The trouble with HypeDyn

Gah! Sculpting Hypertext is harder than it looks!

I’m still struggling with what I thought would be a simple enough exercise to practice using the free hypertext creation tool for non-techy creatives: HypeDyn. You may recall I set myself the task of adapting the draft text for a guide to the River Wey and Godalming Navigations, into a hypertext document. The original text, by Sue Kirkland, reads very well, but its written as though the reader is walking the length of Navigations, upstream. Let me give you an example:

The towpath continues to old Parvis Bridge where the navigation widens to allow barges to turn after loading or unloading.  Built in 1760 and, although much altered over the years, it retains the typical appearance of a late eighteenth century winged brick bridge.  250 years ago the area was full of activity with wharves servicing six mills.  In the mid-nineteenth century James Yeowell, described as grocer, mealman and coal merchant, carried on his business here for many years. Now only the weather-boarded grist mill survives.

Next comes Murray’s Bridge which dates back to the very early days of the navigation and was rebuilt in 1761.  It was across this bridge that the parishioners of Byfleet’s St Mary’s Church would  walk in Victorian times to attend an annual garden party in the grounds of West Hall where local philanthropist, Frederick Stoop, lived.  The red brick country house stands downstream of the bridge on the west bank.  Dodd’s Bridge follows; its footpath leads to West Byfleet.

So the simplest iteration of a Hypertext version which delivers the paragraphs in the correct order  whichever direction the walker is going along the towpath. As you can see from the above two paragraphs, if I were to edit out the very last sentencereferring to Dodd’s Bridge, the paragraphs would work reasonably well, whichever order they came in. 

In sculptural hypertext, where all the nodes (or cards if you prefer that metaphore) are connected to all the others, you use node rules, to hide the connections until certain conditions have been met. In HypeDyn, the easiest way of making the link visible between these two paragraphs would be to create a node rule for each one such as (for Murray’s Bridge): IF NODE “PARVIS BRIDGE” [is] PREVIOUS NODE THEN ENABLE LINKS TO THIS NODE. That would work for people coming upstream, and for those walking in the other direction you’d have a rule on Parvis Bridge like: IF NODE “MURRAY’S BRIDGE” [is] PREVIOUS NODE THEN ENABLE LINKS TO THIS NODE.

All well and good, and if my ambition was simply to create a Hypertext of a walk of either direction along the Navigations, I’d be done by now. But I wanted to be cleverer than that. Jill has written a great introduction that tells the story of the Navigations, from their creation in the seventeenth century to their acquisition by the National Trust. I’m looking about how story works in space, so I want to have a go at not telling that story all in one lump, as the guidebook would, but to experiment with telling it along the walk, in a dynamic way, so that however far you were walking, would have to opportunity to read the whole story, but if you were walking past the right places, certain parts of the story would be triggered by particular places, as well as by what you’d already read.

I also wanted to make the text more dynamic, so that I didn’t have to edit out lines like “Dodd’s Bridge follows…” but could instead choose to show them only if people were walking in the right direction, or even show alternative text when people were walking in opposite direction.

This second challenge is easier to solve. In sculptural hypertext, the ability to create links on each node is made pretty much redundant by the facts that all nodes are linked to all the others unless the links are sculpted away by the node rules. But HypeDyn allows the author to use the link function to create alternative text, that only appears when certain conditions are met. When there is no destination set, the additional text doesn’t look like a link to the reader.

So for example, you could include the text about Dodds’s bridge in the Murray’s bridge node, but make it a link which you can only see is you are walking upstream from Parvis Bridge. For for those walking downstream, the sentence would be replaced by a blank space.

 

You can also set “Facts” in the node rules. There are two types of Fact. The first is a simple True/False flag. The second is a “text fact” which can be used to set the alternative text for the links on other cards. Sadly that’s all it can be used for. I spent an hour or more yesterday creating Text Facts what I was going to use in the rule conditions for displaying the “story” nodes among the “place” nodes. Only after I’d done all that work did I try and set a rule using a Text Fact. And that’s when I discovered you could only use the True/False Facts in rule conditions.

You’ll guess from my post title, that when I started to write this, I was ready to rant at the limitations and inadequacies of HypeDyn as a tool. And for a chunk of the day today I’ve been moping over the demise of HyperCard.  But HyperCard was a pretty expensive programme (even at the student price I got when I bought it) and HypeDyn is free. And actually (as writing this post has made me realize) the trouble with HypeDyn is my own technique – I should have tested my idea out on a couple of nodes, rather than waste time setting up the Facts for all the nodes. Something about bad workers and tools comes to mind.

