About a year ago we did some workshops with the BBC, to look at new ways in which history could be explored and explained using digital media. We came up with 30 or so ideas which got narrowed down to 5 ‘microbriefs’ for possible future prototyping.
One of our favourites from the off was an idea we called “Dimensions”.
From our original concept document:
“We want to bring home the human scale of events and places in history. The Apollo 11 Moon walk explored an area smaller than Trafalgar Square; the distance between your WW1 trench and the enemy could only be as much as from your front door to the street corner.
Dimensions is a feature on websites that juxtaposes the size of historical events with your home and neighbourhood. You’re hearing about the span of the base of the Great Pyramids, or the distance of the book depository from JFK, or the extent of the Great Fire of London… Dimensions overlays this map on a satellite view of where you live.”
Earlier this year we began to design and build a public prototype of the BBC Dimensions concept which we’re putting live today.
It lives at http://howbigreally.com and it’ll be available as a trial for the next few months.
Let me give you a little tour.
What’s a Dimension then? Well, basically what it says right there on the homepage: “Dimensions takes important places, events and things, and overlays them onto a map of where you are.”
You can have a play right there and then by entering your postcode or a place name. It understands most things that google maps understands. We’ve built the prototype using google maps, but there’s no reason why it couldn’t work on top of another mapping system eventually.
As we were building the prototype, the BP Deepwater Horizon oil-spill disaster occurred, and you might have seen the excellent visualisation at http://www.ifitwasmyhome.com/ by Andy Lintner.
When we saw that and how well it was received – we knew we were on the right track! Dimensions is a platform to explore a lot more in that vein.
The routes, such as that taken by the Apollo 11 moonwalkers mentioned in the original concept really can be revealing when juxtaposed on your postcode, or an area you know well…
For instance if I type in our studio’s postcode…
I can see that Buzz and Neil would have barely left the building’s carpark…
Some Dimensions let you go a step further, literally – by allowing you to plot a route around your neighbourhood, or perhaps your commute, or perhaps a nearby bit of countryside – so that you can viscerally experience the distances involved.
You point and click on the map to make your walk like so – a little gauge runs along the bottom so you can see how far you have left to plot…
…and when you’re happy with your route you can print out a map to take on your dimensional ramble.
The distance just about takes us from the front-door of our studio to a refreshing pint in one of our locals, The Book Club. Just the thing after a moonwalk.
It’s a bit like a digital toy – that just does one thing, very clearly (we hope) and delights in doing so.
It’s imagined that if the prototype is successful, it will be integrated into the main BBC site for embedding into history and news storytelling online.
The prototype system that we’ve made allows designers and producers at the BBC to create as many Dimensions as they want to using standard SVG creation tools. It’s also possible that this system could be opened up for local history enthusiasts to create their own dimensions to contribute.
The BBC worked with KeltieCochrane to create the initial content that’s in this prototype, and it was fantastic to see the system we built fill up with their work. My favourite’s The Colossus of Rhodes. Brilliant.
We’ll write some more here about both possible futures and the behind-the-scenes of Dimensions later. In the mean-time, many thanks to Matt Brown, Tom Armitage, Matt Webb, Phil Gyford and Paul Mison who worked on this with me, and Max Gadney for giving us a lovely brief.
Alan Kay once said that “A change of perspective is worth +80 IQ points”– that’s the goal of BBC Dimensions. So long as it delivers tiny bursts of that along with the little grins of ah-ha it seems to generate, we’ll be very happy.
You can find the BBC Dimensions prototype at http://howbigreally.com