Sunday, May 13, 2007
  Sophie: have I seen the future or the past?
There's a story that American journalist Lincoln Steffens visited the USSR and returned, claiming "I've been over into the future and it works!" I have recently begun playing with the Institute for the Future of the Book's alpha release of Sophie, and I have some of the mixed feelings that the Steffens quote elicits today.

Sophie is brilliant, an easy to use editor for complex interactive multimedia. As such it is already superb (though as a pre-release alpha somewhat flaky still), and the plans and dreams of the IFBook people make its future sound even better. If such a tool had existed a few years ago the Amos commentary would have been created using it, and would have emerged very differently from its actual HTML incarnation. Sophie permits rich and varied interactions with multimedia, and will permit comments - creating a community around the media "text". This mix of media with community is evidently the (or at least one) future, and it works! (Or is beginning to work - very well.)

To get a good idea of the possibilities download Mozart's Dissonant Quartet the video with text-over shows some of the possibilities in a timeline based presentation. If you do try it do read the instructions on the page linked above, they will save you (or would have saved me) quite a bit of trying to work out how Sophie works as a reader.

However, to someone used to the free-flowing, largely system independent, world of HTML - and even more so of its more structured and meaningful descendants inhabiting the world of XML - I am frustrated by a system that defines a "page size" (usually a fraction of my screen to accommodate older smaller screens - but pity the user whose screen is too small!) and pages that MUST be turned.

Still, the only demo book I have tried so far Mozart's Dissonant Quartet with its beautiful soundtracks. Here too the ways in which Sophie is "not HTML" can be frustrating, as I said above, till I RTFMed I found the demo far from intuitive to navigate - more of a text adventure with a superb soundtrack than a multimedia experience. Sophie also has a very Macish feel to her, right clicking achieves precisely nothing, though the
interface has Mac's good looks, there are times when Windows comforting convenience is useful! Perhaps when Sophie has her dedicated Reader this will become less of a puzzle. I suspect though it will help if (when IF Book release the "real thing" into the wild) Sophie comes with a firm set of recommended conventions.

Conclusion so far: just one hour in...

Will the limitations of restrictive screen display sizes (so beloved of the graphical designers) be overcome and will the user interface become more intuitive? If so Sophie will make a brilliant environment to produce multimedia instructional materials that can become truly the hub of an interactive communal learning experience... Or is this "future" too restrictive in its polices?

Already - if I was teaching my Bible in an Electronic context course (or in a school) - I can see how students could easily and quickly produce interactive multimedia so easily... I imaging that even some of my IT challenged colleagues could learn to use and love Sophie. And a design that achieves that shows deep wisdom!

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