Still its been a learning experience (even if someone else would have learned the same lesson in less hours) and that’s what I’m here for, so I can’t complain.

A bridge over the River Wey Navigation
A bridge over the River Wey Navigation

Ripping text into Hypertext

I’ve spent the day engaged in a first-pass edit of a proposed guidebook text into HypeDyn. The text is the 10,000 word draft by Sue Kirkland of a guide to the River Wey and Godalming Navigations. Though this is National Trust site, its not an official project, I’m doing it as a “real-world” exercise in using HypeDyn.

So far I’ve cut the text up into about seventy “nodes”, most of which are associated with actual places along the river. There are also eight that are pure “story” elements, and a few others are are about things or people. A few “transistions” have also become apparent. The text as it stood envisaged a twenty mile walk from the Thames to Godalming – so so I thought, for most of the day. This puzzled me, as the Navigations are a favourite place for my family to walk, but we’ve never considered walking it all in one. (Well, my wife probably has, but the rest of us a far more fairweather.) And even if we were, I thought, why would we start at the Thames? Surely it would be more pleasant to walk downstream?

The “one way” nature of of the proposed text was the reason why I’d thought it might be fun to turn into Hypertext in the first place. If I managed no more that making it readable in two directions, that would be a useful enough thing to do in any case. So while I was editing I was thinking about the walks my family had taken, some upstream some down, and I still couldn’t work out why the original author had chosen to start at the Thames. It only dawned on me as I neared the end – the navigations aren’t only for walkers, obviously. Lots of pleasure-boat owners and hirers use the waterway too. Many are local with their boats moored somewhere along the river, but most visiting craft would have come via the Thames. Doh!

So, when i start my next task, turning it into a context based Hypertext, I won’t just have to think about walks starting at (for the sake of my sanity) the four sites with the best car parking, but also boats coming form the Thames (that should be easy of course because that’s how the original was written) the two points where other waterways join the Navigations. Actually its one other point right now – the Wey and Arun canal is not yet fully restored.

So at either end, there is only one direction of travel, but at the other three (or four) points, the visitor will have a choice to go up or downstream, and the language of the text will have to change to cope with the choices the visitor makes. I also want the text to tell most of the “story” elements to the visitor, even if they have the shortest, four mile, walk.

That’s all for another day though.

I took a phone call today from a friend of a friend who is possibly being offered a high-powered job with a global cultural heritage brand. We talked about that company and its competitors, and where the future might go. And for the first time I used the words “Ambient Interpretation.” I know exactly where I got the word Ambient from, but I’m not telling you, not yet. And not tomorrow, but next week.

Poetics and place

I’ve been reading about a really interesting project to create a context aware interactive experience on the island of San Servolo. This involved creating a narrative which worked not just as long as the listener is in the right place, but also only if they are there at the right time and the weather is doing the right thing, so:

a mad woman of the asylum tells her story next to the sculpture in the park, but only in the afternoons; a piece of classical music – reminder of the music therapy used for the guests of the institution – can be heard by the users facing the south side of the Venice lagoon, but only during the nights characterized by the absence of clouds.

