From the category archives:

Interactive

A poster for the interactive movie "Turbulence"

“All filmmaking is based on a lie,” says Israeli Professor Nitzan Ben-Shaul. “In the narrative structure of a movie, it appears that there is only one possible ending – that the way it’s presented is the way it has to be. But in life there are always options.”

To demonstrate his argument, Ben-Shaul of the Film and Television Department at Tel Aviv University has created the world’s first, fully interactive feature film where the viewer gets to decide at various points, in real time, how the action will progress. “It’s nothing short of revolutionary,” he says. “It has the possibility of turning every one of us into potential film directors.”

Ben-Shaul is not a technologist – he teaches classes in cinema studies at Tel Aviv University and has written several books including Mythical Expressions of Siege in Israeli Films and Hyper-Narrative Interactive Cinema: Problems and Solution. So to create his interactive movie, he partnered with Guy Avneyon who built a sophisticated patent-pending movie editor and standalone player.

The technology is still under construction, as is the company. Turbulence (also the name of Ben-Shaul’s interactive film) is just now being incorporated and seeking angel investment. For Ben-Shaul, that’s less important. His focus is the process of thinking through the making of an interactive movie.

Ben-Shaul points to the Gwyneth Paltrow hit Sliding Doors which presented two alternative paths that intersected, diverged and eventually arrived at a single conclusion.

Turbulence the film is similar, except that the viewer controls the points of departure. The 83-minute suspense/thriller is about three friends who meet by chance in New York 20 years after they participated in a demonstration in Israel and were arrested. At the time, the police pitted the three against each other, which led to accusations of betrayal. There is also a love story that is rekindled.

The interaction takes the form of “hot spots” that glow when the viewer can make a choice. At one point, for example, one of the Israelis has written a message to his lover on his cell phone. The viewer can click “Send” or “Cancel”. If the viewer hesitates too long, the action continues according to a pre-determined narrative path.

Unlike previous interactive attempts, the transitions in Turbulence are seamless, which means there is no point where the movie stops and a flashing button appears with big icons to click. Once a choice is made, the film immediately cuts to a new scene. “That’s the language of movies,” Ben-Shaul explains. “There could be 4,000 cuts in a film, but if you cut on motion, people don’t see the transition, they just see the flow.”

While viewers make choices throughout the viewing experience, the film regularly returns to the main narrative. This means the writers don’t have to create 10 entirely different scripts (although in Turbulence there are several alternate endings).

Ben-Shaul is adamant that interactivity is not a gimmick – like the first attempts at 3D in the 1950s and 1960s. But he warns that interactive films must be carefully planned to avoid the errors of more primitive experiments in the past.

These mistakes include what he refers to as the ‘computerization trap’. “Computers can generate endless possibilities, but that doesn’t help the viewer in terms of drama. It interests computers, but not humans!” he says. Good interactive drama, he adds, is actually about “option restriction”.

Interactive movie producers should also not try to emulate the gaming world, he cautions. “It’s not about scoring and puzzle-solving,” Ben-Shaul says. “It’s about creating real, life-like situations.”

Turbulence can currently be viewed on either a Mac or PC. But Ben-Shaul is most excited about the red-hot Apple iPad. With its touch screen and media consumption emphasis, “it’s the perfect device. The iPad is a main target,” Ben-Shaul says.

Behind the scenes at Turbulence

The technological secret behind the film comprises an editor that will be familiar to anyone who’s ever created a movie, with a timeline, audio control, and multiple tracks. There are various additions such as a library of clips and hot spots that can be easily inserted.

The aim is to sell a standalone version as well as plug-ins for professional editing systems such as Final Cut Pro, Adobe Premiere and Avid. Ben-Shaul and his team are also developing a scriptwriting tool that will ease the creation of a hyper-narrative.

Both grassroots and professional filmmakers should be empowered. “We’re not aiming toward automatic storytelling,” he says. “That’s like robots today, which are so far off from what humans can do.”

Turbulence isn’t the only software company making interactive movies. Israeli alternative rock sensation Yoni Bloch owns a company called Interlude, which is moving in the same direction. Earlier this year, Interlude produced a music video by pop singer Andy Grammar that includes seamless interactivity. YouTube also has its own very simple interactive functionality.

Ben-Shaul acknowledges the competition but says his system is further along, not to mention patented. Turbulence also gives viewers the ability to actually move an object on screen (for example, to slide a letter out of a drawer) rather than just click or touch a point on the screen.

The idea for Turbulence was hatched in response to one of Ben-Shaul’s courses about the “siege mentality in Israeli cinema.” The professor explains: “Israeli movies are very close-minded. It comes from the society and the political situation; from war and ethnic tensions. Interactivity and giving people options is the opposite.”

