The art form of comics is many centuries old, but it’s perceived as a recent invention and suffers the curse of all new media. The curse of being judged by the standards of the old.Scott Mccloud


New media can convey a message in new ways, but people must first come to understand the language of each new medium.


message An idea that a sender seeks to transmit to a receiver.


Is the message always an alternate reality?


The message being conveyed by every form of media can be thought of as a virtual world.  A virtual world is a real representation of a world that may or may not exist in the real world.  Some media and examples of the virtual worlds they create are:


Medium                       Virtual World

Imagination                    Daydream/mental model

Storytelling                    Legend of Loche Ness

Maps                            London tube system

Animation                      Fantasia

Ham radio/CB                Roundtable discussion

Novel                            Moby Disk

Motion Picture               Citizen Kane

Puppetry                       The Muppet Show

Illusions (Magic)             Pulling a rabbit out of a hat

Board Games                Chess/Clue/Risk

World Wide Web 

Flight Simulation            Boeing 747 training system

Virtual Reality (game)     Dactyl Nightmare

Virtual Reality (design)   Caterpillar virtual prototyping system

Video Games                Pong/Donkey Kong


It may not be obvious that pulling a rabbit out of a hat is a virtual world, but it is a simulation of a world where a rabbit can be conjured from thin air.


       Rene Margritte


Qualities of Media


Each media has certain qualities that affect the message that the creator intends to deliver.




The great advance of the written word was that what was previously stored in oral fashion could be preserved.  The written word is very resilient to alterations in the presentation format (i.e. font changes, paper vs. computer text) and the context within which it is received (i.e. in bed, by the lake, on a train).  Not all media are appropriate for storage.  The higher the degree of interactivity, the more likely that storage is not an option.




Even a novel is an interactive medium when one considers that the response of the audience to the last novel may affect the next novel.  Herman Melville was so affected by the critical reception to his first novel Moby Dick that his next three novels have been described as a response to the experience of creating his first.  Interactivity plays an important role in determining whether the immersion of the medium is mental or physical.  It can be said that patrons of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater were physically immersed in the play because the company routinely addressed them, utilized them as extras, and changed the dialog in response to the crowd’s actions.  As a result, they where authors themselves of the resulting play.




As interactivity with the medium increases, the idea of authorship changes.  It is easy to say that a novelist has authored a book.  Yet in the case of Melville, we can argue that his contemporaries were part of the authoring process with his later books.  In the case of physically immersive and highly interactive media such as virtual reality, the role of the author is much less obvious in conveying the desired message.  When the receiver of the media can choose which aspect of the media they want to focus on, interact with, one has no guarantee that they will receive the author’s message.  As a result, mediums with more interactivity must utilize the language of that medium to deliver their message.




Each medium has its own unique language.  The language lies in the tools at the disposal of the author to transmit their message.  The tools of film are familiar to us; perspective cuts, temporal cuts, location cuts, linear direction.  With more interactivity comes a loosening of linear storytelling.  This is not a new phenomenon; consider a child being told a story, aspects of the story that interest the child will prompt questions and as a result the story may get diverted.  As with teaching a class, one must balance the intended message of the author with the direction the audience takes the interaction.  Scott Mccloud’s quote applies also to interactive media because the language of these media have not been fully established.  The language of a media lies very much in the interface between the user and the virtual world created by the medium.




The interface of a medium is the access point between the recipient and the virtual world.  A single medium may deliver its content through different interfaces.  A person may interface a movie in a theater with a crowd or at home alone.  This interface affects the recipient’s ability to receive the message being delivered.  An author will take advantage of the assumption that the reader has read each previous chapter in presenting the narrative.  If the reader starts in the middle then the author’s assumptions about the interface are incorrect and the message may not be received.  Furthermore, an author must work to keep the reader aware of the details of the scene because the medium does not reinforce this information.  Authors of textbooks frequently take advantage of the interface of the printed book by referring frequently to diagrams on proceeding pages.  Yet, an author of an immersive medium might take advantage of the fact that the viewer is fully aware of their physical surroundings. 


reality – Even in the physically immersive reality we know everyday, there is still an interface between us and the real world.  This interface is our 5 senses.  The “ultimate display” described by Ivan Sutherland is an Interface that is invisible to the user.


virtual reality – In a physically immersive reality the interface is unlikely to have all of the attributes of physical reality.  The user may not have the same peripheral vision they do in real life.  The user may not move through the world in the same manner that they do in reality.  The author may have created the world with the assumption that the user can feel, hear, and smell the world as they do in the real world.  Yet, the interface through which the user accesses the world may greatly influence whether the author’s message is communicated.


The Human Interface


The 5 senses together form our interface to the world.  Each of the senses has unique qualities that influence our ability and motivation to use it to deliver information.



  • localization - taste can be delivered in a localized manner; the taste organ can be isolated but it may be uncomfortable until better technology is developed
  • resources - delivering taste would require consumables that must be refilled and therefore expensive to deliver this sense (think inkjet printer)
  • encumbrance - although such an output device may be miniaturized, such a device using the technology of today would likely be encumbering (think the movie Dune)
  • lexicon – although people have a very well defined qualitative understanding of taste, no quantitative lexicon exists for producing specific tastes.



  • localization - smell can be delivered in a localized manner; the taste organ can be isolated but it may be uncomfortable until better technology is developed
  • resources - delivering smell would require consumables that must be refilled and increase the cost of delivering this sense
  • encumbrance – some devices to deliver a vortex of air to the nose have been developed, but such an approach might pollute the local space after time
  • lexicon – scientists are beginning to develop a lexicon of smell, some current devices create smells by combining 128 different smells



  • localization - touch can be delivered in a localized manner; however the touch organ is so large and varied that delivering touch to the whole organ is very difficult
  • resources - delivering touch only requires force and this can be reproduced easily without local pollution
  • encumbrance – producing even the most modest haptics requires mechanical equipment and will remain expensive until more localize technology is developed (i.e. nano-wetsuite)
  • lexicon – the lexicon for delivering touch is the lexicon of spatial relationships between materials and the body, however this is very specific to each body an a more generalized lexicon has yet to be developed (i.e. pain in the back, vibration in the foot)



  • localization - audition can be delivered in a localized manner; the hearing organ can be isolated easily
  • resources - delivering sound does not require consumables other than electricity
  • encumbrance – wireless systems and even projection to the ear without earplugs can reduce encumbrance to a minimum
  • lexicon – the lexicon for sound is well understood, from the phonemes of speech to musical notes, sound can be quantified and reproduces easily.



  • localization – vision to the eyes can easily be localized, however we do not have adequate technology to do so without bulk and resolution limitations
  • resources - delivering vision does not require consumables other than electricity (i.e. film, TV)
  • encumbrance – displays usually involve some encumbrance (i.e head mounted or projected on a surface), but spatial information is well received even when the device is fixed or does not fill peripheral vision
  • lexicon – the lexicon for delivering vision has been well quantified over the last quarter century to include the subtleties of light and various materials, and complex dynamics (i.e. water, smoke)