For this assignment, I chose the site, “Calling Thunder: The Unsung History of Manhattan.” This site is a 3-D interactive site that uses interactive maps and sounds to immerse the user in its content. The main purpose of this site is to look at 4 different places in New York City both in present day (2017), and in 1609 when Henry Hudson first came to the island. These four locations are strategically placed around the island, to highlight not only the differences in sight, but also in sound. The natural wildlife sounds of 1609 are remarkable as it feels like you could be on the same ship Hudson was on, sailing into the Hudson Bay. It is just as bittersweet to hear how those sounds have disappeared to the hustle and bustle of city life. The locations in the video include, Collect Pond Park, The High Line, The American History of Natural History, and Inwood Hill Park. Overall, the site has a good user experience and accessibility features, with the exception of a few confusing and unnecessary links, missing alt texts, and contrast errors.
The site starts off with a “title slide” if you will. In the background is a moving picture of clouds over an ariel view of Manhattan. This picture cannot be interacted with; however, it is a nice touch as it is ominous, and makes the user want to learn more. In the middle of the screen is the title “Calling Thunder”. There is a sub-title underneath, with the words “The Unsung History of Manhattan.” The title can be clicked on, but it will simply just refresh the page. I could see how this might be confusing at first for some people, and it isn’t really necessary to have since the user is already on that page anyways. An arrow at the bottom of the page invites the user to scroll down. Once the curser is over the arrow, the words “Scroll down” will actually appear. You then have the choice to either physically scroll down the page or click on the words “scroll down” and the page will scroll automatically.
Once scrolled down, there is a very quick text introducing the project, followed by the heart of the site: the interactive 3-D Video. The video is 9 minutes in length and covers the four Manhattan areas previously mentioned. It allows the user to completely have control of each area in 360 degrees of motion by clicking and “dragging” the screen. Each portion starts in the 2017 modern day era, and then changes to the 1609 overlay. It is important to note that these sections are just line drawing estimates of what each particular area is estimated to have looked like based on their respective geographies. The video has a compass in the middle of the right side of the screen so the viewer can get back to 0 degrees north at any given point should they be lost and/or confused at what they are looking at. I found this feature to be especially helpful during the 1609 portions and transitions as they were dark and even pitch black at times (See photo). It is also worth mentioning that the words of each place appear as an overlay at each of the 4 locations and their 1609 counterparts. These can be easily missed however, if the viewer is not looking in their direction as they pop up on the screen. Again, I found myself missing a few titles as I was taking screenshots, forcing me to rewind and try again. Throughout the video Emily Kron (credited at the end) narrates and tells a little bit of history about each area. When she isn’t narrating, the video plays the sounds each area/time would offer if you were standing there at that time, something that previously was never touched upon until this project.
Below the video embedded on the website, there are two boxes that contain links to other websites. The first box is labeled as “NYT 360” and takes you to a 2017 New York Times article written about the project. The article isn’t that long, and gives valuable information about the creator, the video, and the project as a whole. It is worth taking the 5 minutes it takes to read for more information, should you be interested. My only suggestion for this link on the website itself would to make it clearer to the user. The simple “NYT 360” can come off confusing to some people, myself included, upon first glance as it may come off as another video. This change could be as simple as renaming the link as “Calling Thunder New York Times Article.” While this isn’t the most glamorous name, it makes the link clearer, and could potentially invite more people to want to click on it.
Below that link is another link to the same exact 9-minute 360 interactive video on YouTube. This link is the only missing alt text error on the site (according to webaim.org), so it does not audibly say what the link itself is. This obviously is a problem that needs to be addressed, and I would also suggest renaming the link to “YouTube Video Link” instead of “YouTube 360”. This title may not be as confusing as the previous one, but it can still be better. Overall, I think the addition of the link is good, should there be any problems with users not being able to start the sites embedded video, as it allows for a backup option.
Continuing to scroll down, there is a background picture of 1609 Manhattan between sections. This picture is the only missing alt text error on the site (according to webaim.org).
The next section titled “Featured Locations”, which highlight each of the four locations previously mentioned individually. They each have their own sections, which include their respective snippets of video from the full 9-minute video, as well as a list of wildlife species who were likely the inhabitants of Manhattan in 1609. This section has the sites only contrast error, as part of the text includes a link. The words “Welikia Project” and “More” are separate links in Gray over a Gray background, so it is very easy to miss. I would suggest making the color to both of these links Blue. This would make the link much clearer, and more obvious as most hyperlinks are in blue.
Both of these links take the user to a separate site which allows the user to pick any street in NYC, and it will tell you the wildlife and landscape of that block in 1609. I picked a dozen blocks, and they all came up with information. In order to find a block, the user can either use the search bar in the top left of the website or highlight the street with the curser. There are also options to zoom in and out using the “+” and “-“ buttons, bring up street lines with the “streets” button at the bottom, and, an option to make the map full screen. The only aspect of this map that I found to be unfulfilling is the slider at the bottom which allows the user to bring it to the past or the present. This slider comes off as though it will go through the history of Manhattan, slowly seeing progress being made, but it’s simply just an overlay of the 1609 map and the present day one. The more you move toward the “Present” tab, the clearer the present map becomes, and vice versa. The only function this slider serves is to see the geography of a particular point in the past. Since the whole island at that point looked like one giant green block, it doesn’t really do much for me.
Going back to the main site, below the “Featured Locations” section there is a “Listen” section, which allows for the user to get the audio-only version of the 3D video. This link is easily identifiable as it has play button, and a description of what the audio file is. I like the addition of this audio-only link as it places the focus solely on the sound of each location. This allows the user to completely immerse themselves in the location, without being distracted by the ability to have complete control over the movie.
Scrolling down further, there is a quick section titled “Looking Ahead” which announces there will be a VR version of the video coming soon, but as of the date of this review, it is not available yet.
Finally, at the end of the page is the credits page. This is simply white text on a black background, with each person/company/source having a clear link credit. There is also a link to contact the creator of the project via email and go to his personal portfolio. However, there aren’t any social media links. I like how simple they chose to do this page because everything is clear and contrasted well.
With a few very minor contrast errors in the middle of the page, and a missing alt text, everything is very easy to navigate, and pretty straight forward. This site is really just one main page that scrolls all the way down and there aren’t any annoying ads that pop up or confusing scrolls that can happen to some 3D sites. There is really only one purpose to this site and that is very evident, so the user doesn’t have to “think”. Also, there isn’t anything that needs to be downloaded or any sketchy links that could turn away people. I really like the inclusion of being able to access the video in multiple formats and locations as it not only adds another way to think about the media, but also provides a backup option should the video not work making the site accessible to anyone. The layout of the site is great as well, as each section is clearly titled and separated. Overall, this site has a good user experience.