Commingled Bits--Repurposing the Material Girl
By Nicholas Negroponte
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The fact that, in one year, a then thirty-four-year-old former Michigan cheerleader generated sales in excess of $1.2 billion did not go unnoticed by Time Warner, which signed Madonna to a $60 million "multimedia" contract in 1992. At the time, I was startled to see multimediaused to describe a collection of unrelated traditional print, record, and film productions. Since then, I see the word almost every day in the Wall Street Journal, often used as an adjective to mean anything from interactive to digital to broadband. One headline read, "Record Shops Yield to Multimedia Stores." It would seem that if you are an information and entertainment provider who does not plan to be in the multimedia business, you will soon be out of business. What is this all about?
It's both about new content and about looking at old content in different ways. It's about intrinsically interactive media, made possible by the digital lingua franca of bits. And it's about the decreasing costs, increasing power, and exploding presence of computers.
This technological pull is augmented by an aggressive push from media companies, which are selling and reselling as many of their old bits as possible, including Madonna's (which sell so well). This means not only reuse of music and film libraries but also the expanded use of audio and video, mixed with data, for as many purposes as possible, in multiple packages and through diverse channels. Companies are determined to repurpose their bits at a seemingly small marginal cost and at a likely large profit.
If thirty minutes of situation comedy costs CBS or Fox half a million dollars, it takes very little wisdom to conclude that your existing library of, say, ten thousand hours of film material might be reused profitably. If you were to value your old bits very conservatively at one-fiftieth the cost of the new ones, that makes your library worth $200 million. Not bad.
Repurposing goes hand in hand with the birth of any new medium. Film reused plays, radio resold performances, and TV recycled movies. So there is nothing unnatural about Hollywood's yearning to repurpose its video archives or to combine them with music and text. The problem is that indigenous multimedia material, native to this new medium, is hard to come by in these early days.
Information and entertainment services that really take advantage of and define new multimedia must evolve and need a gestation period long enough to accommodate both successes and failures. As a consequence, multimedia products today are like newborn children with good genes, but not yet sufficiently developed to have a recognizable character and strong physique. Most of today's multimedia applications are somewhat anemic, rarely more than one kind of opportunism or another. But we are learning fast.
From a historical perspective, the incubation period of a new medium can be quite long. It took many years for people to think of moving a movie camera, versus just letting the actors move in front of it. it took thirty-two years to think of adding sound. Sooner or later, dozens of new ideas emerged to give a totally new vocabulary to film and video. The same will happen with multimedia. Until we have a robust body of such concepts, we are bound to see considerable regurgitation of archival bits. This may be okay with Bambi bits, but not so interesting with those of Terminator 2.
Delivering child's fare as multimedia in the form of CD-ROMs (i.e., in atom form) works particularly well because a child is willing to look at or listen to the same story time and time again. I had one of the first Pioneer LaserDisc players at home in 1978. At that time, only one movie existed on laser disc: Smokey and the Bandit. My then eight-year-old son was fully prepared to look at this movie hundreds of times, to the point where he discovered impossible cuts (Jackie Gleason on one side of the car door in one frame and on the other in the next frame), which just escapes you at 30 frames per second. In a later release, Jaws, he was able to find the wiring of the shark by single framing, thus occupying himself for many hours.
During this period, multimedia meant trendy electronic nightclubs, with strobe lights and glitz. It carried the connotation of music plus light show. I was specifically asked to remove the word multimedia from a proposal to the Department of Defense. DOD staff were afraid I would get the notorious Golden Fleece Award from Senator William Proxmire, an annual prize given to the most gratuitously funded government projects, and all the negative publicity that came with it. (In December 1979 the Office of Education, so-called at the time, was less lucky when one of their researchers won the Fleece for spending $219,592 to develop a "curriculum package" to teach college students how to watch television.)
When we showed a fully colored and illustrated page of text on a computer screen, people gasped in astonishment when the illustration turned into a sound-synch movie at the touch of a finger. Some of today's best multimedia titles are high-production-value renditions of less well-made but seminal experiments of that period.
Birth of Multimedia
Late at night on July 3, 1976, the Israelis launched an extraordinarily successful strike on the Entebbe, Uganda, airport, rescuing 103 hostages taken prisoner by pro-Palestinian guerrillas, who were given safe haven by dictator Idi Amin. By the time the one-hour operation ended, twenty to forty Ugandan troops were killed and all seven hijackers were dead. Only one Israeli soldier and three hostages also lost their lives. This impressed the American military so much that the Advanced Research Projects Agency, ARPA, was asked to investigate electronic ways in which American commandos could get the kind of training the Israelis had had to succeed at Entebbe.
What the Israelis had done was build in the desert a physical model, to scale, of the Entebbe Airport (which was easy for them to do because Israeli engineers had designed the airport when the two nations were on friendly terms). The commandos then practiced landings and takeoffs, as well as simulated assaults on this accurate mock-up. By the time they arrived in Uganda for the "real thing," they had an extraordinarily keen spatial and experiential sense of the place, allowing them to perform like natives. What a simple and terrific idea.
