Flashing the Web

An elegant animation technique is sowing delight-and confusion.

A circle. A stack of straight lines. A curved line. A jet-black background. These cryptic geometrical runes are the opening screen at Willing-to-Try.com, an enchanting Web site that showcases a growing cadre of sites using interactive animation to guide users and present complex information.

Select the lines, for example, and you find that they can represent trees, mirrors or rain. Click on trees and a wave of your mouse controls a bird flying through the branches, collecting letters to form words. Grab all the letters in the right order-to spell “elephant,” say-and a drawing of an elephant appears, complete with a trumpeting trunk and thundering hooves.

Willing-to-Try.com capitalizes on a technology called Shockwave, developed by Macromedia. Shockwave-along with its even more popular cousin Flash-offers a more efficient way to present visual information. Flash uses “vector graphics” to define images with mathematical descriptions of shapes rather than with pixel-by-pixel maps. That makes for smaller files and quicker downloads, even on slow, dial-up modems. (It does help to have a fast computer, though, to crunch those equations.)

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According to International Data Corp., about 88 percent of all Web users have computers equipped with the free software needed to view Flash animation. Shockwave is available to 52 percent of the Web population. Both Flash and Shockwave are moving onto new platforms, such as TV set-top boxes, handheld computers and wireless telephones.

The technology is not without skeptics. Jakob Nielsen, user advocate and principal of the Nielsen Norman Group, dismisses Flash as “a gimmick.” First of all, Nielsen says, millions of Web users still don’t have Flash-viewing capability. What’s worse, Flash disables many Web conventions: the browser’s “Back” button, for instance, doesn’t work on Flash-enabled pages.

Moreover, creating truly useful Flash content takes a lot more work and a lot more research than garden variety HTML. Jared Spool, founder of User Interface Engineering in North Andover, Mass., reckons that one minute of animation takes 10 to 30 hours to develop.

Done right, though, Flash animations remind us that the Web can do much more than display words in a row. Willing-to-Try uses Shockwave to build a charmingly interactive teaching toy. IKEA furniture stores employ Flash to show how to assemble bookshelves-the animated visual guide sure beats those confusing “insert tab A into slot B” printed instructions. ESPN.com uses Flash to diagram pro football and basketball plays. Watching the little symbols dart around the screen is a long way from Xs and Os scratched on the coach’s blackboard. And even the skeptical Spool concedes that the best Flash sites are “communicating content in a way that would be very difficult to do otherwise.”

Flashy Sites: Animation Action

http://www.ford.com Configure your own car and see what it will look like and cost. http://www.turbonium.com Jazzy, high-energy interface. http://www.ikea.com/ Interactive instructions for building bookcases. http://www.espn.com/ Animated diagrams of football and basketball plays. http://www.willing-to-try.com/ Animated interface for elegant storytelling. http://www.wddg.com/ Cool animations and experiments. http://www.shockwave.com/ Games, cartoons, music, greetings, creativity. http://www.macromedia.com/software/flash/gallery/collection/ Company directory of high-profile Flash sites.

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