The Convergence of Interactive Media

Francois Chew

There is currently a gap for most people between the process of watching video and getting to create it. For one thing, the process is usually hidden by the time most people see the final polish on broadcast television. Thus broadcast video is mystified in magic sparkles, and the truth remains hidden beneath the surface while the audience is manipulated. In order to understand the language of media, like all languages, people have to speak it themselves. The widespread use of video cameras, image manipulation tools, and desktop video which are reaching the consumer market is propelled by the demand to speak the language they've been listening to for so long.

The pattern for media tools may go as follows: Big budget films invest in discovering special effects techniques to give the audience their money's worth of magic (such as morphing chrome cops). Then a demand within the audience grows to find out how the trick is done. So behind the scenes videos become popular for a while, rerunning footage of computer graphic wireframe water tentacles and dinosaurs. Then a demand grows for the actual power to create the effects. Software companies cash in here, selling big on the media creation and effects tools, such as PhotoShop, Morph Plus, the Video Toaster, etc.

Why is reality manipulation so important? We see that in the MUDs, tools like 'emote' provide a new layer of communication that's not available in real life conversations. For example, on a MUD, dumping a bucket of sewage over a friend's head could be considered a valid way to answer a question. Being able to communicate by manipulating a common reality is a method for one imagination to vividly leap to the next. While MUDS give us this method of communication by text, computer graphic simulation gives us this communication by video. It is one hundred times more powerful, given that most of America is illiterate, and while we can control our thoughts when it comes to text, it is more difficult with video. Commercials exploit this technology to lay their memetic eggs in our subconscious minds. Now people are going to have this power to communicate to each other.

Stopping the technology from spreading isn't the likely option. People will learn the language naturally, by observing others and creating it themselves. However, a current a trend for people who get new magic tools (ex. a morph program) is to flaunt it in all of their presentations because they have to keep up with the competition. In order to minimize abuse during the education about this media, a feedback loop of cooperation instead of competition needs to be established between those experienced communicating with the technology and those who just bought the technology.

Because the software isn't free, however, those who can afford it have to use it to make money, thus perpetuating the competition. But soon the threshold for widespread use of these tools in everyday conversation (as in the MUDs) will be crossed (most likely from pirated or shareware software).

So this controllable graphic spectacle would be the individual's interface to the rest of the world, to fellow cyberfriends. Moxy the Toon Dog, (Wired 1.5, p.28) , a computer generated puppet whose motions and lip sync are digitized by wired up actors is an example of such a graphic spectacle, controllable in real time. Such a commodity might eventually be a popular consumer item for the video phone.

This move to real time shifts this high bandwidth media from unidirectional communication to bidirectional. However, if we assume that telephone companies will make high bandwidth output lines very expensive, then it would follow that not everyone can output broadcast quality images from their homes. Nonetheless, there would certainly be more output from varying sources than from the single concentrated points of mass tv. Between the one- way communication of television (one to mass), and the two-way communication between individuals (one to one), is there any in between? (few to many)

Here's a projection of a possible combination. In any case, once creative people have access to this equipment on a small scale, they will almost certainly be wiring the channels dynamically and creatively. If people choose to have more options then the binary yes no, buy-this-buy-that of the remote control, it will be wired up that way. Video on demand. How can we combine the need for fresh content with interactive television? We have the bandwidth for 500 channels, but do people really want to see stale videos? They want the same live, unpredictable media feed that sustains MUD and football game addiction, but they want some control. Let's assume that high bandwidth out of the home has to be paid for, but high bandwidth input is less expensive, because advertisements pay for it. This means we get many smaller private cable studios, increasingly located in people's houses. The spectacle that people could be watching may likely an ongoing scenario, a live 3D animated cartoon which is being generated in real time by the artists back in a garage studio. We will see a lot of computer animation, because it allows us to portray spectacular unrealistic possibilities like in the MUDs (such as chainsawing the nude hero). It also gives the material goods vendors a chance to anthropomorphatize their products.

Let's assume that people can either pay for a channel, or have to endure product endorsements. In the latter case, since the artists are holding onto the audience with their life, they have to find creative ways to integrate the product into their live story. In effect this is the perfect blending of the entertainment and the commercial, which we already see today somewhat in entertaining commercials and commercialized movies. A commercial break on the small channel means certain doom, for when the reality shifts so suddenly, in one massive judgement the audience attention scatters into other channels. (The money endorsed by the advertisers depends directly on the number of people watching, of course. No Nielsen family) The product endorser may choose to focus the target of their products to certain channels, and perhaps certain layers within the channel. In turn the content of the channel may reflect the product the endorsing company wants to sell. Thus if this was a pornographic channel, the animated characters would constantly be whipping out models of new toys (which can actually be bought) and finding creative ways to experiment with them and use them as plot items. Viewers may wish to order them through their remote controls, discover new things to do with them, and then call up with advice.

