November 05, 2012 - Comments Off on Sixty four lights in Japan and what they mean to UX design

Sixty four lights in Japan and what they mean to UX design

It was a photograph of an eight by eight grid of lights that hung above an escalator in a university in Japan along with a table of data, but back in 1998 it was my favourite website, and, in a way, it still is.

Lights in Japan – my artists’ impression

The website had no real name – or if it did it was not in a language I could understand -but I called it ‘lights in Japan’.  Not only did the site not have an obvious name – its real function was, at first glance, equally oblique.  The photograph of the board of lamps was an image map and clicking on one of the photographed bulbs would turn that bulb on if it was off, or off it was on.  The data was the IP addresses of the last ten clicks.  A click would update the page – and so, the photograph – and you’d immediately see the impact you’d made.

And that was it and probably at this point you have either got it or not and if not you might never do.  I would turn a light on trying to draw a picture of Pac-Man but as I did someone else would be trying to do whatever it was they were doing. So began the interaction.

It was in that interaction where the sense of wonder began. You communicated, by means of turning on and off lights, and that communication could be aggressive- trying to sweep the board or it could end up collaborative. I made stripes with someone, and halves, and I have no idea who with. I imagined what it must have been like to be standing watching the board then.Seeing symmetry emerge from randomness and imagining that it was the result of this cyber union of the mind.

Let it not be said that ‘lights in Japan’ was in any way groundbreaking with regards to internet technology.This is not a story of being first, but rather one of laying bare the possibilities beyond the web as it was then.

In 1998 most of the web could aptly be described as an enhanced version of something else.Message boards were just improved Letters to the Editor, internet forms were analogous to their paper counterparts, Instant Messaging was just a text telephone. Web design, to an extent, was about seeing something offline and making it happen online.

But in its vague way ‘lights in Japan’ was a different type of communication.  To use a cliché it was beyond language and what is more, it hinted at a future to come where the web was more than doing offline faster. A future where it was not language but information that was to be considered the lingua franca of the web.

That day when I chased someone’s light around the grid with my light, a set of de facto rules seemingly emerged. I’ve never played World of Warcraft but it is the descendant of those sixty four flickering bulbs on a board in Japan.

Anyone could come to ‘lights in Japan’ and leave something there to become subject to interpretation and interaction by others. From such acorns grows a drawn description of the development of Fickr, Twitter and Facebook.

It was, for me, a thing of wonder.  It opened ideas that still fascinate me today and drive what we do in UX at Bloom. It was a space that defined an experience for the user but then allowed for emergent behaviour. It created a sandbox and let you play.

It was a wonderful thing then and still is, to me at least, and I hold ‘lights in Japan’ up as the example to compare other websites to. So far, nothing has sparked the imagination or created as much of a sense of wonder as those 64 lights.