Taming the cube

Walkley Innovation Grant winner Skye Doherty shares her journey to bring the NewsCube to life.

Shape is a tricky thing to work with and at NewsCubed it has been both our strongest feature and biggest challenge.

The NewsCube is all about shape – it’s a cube after all – and as the tool has developed, we’ve grappled with how to manage it. On the one hand it has familiar, interactive qualities that make it appealing, but on the other it demands space and attention.

The NewsCube is like a building block that you can add things to. You can touch it and manipulate it. It’s tactile and easy to understand.

For those who have used the NewsCube, and were involved in testing an early prototype, it was these qualities that they liked – it was fun and interactive.

In fact, a former newspaper editor who tested a prototype said “People talk about newspapers being tangible and having that, well this cube’s pretty good for that.”

At the same time, a cube has limitations, most obvious is six sides, so there’s only so much you can fit on it (in our case 54 items, up to nine on each side).

This defined shape can feel restrictive in a way that a web page is not, which can carry as many items as you like.

Restricting space was one of the reasons for using a cube in the first place.

The NewsCube is a experiment in non-linear, hypertext storytelling. On the web, hyperlinks allow us to create connections between things. The paths created by these links can potentially go on and on forever.

This has implications for comprehension. In an inverted pyramid, for example, the narrative is controlled, the reporter takes the audience through the story. But with hypertext, the audience can go where it likes, so the narrative can diverge.

This is the appeal of hypertext. It can make online journalism more interactive, credible, transparent and diverse. It can help tell stories from multiple perspectives. But these stories can be difficult to follow.

This is why the NewsCube is a cube. A cube can bound the hyperspace: give it clear dimensions and help readers navigate the story and get back to where they started.

That’s the theory. In practice, juggling these characteristics has been difficult.

NewsCube prototype

NewsCube prototype

As the NewsCube has evolved from rudimentary prototype to functioning, responsive website, grappling with the demands of the shape have been constant and I’m still not sure we have fully tamed the cube.

In the early balsa wood prototypes the physicality of the cube was the key feature. This translated fairly well to an iPad prototype because it was a defined size and people still used their hands to manipulate it.

On the web things are different. The latest iteration is a responsive web version where tactility is mediated by a mouse or trackpad, and the size changes depending on where the cube is being used.

This gave our designer, David Lloyd, a headache.

“The shape of the cube is a real challenge because it takes up a lot of space and I need to design for a worse-case scenario. We still have ‘small type’ issues, which are being refined as we go.”

For Andrea Epifani, developing a 3D interface on a web browser, and making it usable, has been a battle, but one worth fighting.

“Putting something 3D into a web browser sounded weird and extremely complicated but then turned out to be fun and challenging.

“Fighting with the 3D framework to make the cube better and better over time has been the most interesting part. It’s something I wouldn’t have any chance to do otherwise.”

Working on the web means other features of the NewsCube work better. Creating stories and uploading content are easier, and we’ve created a browser bookmarklet so you can Cube on the fly.

On the web we are not restricted to a specific mobile platform, so the NewsCube is available to more people.

We’ve still got work to do, but the NewsCube is almost ready for Beta release. We’re looking for people to try out our 3D story experience, so if you’d like to give it a spin, please get in touch, or track me or Andrea down at the Storyology Innovation Day.