However, the idea as a physical embodiment was not extensible, in that we just could not build replicas of every potential hostage situation or terrorist targets like airports and embassies. We needed to do this with computers. Once again, we had to use bits, not atoms. But computer graphics alone, like that used in flight simulators, was inadequate. Whatever system was developed would need the full photorealism of a Hollywood stage set to convey a real sense of place and a feel for the surrounding environment.
My colleagues and I proposed a simple solution. It used videodiscs to allow the user to drive down corridors or streets, as if the vehicle were located in those corridors or on those streets. As our test case, we chosen Aspen, Colorado (risking the Fleece), where the city's grid and size were manageable and where the townsfolk were sufficiently odd that they didn't worry about a homemade film truck driving down the middle of all the streets for several weeks, during several seasons.
The way the system worked was simple. Every street was filmed, in each direction, by taking a frame every three feet. Similarly, every turn was filmed in both directions. By putting the straight street segments on one videodisc and the curves on the other, the computer could give you a seamless driving experience. As you approached an intersection on, say, disc player 1, player 2 would line itself up at the intersection, and in the event that you decided to turn right or left, it would play that segment. While playing the turn, player 1 would then be free to seek out the straight segment of street onto which you had turned and, once again, would seamlessly play it as you ended your turn and started down the new street.
In 1978 the Aspen Project was magic. You could look out your side window, stop in front of a building (like the police station), go inside, have a conversation with the police chief, dial in different seasons, see buildings as they were forty years before, get guided tours, helicopter over maps, turn the city into animation, join a bar scene, and leave a trail like Ariadne's thread to help you get back to where you started. Multimedia was born.
The project was so successful that military contractors were hired to build working prototypes for the field, with the idea of protecting airports and embassies against terrorists. Ironically, one of the first sites to be commissioned was Tehran. Alas, it was not done soon enough.
Beta of the '90s
Today, multimedia offerings are mostly consumer products that, in the form of CD-ROM titles, have reached most Americans between the ages of five and ten, and an increasing number of adults as well. In 1994 more than two thousand CD-ROM consumer titles were available in the United States for the Christmas season. The current world population of all types of CD-ROM titles is estimated to be more than ten thousand. In 1995 almost every desktop computer shipped will have a CD-ROM drive in it.
A CD used as read-only memory (ROM) has a storage capacity today of 5 billion bits (using only one side, because that is easier to manufacture). This capacity will be increased to 50 billion on one side within the next couple of years. Meanwhile, 5 billion alone is huge, when you consider that an issue of the Wall Street Journal has approximately 10 million bits (thus, a CD-ROM can hold about two years' worth). Put another way, a CD represents about 100 classics or five years of reading, even for those who read two novels a week.
From another point of view, 5 billion is not so large; it is only one hour of compressed video. In this regard, the size is modest at best. One likely short-term result is that CD-ROM titles will use a lot of text--which is economically bitwise--many stills, some sound, and only snippets of full-motion video. Ironically, CD-ROMs may thus make us read more, not less.
The longer-term view of multimedia, however, is not based on that fifty-cent piece of plastic, 5 billion or 50 billion bits, but will be built out of the growing base of on-line systems that are effectively limitless in their capacity. Louis Rossetto, the founder of Wired,calls CD-ROMs the "Beta of the '90s," referring to the now-defunct Betamax video standard. He is certainly correct that, in the long term, multimedia will be predominantly an on-line phenomenon. Whereas the economic models for being on-line and for having your own CD-ROM may be different, with broadband access the functionality can be viewed as the same.
Either way, a fundamental editorial change takes place, because depth and breadth are no longer either/or. When you buy a printed encyclopedia, world atlas, or book on the animal kingdom, you expect very general and broad coverage of many far-ranging topics. By contrast, when you buy a book on William Tell, the Aleutian Islands, or kangaroos, you expect an "in depth" treatment of the person, place, or animal. In the world of atoms, physical limits preclude having both breadth and depth in the same volume--unless it's a book that's a mile thick.
In the digital world, the depth/breadth problem disappears and we can expect readers and authors to move more freely between generalities and specifics. In fact, the notion of "tell me more" is very much part of multimedia and at the root of hypermedia.
Books Without Pages
Hypermedia is an extension of hypertext, a term for highly interconnected narrative, or linked information. The idea came from early experiments at the Stanford Research Institute by Douglas Englebart and derived its name from work at Brown University by Ted Nelson, circa 1965. In a printed book, sentences, paragraphs, pages, and chapters follow one another in an order determined not only by the author but also by the physical and sequential construct of the book itself. While a book may be randomly accessible and your eyes may browse quite haphazardly, it is nonetheless forever fixed by the confines of three physical dimensions.
In the digital world, this is not the case. Information space is by no means limited to three dimensions. An expression of an idea or train of thought can include a multidimensional network of pointers to further elaborations or arguments, which can be invoked or ignored. The structure of the text should be imagined like a complex molecular model. Chunks of information can be reordered, sentences expanded, and words given definitions on the spot (something I hope you have not needed too often in this book). These linkages can be embedded either by the author at "publishing" time or later by readers over time.
