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Video

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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Kaiser Kids and Internet Report

Cover from KFF Report

A new study from the Kaiser Family Foundation confirms what most parents already know: that our kids are literally tethered to the Internet or other means of consuming media the better part of the day.

The report, which has been the talk of the blogosphere since it was released yesterday, found that children and young adults aged 8 to 18 spend more than seven and a half hours a day on their computers, in front of a television, or accessing media on a smart phone or mobile device.

That number doesn’t include talking or texting on a cell phone (another two hours a day). And if you calculate in multitasking – i.e., surfing the web while listening to music – the amount of media content taken in comes to nearly 11 hours total per day.

The shocking part is that when the same study was conducted five years ago, its authors concluded that media use could not possibly grow further from the six and a half hours clocked in 2004.

Donald Roberts, one of the researchers and a professor at Stanford University told The New York Times that “I remember writing a paragraph saying we’ve hit a ceiling on media use, since there just aren’t enough hours in the day to increase the time.”

Roberts and crew were apparently wrong.

The study’s results come as no surprise to my wife and I. All three of our children have their own computers, which are constantly on even while “studying.” The older two also have an iPhone and iPod Touch and know where all the open WiFi hotspots are in town. If they have a long bus ride, they load up the latest episodes of How I Met Your Mother or Dexter before leaving in the morning.

While the amount of time teenagers spend online or watching TV or movies is surprisingly high, it’s not like we didn’t do the same when we were younger – at least as much as we could with the technology of the times. I distinctly remember my parents complaining that I couldn’t possibly study properly with music or the TV on. But my grades came out fine.

That’s not necessarily the case today, though. The grades of 47 percent of the heaviest media users in the report were C or lower. Those heavy media users were also more likely to report that they were bored or sad, that they got into trouble, didn’t get along well with their parents, or were not happy at school.

A number of years ago – before the advent of all the latest hi-tech toys – our kids had become hopelessly addicted to the tube. We took the radical step of going “cold turkey” and forbidding television entirely. The kids were mortified at first, but tell us today that it was one of the best things we did as parents.

But their TV watching is now just as high – if not higher – than when we first detoxed; it’s simply not in the living room anymore. We have thought about taking their laptops away, but the kids have moaned that they need them for schoolwork – which is true.

And then there is the role model of their parents. Both my wife and I are in front of our respective computers constantly. And we multitask too. I am constantly flitting between Firefox, to Word for an article I’m writing, to splicing in a few stolen minutes of The Office or Flash Forward – all the while listening to Internet radio or some of the 100 GB of music on our shared home server.

So how can we criticize our children when their parents are equally guilty? The one thing that ruffles a teenager’s feathers more than anything else is perceived hypocrisy.

And there have been certain benefits to the always-on society we’ve created. When my son was visiting Poland with his high school class, he found a WiFi connection at the Auschwitz concentration camp and Skyped me from there, bringing me into his experience without paying a penny.

Ultimately, there’s no turning back. Our kids aren’t going to unplug and this is probably just an interim stage on the way to even more insidious connectivity. Someday, we’ll probably be able to pipe the Internet directly into our brains.

Indeed, that future may not be so far off. An Australian company is already working on an interface to bring sight to the blind by implanting a chip that bypasses the optical nerve. It’s just a hop skip and a jump to an entirely wireless mind (can you say Cylon?)

What are we going to do then? Threaten to remove their batteries? If Apple has anything to do with it, the power supply will be hard wired in – like all of Apple’s iPod products. Need a new chip? Just replace your head.

Some more findings from the Kaiser study:

  • 76% of 8 to 18-year-olds have MP3 players (up from 18% in 2004).
  • 64% say the TV is usually on during meals and 45% say the TV is left on “most of the time” even if no one is watching.
  • 71% have a TV in their bedroom; 50% have a console video game player
  • The amount of time spent watching regularly scheduled TV declined by 25 minutes a day from 2004. But factoring in TV on the web and cell phones, total TV consumption increased from 3:51 hours to 4:29 hours a day.
  • 74% say they have a profile on a social networking site.
  • About half of young people say they use media either “most” (31%) or “some” (25%) of the time while they’re doing their homework
  • Respondents to the survey spend an average of 1:35 hours a day sending or receiving texts.
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Video capabilities are a game changer

Not quite a game changer

With the much rumored and insanely anticipated Apple iSlate, due to be announced later this month, being referred to as a potential “game changer,” as momentous as the original iPod and its big cousin the iPhone, I thought I’d take a look back at a post I wrote in September in which I called the new iPod Nano a game changer itself.

At the time, I hadn’t actually gotten my hands on one. That finally happened last week. And I’m sorry to report that my prediction now seems premature.

My enthusiasm for the Nano was that it was the absolute smallest, decent quality video camcorder on the market, and it had a built in iPod to boot (or maybe it’s the other way around). It would be a boon to bloggers and media publishers of all sizes, not to mention consumers shooting silly cat tricks, I wrote.

And indeed, that potential is readily apparent. I have a client that works with communities in far flung places such as India, China and Burma. Why not arm its constituents with Nanos to document lifecycle events and send them back to us to edit and post on YouTube or Facebook.

When I finally tried out the Nano itself – at a rock concert where I needed a clip to accompany an article I was writing – the Nano neatly delivered on its promise: the device is so tiny I was able to keep it stowed safely in my shirt pocket, and it warms up fast so I was ready at the beginning of each song to grab the shots I wanted. The video quality was entirely acceptable; the audio less so.

So what’s the problem? It doesn’t have a camera; it’s just video. That might seem a bit nit picky, but the market today is all about convergence – reducing the number of devices you need to carry. The iPhone does this perfectly: it packs a phone, camera, video recorder, MP3 player and web browser all-in-one shiny black package.

But the iPhone (like most smart phones) is relatively hefty. It doesn’t fit into a pocket, it’s too bulky to wear on an armband while exercising and, frankly, it does more – and costs more – than many people need.

The Nano has the price and form factor I want, but without a camera for stills, if I want to be ready at any time and any place to shoot a photo and a video, I have to carry both my Nano and my digital camera. My cell phone doesn’t take pictures at high enough quality to make it a worthy alternative.

Why didn’t Apple include a camera in the iPod Nano? Probably to prevent cannibalization of sales of its higher end i-products (although the official rumored reason is that they couldn’t get the optics small enough to work). Perhaps the camera will be a part of the package in the future – along with a tiny wireless receiver, now wouldn’t that be cool! – but before then, the business buzz will have already moved on to the iSlate as the next game changer.

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In case you were wondering how that video I shot at the rock concert came out, here’s a short clip I took with the iPod Nano. The audio is a bit muffled, but I think that’s more due to where we were sitting (in the front row, where the instrument amps were closer) than the iPod’s functionality.

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