Active Animation: An Approach to Interactive and Generative Animation for User-Interface Design and Expression

poster / demo / art installation
  1. 1. Kenny K. N. Chow

    Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech)

  2. 2. D. Fox Harrell

    Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech)

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Abstract The traditional view of animation is a medium-specific
perspective: animation is a sequence of images
on film. In contrast, we employ a wider, interdisciplinary
theoretical lens, based on a phenomenological perspective
of animation. We describe animation as the experience
of artifacts imbued with apparent “animacy,”
or “liveliness,” and identify a range of media artifacts
where an account of animacy is key to understanding
and designing their functionality. These artifacts range
from computer interface mechanisms such as bouncing
and stretching icons to interactive cartoons that may be
used for informational, entertainment, or socio-critical
purposes. We introduce the term “active animation” to
describe this range of artifacts. Insights from textual
analyses in the humanities-based field of animation studies
can enable analysis and design of active animation,
and likewise animation studies can be informed by insights
regarding agency in artificial intelligence research,
theories of embodied cognition and conceptual blending
from cognitive science, and psychological approaches to
movement and perception. To exemplify the technical
design potential of our approach, we present a cognitive
semantics-based interactive and generative multimedia
system that we have implemented called the Generative
Visual Renku system as a case study active animation.
The upshot is that our interdisciplinary animacy-oriented
perspective highlights how gesture and movement allow
interactive and generative digital artifacts to convey
non-verbal meaning to users.
1. Introduction
Animacy lies at the heart of many media artifacts imbued
with an illusion of life. Puppets and avatars, examples
of traditional and digital user manipulated characters,
become lively under the control and enactment of performers.
Animatronic robots utilize mechanical means
to produce the appearance of gesturing and perceiving
viewers. Cartoons, manifested through sequences of pictures,
can walk like real human figures. Although these
artifacts differ from each other in terms of material form,
control mechanism, and technology, all of them are animated
in a literal sense. The animation of these artifacts
hinges upon lively motion as the primary phenomenon
of illusion of life.
Meanwhile, the term animation is often narrowly seen
as referring to a particular medium, namely a type of
film. Indeed, the celebrated filmmaker Norman McLaren
describes animation as the “art of movements that are
drawn.” (Wells, 1998) Although his quote seemingly
privileges motion over medium, the material condition
of imagery as drawings is still presumed. In contrast,
we call attention to views that deemphasize medium
and emphasize liveliness. The animation theorist Alan
Cholodenko attempts to generalize the notion of animation
as sorts of technology geared toward “endowing
with life” and “endowing with motion.” (Cholodenko,
2007) In parallel, many digitally mediated environments
such as computer interfaces, websites, and handheld devices
have become lively, reactive, semi-autonomous,
and graphical. They often construct meaning through
perceived movement and embodied interaction. We call
digital images engaged in such meaning-making processes
“active animation.” Given the ubiquity of such
multimedia computing phenomena that are often overlooked
as animation, there is need for theory to comprehend
how such artifacts convey non-linguistic meaning
via animacy and to formulate theoretically-grounded approaches
for designing lively multimedia artifacts. This
paper articulates this need and presents a new approach
to addressing it, including a new form of active animation
that we have developed.
2. Theoretical Framework
Our approach to the analysis and design of active animation
arises from an intersection of multiple disciplines.
Animation and image studies provide us a critical vocabulary
for identifying the phenomenon of liveliness
as definitional for our area of inquiry. (Arnheim, 1974;
Metz, 1974; Mitchell, 1986) For thinkers such as Ludwig
Wittgenstein and W.J.T. Mitchell, the term “image” is
not limited to material images (e.g. screen images) or optical
images, but also means perceptual images (through
motor-sensory functions, including the kinaesthetic) or
even mental images. It follows that the idea of animation
should also extend to considering moving images
on the basis of sensory perception and embodied cognition.
Cognitive semantics research provides accounts
of embodied meaning construction and generation of
imaginative meaning through metaphorical projection Lakoff & Johnson, 2003; Turner, 1996) Psychological
and phenomenological approaches to human-computer
interaction are also relevant departure points for investigating
the role of interactivity in the perception of liveliness.
(Norman, 1988; Shneiderman, 2003)
3. Active Animation: Examples and
Toward analyzing and designing instances of active
animation we introduce two levels of signification: the
reactive and the metaphorical. At the reactive level, users
make meaning out of liveliness of artifacts through a
motor-sensory loop feedback between users and systems
– i.e. users perform actions via an interface and perceive
their animated effects in the system. Examples include
user-interface mechanisms such as the many shrinking,
stretching, and bouncing icons in the Macintosh OS X
environment and interactive animated comics such as
found at
Fig. 1 The “genie” effect in Macintosh OS where windows
dynamically stretch and shrink
Such works imbue media elements such as windows and
icons with a sense of liveliness formerly unknown in
user interfaces. Motion is used to focalize user attention,
add spectacle to basic operation, and to allow embodied
