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Do you know Jack about interactive user conversations?

The fun brains behind Jellyvision gave the world "You Don't Know Jack", and forever changed the way I think about user interaction and software design. That game has now successfully jumped the shark, but Jellyvision developed some amazingly useful principles that still apply (and they've done some newer cool things as well). And founder Harry Gottlieb is still kicking around on artificial intelligence in user interfaces. Back in the mid-90's, I interviewed Harry for an article on new media, and I was struck by how strongly Jellyvision resisted the siren call to shove the latest/biggest multimedia into their game. They had one main goal:
Do only what you can really nail.
And what they were trying to nail (and did) was a conversation with the user. An experience so real it would transport the users into a new world (in this case, a game show). So they focused on getting the response times for conditional audio (and 2D graphics) perfect. You quickly stopped feeling like you were interacting with a machine, and became swept up in the experience.
[Begin vast cognitive wasteland:]
I'll skip most of the history lesson, except for this little brain-related digression... CD-ROM multimedia back then was a huge challenge given low processor power and only 2X CD-ROM drives. Video was postage-stamp size and many of us feared "the barfogenic zone" (a condition associated mainly with Virtual Reality, but we found it twistedly romantic to believe it applied to our plain old computer games as well). The idea of the barfogenic zone is that your brain can handle high frame rates, where persistence of vision lets your brain see a series of still images as "motion", and it can handle very low frame rates, which it sees clearly as a choppy set of sequenced images. But somewhere in between, things get... unpleasant. A 1994 Business Week article puts it like this:
"Experience shows that VR viewers adjust to low-resolution monitors. The brain also accepts slow, jerky frame speed and much faster live action -- 30 frames per second. But in between lies what Thomas P. Piantanida, principal scientist of SRI International's Virtual Perception Program, calls the ''barfogenic zone'' -- from 4 to 12 frames per second. At that speed, the confusion between what the brain expects and what it sees can make viewers sick. Until computers can create complex worlds with live motion, Piantanida's work suggests that it's better to run crude displays faster than to run detailed displays in the barfogenic zone."
But back then, even game developers who avoided video were still forcing in as much 3D graphics and animation as possible. Response times sucked.
Jellyvision sidestepped all that and focused on the near real-time interaction so that "You Don't Know Jack" made you feel... there. On the set of game show complete with audience, a pre-show audience warm-up, and a hilarious but obnoxious host who never missed a beat. [/End vast cognitive wasteland]
Key point:
The software stayed in character!
And it did so only because they made their top priority "maintaining the illusion of awareness." You felt like the software--or more accurately the host of the gameshow--knew you where there.
This idea of software staying in character is not new, of course, and one of my favorite books about this is Brenda Laurel's Computers as Theater. The notion is that software should behave consistently according to its, well, character. If buttons that look a certain way always behave a certain way--for example, the rectangle buttons always pop up a dialogue while the round buttons physically take you to a new window--the worst thing you can do is make one of the buttons suddenly behave differently. If one of the rectangle buttons suddenly takes you to a new window, when you were expecting to just get a little pop-up, you're likely to feel a little disoriented and subtly betrayed by that button. It was a rectangle, dammit! Why didn't it act like one??#$% And of course this feeling happens whether you've made the behaviors explicit or not. In other words, it doesn't matter that you never told the user these rules—they become implicit to the user on a subconscious level, simply through repeated exposure to the behavior.
If you develop software apps, websites, or pretty much any other kind of product, I highly recommend you check out Jellyvision's Jack Principles. There's a bunch of other fun things on their site as well that have to do with computer-human interaction, and specifically about making that interaction more... conversational. And conversation is a word we like a lot : )

Posted by Kathy on January 19, 2005 | Permalink


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Wow, you've brought back some memories. As far as I recall they also had a few other games that were very similar. I loved them all. The model was excellent, and even the advertising in the games was interesting. I spent hours in those games. And, yes, the experience was so tight. I haven't played anything that comes close to that.

Posted by: Peter Cooper | Jan 19, 2005 3:23:59 PM

I'm afraid I don't know Jack :-(, so I might be off topic again, but the principle "Do only what you can really nail" reminds me of a speed-learning session some years ago. The things we knew how to nail were meant to be starting points for further exploration into new fields.

Posted by: Gian Franco Casula | Jan 19, 2005 10:54:53 PM

Am currently working on a multi-player world and we talk about this all of the time. We use words and phrases like 'immersion' and 'suspenion of disbelief' with the rule being anything that disrupts either of these is: BAD.

Posted by: jeff | Jan 20, 2005 9:27:11 AM

Hey Jeff, the front page of your web site says it all! http://sumarts.net/
Very cool. And you've certainly got me curious : )

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Jan 20, 2005 12:28:50 PM

Found this on a search for Harry Gottlieb... the best host of the YDKJ games EVER, in my mind... ( you'd know him as Nate Shapiro)

Anyway, if you love the games, head over to the official message boards at www(dot)ydkjforum(dot)cjb(dot)net

( Dang filter... it's not meant to be comment spam)

I myself own them all... well, except for the UK, german, france, and Japan version...

Posted by: Joseph Grabko | Feb 6, 2005 6:33:49 PM

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