Final Project: Revised

3 minute read

I playtesting my tangible interface for non-linear narrative concept earlier this week and it was a miserable failure.

For one, the user’s attention is split between the screen and the interface / surface / circuit. I suspect a tangible interface that can be operated without looking directly at the controls lends itself to a better reading experience.

I also suspect (have suspected for a while now) the project is a bit too ‘conceptual’ and it has about it a technical, almost clinical aesthetic. There’s not much by way of elegance.

Furthermore, on the ICM side of things both Mimi and Shiffman had the same initial response when I described the project: that to accomplish any kind of fluid, meaningful, computationally driven transition between two nodes of text using natural language and/or semantic analysis is on a much higher order of complexity. Something on the scale of a thesis project, not a first semester final.

What to do.

I’m still drawn to tangible interfaces for electronic text but it would probably be best to simplify and step back from non-linear narrative. At least for the time being.

At some point in the days following the playtesting debacle, desperate for a new direction, I had a fleeting notion of progressing through a text by pulling at a string of yarn. As fate would have it, just yesterday my friend Michael Joyce shared with me a collection of twenty poems he’d written but never published. The collection is titled “Creaturely Life: twenty pre-elegies”, written in stream of consciousness from the point of view of a woman keeping vigil over her dying husband. The last poem concludes with a vision of the narrator knitting beside her husband’s deathbed.

The poems terribly moving, painfully so, and I immediately re-read them three or four times, possibly in some irrational attempt to try and console the narrator.

So in giving it some thought I’m now envisioning a yarn ball winder as a kind of metaphorical interface for reading this particular text.

I have a sense memory – from where and how far back I have no idea – of playing with a yarn ball winder as a child and finding the interaction strangely satisfying. Turning the crank somehow suggests the speeding up and slowing down of time and something about the wobble, spinning off-axis like a wonky pirouette, is evocative of an orrery.

From a purely practical standpoint, because it’s mechanical there are likely good opportunities to mount / incorporate sensors which I’ll need to synchronize the flow of text on the screen.

The phrase ‘spinning a yarn’ comes to mind, though I believe the etymology there is to do with rope and sailors, not wool and knitters. And ‘spinning a yarn’ connotes hyperbole, which has no place in this context.

There’s also ‘the whole ball of yarn’ which according to this post on Yahoo Answers appears to have some interesting origins / connotations. The sexual connotation stood out if only because the person posting claims it has an Irish usage and there’s a passage in the poems about Irish lineage.

The other meaning – ‘to complete something’ – seems richer. At first I’d thought of pulling at yarn strictly as a kind of unravelling but maybe it works this way as well, winding yarn back into a ball (technically, it’s called a cake) as a kind of closure. Leaving one’s affairs in order. An undoing, as distinct from a falling apart, which seems in keeping with the narrator’s strength of character. It makes me think of that weird way in which people compose themselves at funerals and vigils.

Maybe I can buy some knit sweaters at a thrift shop and they can be unravelled as the reading unfolds, the yarn passing behind one side of the screen, emerging on the other, and spun onto the ball winder.

Or perhaps the yarn spins an umbrella swift (all new terminology to me) and makes it’s way to the winder, the swift spinning round, stripped of yarn, and slowing to a stop as the poem concludes.

Whirling Dervishes come to mind. And Moviolas.

EDIT: Michael has unearthed another ‘spin’ on yarn in English As We Speak It in Ireland by P. W. Joyce (no relation to Michael):

Bottom; a clue or ball of thread. One of the tricks of girls on Hallow-eve to find out the destined husband is to go out to the limekiln at night with a ball of yarn; throw in the ball still holding the thread; re-wind the thread, till it is suddenly stopped; call out ‘who howlds my bottom of yarn?’ when she expects to hear the name of the young man she is to marry.