user action such as clicking to play a role in realizing the
meaning of animated content. (Arnheim, 1974; Lakoff &
Johnson, 1999) Basic image schemata (skeletal patterns
of motor-sensory perception) play crucial roles in user
understanding of such works. (Lakoff & Johnson, 2003)
For example, the “dock” area of the Macintosh graphical
user interface becomes a container for windows, paralleling
the container image schema articulated in (Lakoff
& Johnson, 2003).
At the metaphorical level, users construct imaginative
motion metaphors through the interaction between embodied
gestures and multimedia feedback. The idea can
be demonstrated by the water-level interface designed
for the mobile phone N702iS and the electronic advertising
viral campaign
Fig. 3 A mobile phone interface where battery level is
indicated via the illusion of a water-filled container
The water-level interface in Fig. 3 comprises a conceptual
metaphor in which a container filled with water is
integrated with a standard interface element depicting
battery-level. This metaphor exploits the liveliness of
animated water to present functional information in a
lively and playful manner. The website
invokes standard interface mechanisms such as dataentry
and mouse-clicking to arrive at a metaphorical
projection in which users can wash away the wrongdoings.
The site is, in fact, an advertisement for cleaning
supplies, yet the metaphorical mapping from washing
one’s hands using particular cleaning supplies to washing
away confessions of sin is enabled by the active animation
4. A New Form of Active Animation:
Generative Visual Renku
As an example of multimedia system design based on
our approach to active animation briefly we present an
expressive project that we have developed called Generative Visual Renku. (Harrell & Chow, 2008) A polymorphic
poem is a generative digital artwork that is
constructed differently upon each instantiation, but can
be meaningfully constrained according to aspects such
as theme, metaphor, affect, and discourse structure. Our
Generative Visual Renku project presents a work of active
animation as a new form of concrete polymorphic
poetry inspired by Japanese renku poetry, iconicity of
Chinese character forms, and generative models from
contemporary art.
In the Generative Visual Renku project interactive iconic
illustrations are conjoined by a cognitive science based
computer program called GRIOT into a fanciful topography.
GRIOT, which is a system for composing generative
and interactive narrative and poetic works, is used to
semantically constrain generated animated output both
visually and conceptually.
Fig. 5 A Generative Visual Renku screenshot: Users co-create
animated maps by clicking visual icons, the system responsively
selects subsequent images according to semantic constraints
Conclusions and Implications
Today many multimedia computing systems show spectacular
animated images that react to user actions with
animated feedback. These artifacts manifest the notion
of animation in a new horizon beyond the cinematic. The
examples of active animation above illustrate this manifestation
in both functional interface design such as the
lively windows of Mac OS X and mobile phone waterlevel
interfaces and in expressive works such as found
at or in our own generative visual
renku. These works all evoke senses of liveliness, not
only with perceptual movements, but also through generative
multimodal feedback loops. They bring life to the
computer, it can now feel more intimate to users through
perceived emotion and even intelligence.
Active animation “enlivens” the computer by concealing
its complexity with a “skin” like the shells of animatronic
robots. Careful understanding of how users
interpret active animation allows designers to “stage”
and “veil” technology in order to create spectacles, suspense,
surprise, and intuitive non-verbal meanings for
users. This approach also brings concern for humanistic
interpretation back to the center of analysis and design
of multimedia artifacts. The integration of computational
and cognitive research results with approaches from animation
studies provides a new orientation for designing
technologies that are more in line with our everyday,
non-verbal, affective acts of communication and understanding.
Arnheim, R. (1974). Art and visual perception : a psychology
of the creative eye. Berkeley: University of California
Cholodenko, A. (2007). Speculations on the Animatic
Automaton. In A. Cholodenko (Ed.), The illusion of life
II : more essays on animation (pp. 486-528). Sydney,
N.S.W.: Power Pub.
Fauconnier, G., & Turner, M. (2002). The way we think
: conceptual blending and the mind’s hidden complexities.
New York: Basic Books.
Harrell, D. F., & Chow, K. K. N. (2008). Generative
Visual Renku: Linked Poetry Generation with the GRIOT
System, Visionary Landscapes: Electronic Literature
Organization 2008 Conference. Washington State University Vancouver, Vancouver, Washington, USA.
Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1999). Philosophy in the
flesh : the embodied mind and its challenge to Western
thought. New York: Basic Books.
Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (2003). Metaphors we live
by. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Metz, C. (1974). Film language : a semiotics of the cinema.
New York: Oxford University Press.
Mitchell, W. J. T. (1986). Iconology : image, text, ideology.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Norman, D. A. (1988). The Psychology of Everyday
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Shneiderman, B. (2003 [1983]). Direct Manipulation: A
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P. (1998). Understanding animation. London ; New
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Conference Info


ADHO - 2009

Hosted at University of Maryland, College Park

College Park, Maryland, United States

June 20, 2009 - June 25, 2009

176 works by 303 authors indexed

Series: ADHO (4)

Organizers: ADHO

  • Keywords: None
  • Language: English
  • Topics: None