Let's say that this particular channel is interactive to the extent that people can call up through a low bandwidth net- like feed on a MUD system and offer creative dilemmas and solutions to the present story. The audience would determine the outcome of the soap opera, but getting immediate feedback. The MUD system is used in this case because its discovered to be the best way for many people to portray their imagination intelligently, without simultaneously inhibiting the communication of others.

The storywriter is concurrently connected as a character on the MUD conversing with people who have creative suggestions, and writing out the plot for the vactors (virtual actors) say, 5 minutes in advance. Likewise, people doing other jobs (such as background 3D objects, special effects, editing, or virtual camerawork) are checking up on the plot line for cues and may have characters in other MUD rooms. Each room could be devoted to a certain production task, so people at home interested in a certain arena of production could watch, in effect, the master behind the scene in action.

Perhaps there could be videocameras taping the production team in action (broadcast in parallel on other channels), so the magic could be demystified and some real media education could take place ("Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!"). The relationship between the production group and the somewhat large viewing group is important, and so far has been overlooked amidst the current competition in the entertainment industry. If interested viewers can learn how the process works instead of remaining on the receiving end the whole time, they could learn not to be manipulated so easily by the media. As it is now, only those privileged enough to own expensive technology and experiment with it can see through the magic spectacle. From the other vantage point, these artists would depend on the feedback from the interested audience members, selecting good ideas from the MUD pool, and performing them in real-time through their interface to the graphical 3D system, which passes through selective channels, such as the editor, to the final channel output. For example, let's pretend I'm the background animator. I make the clouds giggle occasionally, the sky rain, the wind blow, the owl in the tree hold up a big sign saying "Technical Difficulties". We have an unrigid hierarchy organized here, which means I take first orders from the storywriter (through vocal bandwidth), but when he doesn't say anything to me directly (which is often), I use my own judgement. This is necessary in order to keep the whole system alive but free from central control. I'm in the MUD room labeled 'Background Animation Studio', and the people in this room are supposedly watching the final output video simultaneously (they may also be watching unedited feeds from other parts of this 3D world on other channels which may be running in parallel). Let's assume that the description of this room tells everyone what software I'm using--another sly endorsement. Among the lines of text people are suggesting, someone in the MUD room (probably a prepubescent teenager procrastinating from his homework) makes the suggestion that the distant eagle in the background lay a checkered porcelain egg. If this rhymes with the genre of our show, this interactive participant gets his wish. Someone else such as the storywriter in the other room may find use for it in his developing plot line.

This interactive tv studio system is a possible way in which low bandwidth can go in, high bandwidth successfully comes out, and there is still the passive/interactive entertainment value, interaction, and commercial value blended together. On top of that, the 'second layer of eyes' (made possible by several channels) into the spectacle reveals the process, and gives the audience more of an understanding of the medium. The real-time vfeedback loop between spectacle and audience is essential to the entire function, for education is necessary to the next generation of media artists. We can't entertain every audience, so we must educate those that'll entertain the next. The key here is that the spectacle has multiple layers, any one of which any audience member can access at any time, each layer with its own interest group and endorsements, but the entire system is a working community. The challenge becomes balancing the multiple layers, but at any point parts of the audience can be aware of certain imbalances, which themselves become the entertaining problems they must face. The final story may be very random, but this is to be expected from the combination of so many ideas. (As if 'The Simpsons' wasn't random enough.) Although the storywriter maintains a vague outline, people don't expect the show to have much of a plot because they just want to see their ideas turned into television-- a first step to becoming media creators themselves. Because such a system can be very flexible, increasing something like the input bandwidth from the audience, for example wouldn't topple everything, but merely change its structure. Increasing the input bandwidth would be hard to do, considering the fact that phone companies want to cash in, but would be the eventual goal, and might cost the audience members. For example, if instead of offering ideas in the form of text, participants could actually create and operate their own characters through high bandwidth, then we'd finally have an all out 3D decentralized multiuser cyberworld. This would empower more creativity to the interactive community, and the only audience members would be the 'voyeurists' looking in from the outside, from the uninteractive end. The final TV output would merely be scraping the surface of the experience, while those who can afford the equipment to digitize their imagination become the spectacles for the rest of us.

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