It’s a well realized attempt influence some of the resonances that can create emotional immersion in location-based narratives.
This isn’t quite context aware hypertext. In fact each segment was presented as a short video, so of course, the content of the video didn’t change dynamically according to context, but the choice of which video the user was presented with of made by context aware software.
I’m not convinced that pure video is the ideal medium for cultural heritage interpretation, after all, when you are in a place, you don’t wan’t to immersed in the video, you want to bathe in the atmosphere around you. This project demonstrates how a short video, triggered by location, time and weather becomes part of the place, but I’d like to how how a similar project with perhaps audio and the occasional augmented reality elements would work.
I can’t deny that weather is an important poetic element in narrative (consider “Its was a dark and story night”). In the digital narrative I’m currently exploring, the game Red Dead Redemption the emotional impact of some scenes, not just set pieces but moments during free-wandering play can be enhanced by the weather, be it good or bad. I’ve not yet worked out whether the rain in the lead up to one scene was co-incidental or scripted, but I think it was a a happy accident that as my character, John Marston, walked toward a location that I, as player, knew was a trap, the rain started and Marston’s footsteps splashed, doomladen, through the puddles. (It’s not all doom and gloom: shortly after I started playing I happened to notice this tweet from @r4isstatic: “Sunset through Hennigan’s Stead. Beautiful.” Actually his post on what makes the narrative of Red Dead Redemption so different from other shooting games is, though not weather related, well worth a read.)
Back to San Servolo, the rules that deliver a particular piece of video, don’t just take into account the place, time and weather: there’s also a rule that will block a particular video, if its already been shown to enough people – the idea being that users are forced to use the social network to share what they’ve experienced, and to hear about what other users’ experience has been. All in all, its a location aware narrative that really pushes the boundaries.
One interesting point is that “while the current location value is retrieved from the user device, most of the values of the environmental context are retrieved from different web services.” I went to a seminar yesterday from Michael Charno, Web Developer/Digital Archivist from the University of York. It was about linked data and the semantic web. I’m not afraid to admit that a whole bunch of it went right over my head, but he did point out one danger of drawing data from a variety of web-based services – what happens if that service is withdrawn, or even if (as the Library of Congress did to one of Charno’s projects) the providing organisation decides to change their web address? The permanence of the web services an interactive project like this draws on becomes a vital factor in user satisfaction. Cultural heritage organisations will be looking for a product to this to last some time without needing too much IT support, and users won’t be willing to wait around while somebody re-codes a bunch of links to restore basic functionality.
But that’s shouldn’t detract from the imagination shown by the team putting together the San Servolo project. Its a great attempt to explore a new poetics for the place-based narrative. And it inspired me to spend too much of today hunting around for more digital poetics…
Having been sidetracked into telematics, and intrigued by some of the work of Paul Sermon (this is my favourite, but this is more relevant to what I’m looking at) and momentarily impressed by have far we have come technologically in such a short time (check out these tiny dial-up ready Quicktime packages) I came across this online journal. I don’t know yet whether its going to be useful, but today it was definitely interesting.
Of course what I should have been doing is designing my evaluation for Ghosts in the Garden, and chopping the Wey Navigations narrative into HypeDyn chunks. Neither of those have happened. It may be a long evening ahead.

HypeDyn, App Furnace and the Tudor Child

***Updated*** When I added a photo via my mobile device, I seem to have deleted half the post before publishing, so the headline won’t have made much sense. I’ve rewritten the  second half of the post now.  Apologies.

This morning I got my head around HypeDyn by working through the three tutorials they provide. The first tutorial is about building simple hypertext links, and it got me thinking about a text handling language I had on my very first computer, the little known Memotech MTX 500. I now realise his software, called Noddy, was somewhat ahead of its time. Indeed a contributor to the wiki page I link to above calls it a “forerunner” of HyperCard. I can’t say whether that’s true, but all it seems to have been missing was the point and click interface, that we’re all so used to since the Mac. As I worked through the first tutorial on HypeDyn, I was thinking how old fashioned this new software was. Still it is free.

The second tutorial didn’t improve matters much. Although it did introduce Anywhere Nodes, which were linked to every other node, it didn’t seem to offer a way of sculpting them very dynamically. Thankfully the third tutorial was all about sculptural hypertext, and I learned how to make the links conditional, not just on whether a node had been visited or not, but also on whether card independent flags (or “facts”) are true or false. I also learned how to make the text on each card more dynamic, again based on the reader’s node history or the state of definable facts.

It’s still pretty basic. It’s text only for example, it can’t serve pictures or video. But it will do to play with, and I’m going to have a hack at making an existing text more interactive. The text in question is the draft text for a proposed guidebook to the River Wey and Godalming Navigations – surely the National Trust’s longest bit of countryside at 20 miles long (and only a few metres wide in most places). We’ve already noticed that as pure text, it presupposes walking in only one direction along the towpath. Obviously people can start in more than one place and choose to walk either up-stream or downstream. So my first challenge will be to serve those users’ needs.

I mentioned last week that HypeDyn was designed as a tool for non-technical people, and by coincidence this afternoon, I heard about another one. I was chatting on Skype with the lovely people at Splash and Ripple about doing an evaluation of Ghosts in the Garden, which makes an eagerly anticipated return to the Holborne Museum, Bath, later this spring. They mentioned that the software that underpins the experience was made with App Furnace. The people behind App Furnace were, by coincidence squared, also in the team that put together the Riot! 1831 experience I wrote about yesterday. Like HypeDyn its a creative tool for non-technical types. It’s on-line and free to use, you only pay when you publish.  So it might be worth a play with. But only after I’ve got my head around HypeDyn…

And so to Picadilly, where this evening I went to celebrate the launch of The Tudor Child, a book (and for the next three weeks, an exhibition at the Weiss Gallery) which explores the place of the child in Tudor society, through the clothes they wore.

 

A child's mannequin in Tudor dress