Interactive movies are primarily intended for an audience of one. But Ben-Shaul says it’s possible for an entire audience to get in on the fun. Turbulence was premiered at the Berkeley Film Festival this year where it won the prize for “best experimental feature.”

In a demonstration of the interactivity at the showing, Ben-Shaul’s wife (who also works at the company) canvassed the audience at each decision point. Ben-Shaul then clicked the viewer’s choice from his computer backstage.

In the future, Ben-Shaul would like to build a system where everyone in the audience has a controller, allowing the movie to move in the direction dictated by a majority vote. In the meantime, Ben-Shaul says the showing at Berkeley was “very successful. People loved it.”

Ben-Shaul hopes to show Turbulence in Israel, perhaps at one of the country’s Cinematheques, though nothing has been finalized yet. For now, interactive movie fans will have to visit Ben-Shaul in his office at Tel Aviv University or watch a TV news clip and interview with Ben-Shaul on Israel’s Channel 10 which provides a hint of the richness of interactive moviemaking.

Beyond entertainment, interactive video might even help to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Ben-Shaul suggests. Interactivity, he says, “develops thinking for people who are in what seems like an intractable conflict. It can be a real therapeutic tool.”

This article originally appeared on Israel21c.

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Getting Away from Technology

by Brian Blum on September 6, 2010

in Interactive,Media,Research

A student on a class trip to Poland

I wrote in an earlier post about how human beings aren’t built to truly multitask – an action we increasingly rely on to parse all the data coming at us from the web or our mobile devices. New research is trying to figure out not only what happens psychologically when we try to do two things at once, but whether our brain neurology is being re-mapped by our incessant use of technology.

The preliminary answer seems to be yes, and it’s not necessarily good news. New York Times technology journalist Matt Richtel participated earlier this year and is now writing about a unique week-long backpacking trip undertaken by a group of scientists where gadgets were banned and their itinerary took them far out of the range of cell phones.

Would these highly connected researchers act – no, think – differently in such a situation, he asks?

The scientists were split, according to Richtel in an interview with Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air interview program, with some feeling that “the constant stream of data was making it increasingly difficult to focus and concentrate” and others saying “the benefits of having constant access to information far outweighed any consequences.”

But all of the scientists noticed that they began to feel more relaxed and more engaged in the world. They slept a little better; waited a bit longer before answering a question. “You don’t feel in (such) a rush to do anything, your sense of urgency fades,” Richtel says.

But only after three days – that was the amount of time for the disconnect effect to kick in. This might explain why we feel more relaxed after a three-day weekend as opposed to a “normal” two-day break from work.

Why is this the case? A laboratory study had rats learning new tasks. When the rats were given time away from the task to process it, the action moved into memory and real long-term learning took place. Without that down time, the rats were more prone to forget what they’d just done.

We can extrapolate that, Richtel says, to our contemporary lives, where we rarely give ourselves a break. If we’re waiting for an appointment and the person we’re meeting is late, what do we do? We pull out our smart phone and check email, text, browse the Internet or play a game. Even people without smart phones may listen to music on an iPod.

What we need to do, Richtel claims, is simply “be,” to not fill every moment with something electronic, to let the learning consolidate in our brains.

Richtel is certainly not advocating a ban on technology. He is adamant that our use of the web and mobile devices has made us more productive – he uses the example of using a Google map to find an address than having to call the person and write down directions  – and he readily admits he couldn’t survive the 21st century without his addictions.

And addiction it is. Why do you feel compelled to check email constantly, for example? Because you never know when there will be something exciting coming in. Each new message gives the brain a squirt of dopamine. If you had advance warning that interesting messages would only be delivered at 4:00 PM, you’d be less inclined to alt-tab to Gmail throughout the day.

Indeed, The New York Times reports that the average computer user checks 40 websites a day and can switch programs 36 times an hour!

Technology is like food, he posits. You need to eat and there’s no reason not to appreciate tasty (and hopefully nutritious) meals. But “we know that some food is Twinkies and some food is Brussels sprouts,” Richtel quips. And we’re well aware that you can also over-eat which has obvious negative consequences.

What about our teenagers who are growing up on ubiquitous screens, frantically checking Facebook, email, tweets, chat and Skype wherever they are? Will their brains look different than those of us who had to go into the living room to get access to a screen (the television)?

The research is pointing to yes. Our brains are elastic, Richtel explains. It’s not as if our ways of processing information is fixed at birth and never changes. Each new technology modifies the neural pathways, in particular the frontal lobe which is the last to develop. How it does that is the subject of upcoming research which Richtel will be writing about later this year.

While our 17-year-old daughter Merav was away on a school trip to Poland this summer, she made a point of not checking in online. Merav’s experience in Poland, visiting lost Jewish communities and crying at the concentration camps, was intense – “difficult but meaningful” is how she described it upon her return home. Was her level of engagement different than her peers, many of whom were texting away at the dinner table?

