Getting 'flashy'

Stressing style over substance, these sites offer a high level of interactive extravagance.

Last week, this space featured substance over style - three sites dedicated to content, with interactivity shifted well toward the rudimentary end of the scale. This time around, things move to the other extreme where (for most visitors) the content will border on the irrelevant, and will exist almost solely to showcase the delivery system. These sites are all flash - but that's just what the designers wanted, and as these examples demonstrate, it's not always a bad thing.

What really makes the sites flashy is actually Flash - and its close cousin Shockwave - two Web browser plug-ins developed by Macromedia (now part of Adobe) that allow Web designers to creatively mix-up visuals with database information. (It's worth noting that while the larger Flash/Shockwave files may require long download times on dial-up modems, everybody should see the same quality of show after the loading is done.)

The first presentation is simplicity itself - in concept - but the interactivity made possible by Shockwave takes that concept to a new level, and the project's potential to hold the viewer's attention definitely qualifies Information as a productivity sink.

You can be forgiven for thinking that there's not much to Information after the first module loads. It presents nothing more than a straightforward image of a man's face, and a square that moves around the image as you move your mouse. But when you choose an area to place the square and click, the selected space will enlarge to fill the frame, and reveal that the original image is in fact a 'photo mosaic' - a picture actually made up of thousands of smaller photographs.

These mosaics are nothing particularly new (in fact they're sufficiently mainstream to have been used on the covers of such publications as Life Magazine), but they're usually only a single level deep. As you zoom in on the constituent parts of Information's original portrait, it reveals subsets of thousands, then 256, then 16 images, and then fills the entire viewing space with an image that was once a single tiny dot in the original portrait. Click on this new image, and you'll find that it too is made up of thousands of smaller images, and the exploration begins again.

This progression seems to go on infinitely - I can't prove that, but I can personally attest to burrowing down through 100 levels before surrendering to the fact that the site had more endurance and more free time than I had. Of course, those with the time and dedication may manage to hit bedrock, but I doubt it. (A note about browser settings - Information will run with or without JavaScript enabled, but if you have your browser set to block cookies, you might find some unexpected reloads as images reach the full-frame stage. You can simply click through any surprises and continue into each new image, or for a more predictable operation, temporarily enable cookies.)

Light is another project by the same artist (both displays were created to promote the stock film and photo agency, Getty Images), and at first glance it appears to simply be a variation on the same theme - opening with a single, similarly sized image. But in this case, your first random click on the image opens another image and reveals a small target grid. If you click and release on this new image, you'll see a momentary flash of a spherical object beneath. When you click and hold on the image, the sphere remains in view and the fun really begins.

Rotating in response to your mouse movements, Light's sphere is also made of thousands of photographs, but unlike Information, theses pictures aren't arranged to build a larger image. Instead, they're grouped by the overall brightness of each shot and placed in such a way as to give the orb the appearance of planetary day and night sides. Each time you click and hold the mouse, the sphere appears and you can rotate it in whatever direction you like - moving from light to dark and back again - to place the target grid over a specific image. Release the mouse button, and the sphere fades while the selected image fills the frame. While the interface has its shortcomings (certain movements not only rotate the sphere, but zoom the viewer into or away from its surface, regardless of whether they want to do so), the overall effect still has the ability to deliver a pointless but entertaining diversion.

Pointless, that is, unless you're an art director looking for photographic inspiration. And unless you're a homeowner intent on remodeling your kitchen in the latest Swedish styles, Ikea's Dream Kitchens For Everyone is simply a gee-whiz interactive showoff. But what a showoff. Personally, I have no opinions about Ikea one way or the other, and we don't even have an outlet in my home town, but this particular web production had me so impressed that I'm actually not going to tell you very much about it - because I don't want to spoil the surprise.

So, to limit myself to technicalities, you'll need JavaScript to launch this unusual interactive, and while brief, it uses large Flash files, so it may take a while on slower connections. But its worth the wait, and the site will serenade you with a bit of "La Traviata" when it's ready. Once the exhibit loads, simply click and drag your mouse to the left or right and ... enjoy. (And if you like the result, and your computer and connection proved themselves up to the task, there's a second set of examples - opening with perhaps the most effective use of the campaign's special effects - here.)

And finally, just so this article isn't entirely without intellectual enrichment, NASA's Rocket Science 101 offers a participatory lesson in the construction of two models of unmanned launch vehicles (Delta II and Atlas V.) Using an animated control panel with a scrolling list of parts and drag-and-drop assembly methods, surfers are briefed on the details and role of each component required to build their rocket. After construction is complete, a Flight Profile Animation illustrates the final product in launching, and then jettisoning all those parts that you spent so much time putting together.

While there is definitely more 'content' to this site than the others, Rocket Science 101's main attraction is its interface. And if you doubt that, just have a look at the same content at the "Low Bandwidth Version" of the site, and imagine the web traffic it would generate if it were the only version available.

Which isn't to say that every site - or even most sites - should strive for this level of interactive extravagance. Such features can devour bandwidth, and when used without practical justification, actually detract from the site's content and intent. But it's nice to be dazzled from time to time, and you definitely don't see sites like these every day.

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