by Rob Ford
2007 is already turning out to be a year of renewed innovation for the websites we're seeing. Since 2004, in my opinion, websites have been a bit stale. Before this year, the last site to truly whet my appetite was the Vodafone Future Site from January 2004.
Below you'll find a varied array of sites that are pushing the limits of what is achievable right now, including application-style, video-enhanced, 3D-flavored, progressive gaming, high-impact motion, user interactive, and purely creative sites.
Life-size blue whale
Let's start with this simple yet creative idea: This site gives users a rare online close-up experience with the endangered blue whale, the largest animal ever to have lived on this planet. It's part of the WDCS's antiwhaling campaign.
In the top right corner of the site, you see a scaled picture of the blue whale — a map of sorts — and the main view is a close-up of the whale. Treat the main viewable area as one huge image. By clicking and dragging the image, you can see the blue whale in great detail. You can also move the small red square around in the small picture to show the desired part of the whale up close.
If you have a dual monitor setup, this experience is even better — and with the ambient background sound, it's also realistic.
Site by RED Interactive Agency
This is one of the most original sites an interactive agency has ever come up with. As you enter the site, you find yourself in a new universe called RED. It's a world full of other Internet users with whom you can chat, run, fly, and dance. You can even punch each other in the face (all in good fun, of course).
Customize your own character with the control panel, and consult the user manual to find secret keys and to learn what moves you can make.
As I wrote this column, I was on the site with 91 other users who spoke many different languages. I tried to get a live comment for this article, and the best I could come up with was one from "Jenny" from the UK. I asked her what she thought of the site, and she replied, "Fat boy!" You've got to love the Internet.This site is great fun, and let's not forget that it also acts as a showcase
Volkswagen of America
The new official site for VW took me by surprise when I first saw it. I wasn't expecting to find such a courageous approach — it's a search-orientated site. For large worldwide brands, I always expect that the rules of corporate web design will be followed, but they weren't for this site, which was designed by the always-impressive minds at Crispin Porter + Bogusky.
It's amazing how the design and development team have managed to take an enormous amount of VW content and present it in such a bite-size fashion, with half a dozen drop-down menus to choose from.
I recommend checking out the Top Searches area as well as the VW Hype section. Both are loaded with incredibly creative microsites.
Let the game continue
Let me set the scene: You're traveling late in the evening on a deserted road and your car goes up in a ball of flames. It happens. Next thing you know, darkness descends and you hitch a lift with a crazy woman in an ice cream van that's pumping bhangra music.
This is an unforgettable full-screen video experience for Axe's latest shower gel. It's video with a hook — you get to choose which direction to go next. Experience the whole video for a nice treat at the end. This site is targeted at red-blooded men, which I'm sure you'll quickly figure out.
Samsung summer collection
Site by Perfect Fools
High-impact motion is delivered seamlessly on this campaign site for Samsung. I love this type of site because it puts the product in your face. Each section has a short full-screen motion intro that plays like a fashion show, and each intro ends with the 3D model holding the chosen mobile phone front and center.
After the intro, you can use draggable navigation to rotate the phone three-dimensionally. This is top-quality, progressive stuff.
Michelin — A better way forward
It's time to explore Michelin's world of better mobility. Luscious 3D fly-by footage holds each section together and makes for an eye-popping journey through this site. Not only is this site loaded with eye candy, but it's also packed with information and life-saving tips. For example, in the safety simulator you can watch video footage on how to survive a blowout.
With plenty to explore here, there's something for everyone.
James Martin — Chef
Everyone from the UK knows who James Martin is, but for those who don't, he's a celebrity chef who's seemingly on our screens 24 hours a day. But I must admit that his desserts are exquisite.
His new site is a demonstration of intelligent design and careful planning. Propped up by what must be an impressive CMS, the simple navigation makes exploring the site easy, which must have been important considering James's target market is not the savvy web user.
The attention to detail and pixel-perfect approach are impressive, and the fact that this site contains a blog and an online shop that are both fully integrated with Flash® is commendable.
UPM forest life
Site by Valve
Last month, I called out a site that I didn't expect to impress me. Well, here's another one. Don't ask me why I have such preconceptions. I really don't know. But I love to be surprised, and this site is certainly a surprise.
Here you get a chance to take a walk in the forest, and the experience is as real as you can imagine. If you're like me, you often wonder which way to go when walking in the forest. The best thing about this site is that you won't get lost, so keep clicking and exploring.
This site is loaded with alpha video, some of which may take a while to load if you are not on a fast connection. But the video surprises you when things suddenly come to life and start moving.
BMW's Pursuit Across Europe isn't a game; it is one of the most beautiful movies you have ever seen. And, by the way, you play the leading part. From Lisbon to Prague, this long multipart journey is impressive indeed.
You start in the 1 series BMW, but you can upgrade to the Z4 if you drive fast enough. Everything about this production is first class, from the illustrative work to the gameplay and the music.
Register for the best experience and for the opportunity to complete the race in the coming months as each new section of the pursuit rolls out.
I mentioned at the beginning of this column that the creative experience on the web is surging again. I think you'll agree that these sites prove that Flash has already taken the web to places we never thought possible ten years ago. To illustrate my point, and for those of you who are relatively new to the web or Flash, take a look at this Gabocorp site from 1997. Gabo's site was far more groundbreaking in its day than any of the sites I have featured here. It's incredible how far things have come. The fact that Gabocorp had sound and primitive motion was awe-inspiring at the time, and we'd never seen anything like it before. It was the ultimate in web design and the new standard for what you could achieve. The question is, will we look back at the sites in this column in another ten years and think the same about them?
Rob Ford founded The FWA Network in May 2000 and since then the network has received over 150 million visits. The FWA Network showcases projects that use cutting edge technology for desktop, mobile and offline, together with showcases for photography as well as video. Rob is also the author of three bestselling books of web and mobile. Check out The FWA Network.