It would be presumptuous for me to make such a claim. But it’s undeniable that our use of technology profoundly affects us. I, for one, am looking forward to the Jewish holidays this year – Rosh Hashana and Shabbat coincide in such a way that those who observe the High Holy Days according to a more strict interpretation of Jewish law will have a full three days of enforced technology deprivation.

I wonder how I’ll feel on the other side?

Matt Richtel received the Pulitzer Prize in 2010 for a series in The New York Times on driving while multitasking.

A shorter version of this article appeared on Israelity.

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The Wedding Will Be Webcast

by Brian Blum on August 19, 2010

in Interactive,Israel,Media,Social Media

Sammy and Isaac

The happy couple "live"

A couple of weeks ago, we attended the wedding of good friends, Sammie and Isaac. The wedding was a blast with all the usual features of Israeli nuptials: chuppah, dancing, speeches and those greasy fried “cigars” stuffed with minced meat (of which I always partake too heartily).

There was one element, though, that I’ve never seen before (although maybe I’m just not invited to the right weddings). Prior to the simcha, the couple sent out an email that announced that, for those who couldn’t attend, the evening would be broadcast live over the Internet.

Now, live web streaming is nothing new and there are plenty of vendors eager to upgrade you to a “pro” account – Ustream and Livestream are just a couple that come to mind. I often catch up live online with TechAviv, a hi-tech group that meets monthly in the Tel Aviv area, when I’m feeling too lazy to hoof it over from Jerusalem. But I haven’t seen the technology used for a wedding.

The way it worked was a bit funky: one of the wedding guests had set up a small laptop with a built in camera and microphone facing the chuppah. When he wanted to pan around the crowd, he picked up the whole laptop and did a 360.

Since he had plugged the laptop into a 3G wireless card (I guess the wedding hall’s WiFi wasn’t dependable), he was able to later walk around the dance floor, as well as grab shots of guests chowing down at each of the tables – although with that brick of a broadcast unit, he wasn’t quite as nimble as a wedding photographer.

This isn’t state-of-the-art yet: the sound was muddled and the video not up to TV network quality (or even watered down YouTube, for that matter), but it’s still a great idea, not just for family that can’t make it from overseas but local guests for whom a time conflict may preclude in-person attendance.

And the coolest part: the video is still online. So even guests who were there can catch a glimpse of themselves doing the chicken dance.

If you want to view some of Sammie & Isaac’s wedding, here’s the link.

This piece appeared originally on the Israelity blog.

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New Study: Why we Forward Emails

by Brian Blum on February 16, 2010

in Interactive,Research

Jonah Berger

Jonah Berger

Katherine Milkman

Katherine Milkman

If you’re like me, you probably receive a lot of forwarded emails from friends with shots of awe-inspiring photography or some insight about why humans behave in the strange, amusing or crazy ways they so often do. Now, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania can tell us why.

These researchers – Jonah Berger and Katherine A. Milkman – were pretty serious about their study. They intensively analyzed The New York Times list of most-emailed articles, checking it every 15 minutes for more than six months, reviewing the content of more than 7,500 articles, and controlling for factors such as where the articles appeared on the site (i.e., home page, tech page, etc.) wrote John Tierney in The Times last week.

The results are consistent with what tends to fill up my own inbox: positive rather than negative themed articles, and long pieces on intellectually challenging topics. Take that, silly dancing cat videos.

Berger and Milkman said that the most shared emails were those that “inspired awe,” and that science articles were particularly popular. And not just reviews of the latest gadget. “You’d see articles shooting up the list…about the optics of deer vision,” Berger told Tierney.

Of the thousands of articles flagged during the research period, a random sample were rated by independent readers for qualities like “providing practical value” or “being surprising,” Tierney wrote. The researchers also used computer algorithms to track the ratio of “emotional” words in an article and to assess their relative positivity or negativity.

Explaining why “awe” sells…or at least results in more frequent forwarding, Berger explained that the most emailed articles tended to be those that triggered an “emotion of self-transcendence, a feeling of admiration and elevation in the face of something greater than the self.” That might include standing in front of a beautiful piece of art or listening to a grand symphony.

Of course, there were also the show-off’s. If you send an article off about quantum mechanics, you might preface it by writing “of course this is just a superficial treatment.” And there were the fear mongers, too, who shared pieces on impending terror attacks or tax increases (in equal measures, I’m sure).

But it’s the awe that’s the stickiest. “If I’ve just read this story that changes the way I understand the world and myself, I want to talk to others about what it means. I want to proselytize and share the feeling of awe,” Berger concluded.

