truth, The Miniature Earth is a sobering and effective lesson on the worldwide poverty gap - and though you won't leave the site in a good mood, you will leave with a new appreciation of just how lucky you are, and perhaps a resolve to help those less fortunate. (Good time of year to be thinking about that.) Using information from the late Donella Meadows's "The Global Village," and Zero Population Growth Seattle, Miniature Earth is a self-running slide show that statistically reduces the population of the planet to 100 inhabitants and then extrapolates such details as; 14 of those 100 can't read, 47 live on less than 2 US dollars per day, and 6 members of the population own 59 percent of the planet's wealth. The figures are a few years old and no doubt open to some degree of debate, but even if, for example, the number of illiterate inhabitants is 12 instead of 14, the overall picture remains pretty much intact. (An onsite link to "We Were Humans" takes visitors to a similar exhibition dealing with the human costs of the global arms race.)

Finally, if you need a bit of an emotional pick-me-up after that dose of reality (and trust me, you will), Willing to Try offers a series of entertaining minimalist line art animations - with minimalist being a key factor in the nature of entertainment. After the visitor chooses from three ambiguous objects, (a slightly curved line, a circle, and four vertical lines) the animation places a character together with the selection, and presents the visitor with three options as to what the objects actually are. (e.g., Do the four vertical lines represent the trunks of trees, mirrors, or falling raindrops?)

Defining the object determines the character's subsequent actions, and sliding a bit of education into the exercise, the elemental nature of the drawings reminds the viewer that there can be more than one way to look at any given object or problem. Even after a path is chosen, some animations continue to play fast and loose with our assumptions, while others force us to 'put two and two together' in order for the story to continue. The animations are entertaining, quicker than most in downloading (due to the minimal file size requirements of the line art). They encourage exploration. (After all, once you see how the character interacts with lines as trees, you'll want to know what he does with lines as mirrors.)

In fact, like Willing to Try, all these sites are minimalist in their own way - in that each is dedicated to a single endeavor. The best of the four will be a matter of personal taste, but all achieved their intentions admirably.

Here endeth four-for-one week.

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