Think of hypermedia as a collection of elastic messages that can stretch and shrink in accordance with the reader's actions. Ideas can be opened and analyzed at multiple levels of detail. The best paper equivalent I can think of is an Advent calendar. But when you open the little electronic (versus paper) doors, you may see a different story line depending on the situation or, like barbershop mirrors, an image within an image within an image.
Interaction is implicit in all multimedia. If the intended experience were passive, then closed-captioned television and subtitled movies would fit the definition of video, audio, and data combined.
Multimedia products include both interactive television and video-enabled computers. As discussed earlier, the difference between these two is thin, thinning, and eventually will be nonexistent. Many people (especially parents) think of "interactive video" in terms of Nintendo, Sega, and other makers of "twitch" games. Some electronic games can be so physically demanding that one has to get into a jogging suit in order to participate. The TV of the future, however, will not necessarily require the hyperactivity of Road Runner or the physique of Jane Fonda.
Today, multimedia is a desktop or living room experience, because the apparatus is so clunky. Even laptops, with their clamshell design, do not lend themselves to being very personal information appliances. This will change dramatically with small, bright, thin, flexible high-resolution displays. Multimedia will become more book-like, something with which you can curl up in bed and either have a conversation or be told a story. Multimedia will someday be as subtle and rich as the feel of paper and the smell of leather.
It is important to think of multimedia as more than a private world's fair or "son et lumière" of information, mixing fixed chunks of video, audio, and data. Translating freely from one to the other is really where the field of multimedia is headed.
The medium is not the message in a digital world. It is an embodiment of it. A message might have several embodiments automatically derivable from the same data. In the future, the broadcaster will send out one stream of bits, like the weather example, which can be converted by the receiver in many different ways. The same bits can be looked at by the viewer from many perspectives. Take a sporting event, for example.
The incoming football bits can be converted by the computer-TV for you to experience them as a video; to hear them through an announcer; or to see them as diagrams of the plays. In each case it is the same game and same pool of bits. When those bits are turned into audio-only, the acoustic medium forces you to imagine the action (but allows you to drive a car at the same time). When the bits are turned into video, less is left to the imagination, but tactics are hard to see (because of the pell-mell or the sight of people piled on top of one another). When the bits are rendered as a diagram, the strategy and defense are quickly revealed. Moving among the three will be likely.
Think of a CD-ROM title on entomology as another example. Its structure will be more that of a theme park than book. It is explored by different people in different ways. The architecture of a mosquito might best be represented in line drawings, its flight by animation, and its noise (obviously) through sound. But each incarnation need not be a different database or a separately crafted multimedia experience. They all could emanate from a single representation or be translated from one medium to another.
Thinking about multimedia needs to include ideas about the fluid movement from one medium to the next, saying the same thing in different ways, calling upon one human sense or another: if you did not understand it when I said it the first time, let me (the machine) show it to you as a cartoon or 3-D diagram. This kind of media movement can include anything from movies that explain themselves with text to books with gentle voice to read themselves to you out loud as you are dozing off.
A recent breakthrough in such automatic translation from one medium to another is the work of Walter Bender and his students at the Media Lab called "salient stills." The question they posed was, "How could many seconds of video be printed as a still in such a way that the resolution of the still image would be an order of magnitude greater than any one frame? A single frame of 8mm video has very low resolution (two-hundred-plus lines) in comparison to a 35mm slide (thousands). The answer was to pull resolution out of time and look at many frames both forward and backward in time.
The research resulted in a process that can make very high-quality video prints (literally a three-foot-by-four-foot Kodacolor print) from crummy 8mm video. These stills have in excess of five thousand lines of resolution. This means that selections from the billions of hours of 8mm home movies stored in the shoe boxes of American homes can be turned into a portrait or Christmas card or printed for a photo album with as much or more resolution as a normal 35mm snapshot. Breaking news stories can be printed from CNN footage onto the front page of your newspaper or the cover of Time magazine, without recourse to those coarse images we sometimes see that make the world look like it is being seen through a blurry ventilator grill.
A salient still actually is an image that never existed. It represents a still frame of many seconds. During that time the camera may have zoomed and panned, and objects in the scene may have moved. The image is nonetheless crisp, without blur, and perfectly resolved. The still photo's contents reflect to some real degree the filmmaker's intentions by putting more resolution in places where the camera zoomed or by widening the scene if it panned. In Bender's method, quickly moving elements, like a person walking across a stage, drop out in favor of the temporarily stable ones.
This example of "multimedia" involves translating one dimension (time) into another dimension (space). A simple example is when a speech (the acoustic domain) is transcribed to print (the text domain) with punctuation indicating some intonation. Or, the script for a play in which the spoken lines are accompanied by many stage directions to establish the desired tone. These are forms of multimedia that often go unnoticed, but they, too, are part of a very large business.
From Being Digital by Nicolas Negroponte. Copyright © 1995 by Nicholas Negroponte. Reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., a Division of Random House, Inc.
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