A beguiling demo of Silverlight and Seadragon

The good people over at Fresh+New today cover the Microsoft Silverlight-driven memorabilia collection of the Hard Rock Cafe, which showcases some of that smooth-and-practically-infinite zooming we all saw in last year's TED demonstration of Seadragon. Nice.

If you haven't seen it, please head on over to http://memorabilia.hardrock.com/, install Silverlight, and allow yourself to be momentarily beguiled by the production. Enjoy that feeling while it lasts, because as soon as you come back here I'm going to go on and on about why approaches like that are confined to promotional boutique collections that don't play well with others, and how there is nothing there that ought to be emulated by cultural and heritage institutions.

To begin to take the sheen off what you've just seen, consider that when I went looking on the internet for a letter that Paul McCartney wrote on note paper from the Hotel St George right here in Wellington in 1964, do you think I headed on over to http://memorabilia.hardrock.com? No I googled it, of course, which is my point, but ironically I wouldn't have found it, because for all the effort they've put into the interface, they haven't exposed their memorabilia metadata in a way that google can index.

Consider the increasingly accepted notion that the web is not about websites any more, it's about data. If anyone with a smart idea and a free evening can repurpose and "mash up" (ugh) data into new forms, you're going to get an incredibly interesting cutting edge, like you see at Everyblock Chicago and countless others. When you hear "incredibly interesting cutting edge" you should also hear "incredibly uninteresting remainder", which is where we're going to have to file http://memorabilia.hardrock.com, since it doesn't do anything its creators didn't expect, and it won't do anything tomorrow that it doesn't do today, at least nothing that wasn't planned and paid for. Essentially, in my colleague Emerson's words, it isn't a resource that will have any ongoing life in the hands of the wider digital community, and while the marketing department at the Hard Rock Cafe might not be too concerned about that, those of us in cultural and heritage institutions ought to care a lot.

Consider also whether it is reasonable to expect people to learn to use another special interface like this just so they can browse your material. There are simply too many collections, and I don't have time to learn a million ways of interacting with digital material. What's more, the odds that your interface suits me are vanishingly small; I expect to be able to use my tools of choice to interact with your collections. On my 2560-pixel wide display, the tiny 800-pixel wide viewing window is no good. On my Octocore 3.2GHz Xeon with 8800 GT video, it hurts my eyes that these images don't fold themselves into a flock of perfect origami cranes, fly gracefully towards me and land on the lake in the foreground (with a splash!) before wringing themselves dry and smartly unfolding into the original image. At the same time, despite all the effort that has gone into developing this custom Silverlight interface, it actually breaks a number of standard user interface norms: I can't open a new tab with control-T, and I can't copy and paste the descriptive text.

While I'm not interested in the battle between Silverlight and Flash, since I can't see a place for either in the Web of Tomorrow, I think it's important that any website that uses them in this era also provides an alternative interface for users that don't or can't use these plugins.

So. The new "Web of Data" model of the future encourages us to think of our digital material as discrete, self-described objects that are surfaced to the internet and delivered to the user in standards-based ways. Think server-side instead of client-side development. Imagine if the Hard Rock Cafe had chosen to expose their material in this way: that letter from the Beatles would be discoverable through google (alongside similar material), or it might appear on a google map of Beatles ephemera, or on your iPhone when you walked by the Hotel St George. But perhaps most importantly, I could use my own interface-of-choice (currently PicLens) for viewing the material, along with other material that matches my avenue of enquiry from a wide range of sources. What's more, if you think PicLens is nice now, consider that it is being improved all the time at no cost to you, and that there are doubtless other interfaces being developed too. In a year or two, sites like http://memorabilia.hardrock.com will look primitive compared to the browser plugins that we are using to view digital material that meets our criteria, drawn from millions of sites on the internet in an instant. That's the power of the internet; who would bet against it?

In cultural and heritage institutions, instead of spending our limited resources on developing boutique interface silos, we ought to concentrate on digitisation, persistent identifiers, rich fine-grained metadata, and open standards to share it with the world: that's our role in this ecosystem, the stuff we can do that no one else can.

By Elliott Young

Elliott is a wizard disco sailor who rides a bike.

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