So, am I doing my job here on this blog? I’m not sure. I try to write about interesting topics, perhaps even those that will surprise you (“Kids Consuming 11 Hours of Media a Day”) or that will provide some scientific insight (“Addicted to Email”). But do you feel a sense of awe when I share my thoughts on the latest Apple products or the latest trend of TV viewers tweeting live while they’re watching Heroes?

I’m not a big believer in writing exclusively for SEO, making sure my keywords are all punk’d out to their stickiest max. That would go for posting only awe-full articles too. If there’s something that I believe would be of value to you, my dear reader, I’ll blog it. And vice versa. If you enjoy what I’ve shared, feel free to forward it…regardless of what the researchers say.

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Television_remote_controlInteractive video has been one of my passions since I worked as a “multimedia producer” in the early 1990s creating CD-ROM titles in edutainment and healthcare. In 1994, I led a team that produced “How Multimedia Computers Work,” an immersive interactive environment that plunged viewers into a virtual 3D computer. We followed that up with “How Your Body Works.” Both were co-published in a book-CD package by Ziff-Davis Press.

In recent years, interactive video has been used very effectively for advertising and marketing. Carnival Cruise Lines employed it to help bring a cruise ship alive for would-be (and high-paying) passengers. Mars created an entire mini-commercial called “Get the Girl…An Interactive Love Story (Sort Of)” for its Twix brand where the viewer gets to choose what happens next. Even The New York Times got into the act with an interactive David Pogue sharing insights on consumer electronics.

But the Holy Grail for we interactive pioneers was always marrying it with broadcast television. It was the late 1980s, though, and technology never kept up with our creativity. Now, though, with the advent of social media, that day may have arrived. But with what consequences?

I wrote in my earlier post about Jeff Pulver’s “140 Characters Conference” which paraded a veritable cavalcade of social media luminaries on stage to talk about all things Twitter and Facebook. One of the panels at the event was on “social TV.”

Veteran Israeli media consultant Dror Gill described how TV and Twitter are already mashing up. A growing community of users are tweeting while they watch the tube, he explained, sending their comments, theories and criticisms into the social ether for others who are following the same program at the same time to reply to or re-tweet.

Gill called this phenomena 2-screen interactive TV (there are cable operators that have already integrated similar social media tricks into a single screen).

The experience, Gill explained, in some ways recreates a bit of what was for me an integral part of my childhood: sitting together as a family, laughing at dead parrots and silly walks, or cringing at another one of Mary Tyler Moore’s insecure faux-pas’s.

These days, it’s rare for members of a family to even find time to eat dinner as a cohesive unit. Twittering together, apparently, is the next best thing…even if your fellow schmoozers are on opposite coasts (or even different continents).

Conference host Pulver related his own social TV experience. A big fan of the NBC show Heroes, one evening, Pulver found himself away from the TV trolling the aisles for canned corn or some other delicacy in his local supermarket.

Distraught over missing his favorite guilty pleasure, he pulled out his cell phone and was able to follow the show by scrolling through the real-time tweets that neatly summarized the main plot turns.

How Pulver got his shopping done I don’t know…I also have to wonder why the one time founder of VoIP giant Vonage didn’t just TiVo the show, or at least watch it later on Hulu. But that wouldn’t have made for such an illustrative story.

Despite the fact that a number of the participants at the conference praised social media for making the post-modern world a little less lonely, the entire experience seems to me to be exactly the opposite. Where once we gathered in a shared space, we now sit alone opposite our 42-inch plasma screens tapping away to strangers thousands of miles away.

But for advertisers, this real time web can perhaps be seen as a hopeful trend. Broadcast television has been inching inexorably towards time shifting. The number of viewers watching a show at the hour it’s actually aired has been steadily declining in an online world where you can instantly stream that same program on any number of sites or – heaven forbid – download it for free.

The social media interactive experience, by contrast, requires participants to watch live. Tape delay ruins the whole thing. Moreover, not only can’t live viewers fast forward through the commercials, TV Twitterers may be less likely to jump up at a commercial at all. With all the real time excitement, a social media conversation may actually evolve about the ad itself. That puts the onus on the advertiser to make sure that what they’ve created can withstand the withering comments of a live Twitterverse.

The game for advertisers, as a result, gets even more complicated than it already is in a globally connected world. Companies must make sure they have assigned a staff person to monitor Twitter and other social media channels whenever their ads play in primetime. Because, when the masses won’t put down their keyboards even during the once sacred passive TV experience, the necessity to remain vigilant, to jump to attention and enact damage control if the need arises, becomes an integral part of the job.

It’s been said before by techno-luminaries far more prolific than me, but social media can no longer be seen as a “nice to have.” This makes it at once both terrifying and a terrific opportunity. But it’s one that must not be ignored.

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