Visit: Less Rain – 21/02/08

On Thursday 21st February, I visited the design team at Less Rain‘s UK office, based in east London. One of the main reasons that I wanted to visit Less Rain is that it would provide me with a great opportunity to gain feedback and advice on my MA work that I am currently developing. On the whole, I feel that I got fairly good feedback on some of the concepts and ideas of my exploratory project. Interestingly, and reassuringly, I also found that some of the ideas which I have been experimenting with in my interactive design are similar to those which were studied and worked on by members of Less Rain, both in educational and professional contexts.

We discussed a variety of the challenges that exist when working with sound in interaction design and I was able to get a lot of useful advice about the sort of work that I am doing with regards to the process of development, what sorts of issues to concentrate on, and what sorts of output I should consider. As a group we considered some of the different issues relevant in the generation of sound for interaction and vice versa.

One of the issues that we discussed was the way in which we react to sound when visiting websites. Sound, as a feature of a website, is a very difficult attribute to get right as there are so many factors that affect its success or failure, for example: – how does the user react to sound upon visiting a website?

– Ultimately, this varies from site to site but the root of the problem is that sound is not the primary form of communication used by a website, one of the main problems is that people access the internet using a wide variety of systems which vary in terms of hardware and software specification – within which there are a number of variables such as connection speed, processing power, audio drivers, type of speakers, and most importantly, whether or not the speakers are turned on and/or turned up!

As pointed out by Dan Beattie, Technical Director, one of the difficulties of working with sound is that it is dependent on hearing which is a secondary sense, it is therefore something which is not immediately noticeable. The sensation of hearing is very much taken for granted, and it is only when we are challenged by sounds which are, for example, unnatural, too loud or too soft, that we are conscious of ourselves being affected by what we hear.The team also discussed the difficulties of working with sound within their work at Less Rain, one of the issues being that, it is a difficult feature to ‘get just right’ – sound is very much a personal taste, what one person likes, another may find annoying, and this is very much the challenge of the sound designer. Rather than it being a standardised aesthetic, which conforms to trends or visual theories that something like graphic design can be validated by, it is more a quality which is ‘just right when it sounds right’.

Due to a lot of these difficulties and uncertainties with developing sound, certainly in a website context, the inclusion and efforts invested in sound in websites is very much a feature which is subject to fads and phases.

Isambard Poulson, Flash Developer at Less Rain, who has been working with the Flash authoring environment throughout a number of its revisions, described how when audio controls such as volume and pan were integrated within Actionscript first arrived, everyone seemed to be implementing some form of volume and pan control within their site. This has been evident in the past and can be seen to similar extent in some sites that exist today, for example, one of the sites which I have looked at within my research, Krezip Music. This site features an interactive music game in which the sole feature of the site is based on that one area and consequently there is little else to the site in terms of content and functionality.

The other issue that the team felt they came across with the implementation of sound in interactive web sites, was that it was often very much an afterthought by the client. They felt that, more often than not, although not necessarily the case with their work, the featuring of sound within a site is left until the last minute, where in fact, Vassilios Alexiou, Founder/Interaction Director of Less Rain, indicated that he would rather it be something which is considered from the very beginning of a brief – unfortunately – this isn’t always the case.

As we discussed ideas, one of the challenges that arose, from a technical viewpoint was, considering the actual processing capabilities of flash player during runtime, there is a need, as with all flash interactive experiences, to always keep the amount of assets being used by the interactive experience to a reasonable level. Within this, there is the challenge of how you successfully create loops which could be used on the site which don’t appear obviously to be loops. How/Is it possible to create loops which don’t appear to be loops?In describing the specialism working with both sound and programming, Dan spoke of the difficulty in being both a sound designer and a programmer, the two roles are highly skilled and to become proficient at both is a difficult task to fulfil. Part of the solution to this problem may be to use sound tracks which are very subtle – use of distinctive sounds or rhythmic sounds will become memorable, and so the user will anticipate sound occurring within the loop.

I really enjoyed visiting Less Rain, and they were really encouraging. I got the impression that whilst working on my MA, with potentially unlimited resources available to me, I should look to experiment more and try out more exciting projects as it may be the case that opportunities to experiment to such a degree in future may come less often. I also realise that in the long term, the skills and abilities invested in 2D – screen based media would be far more marketable, however, experimentation with larger scale productions would be more beneficial and educational whilst the opportunity exists for me as a MA student.

Some useful links that Less Rain gave me:

RCA MA Show “Interaction Design”

Andre Michelle

Chris O’Shea

Digital Republic

Owen Lloyd

Tonne – Paul Farrington

Swedish Army Site

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