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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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Amnon Dekel

I always enjoy Jeff Pulver’s networking “breakfasts” which he holds around the world. Pulver, a VoiP superstar and lately startup angel with a passion for Israel, usually hosts his breakfast shindigs in Tel Aviv, but last week he came to Jerusalem.

I approach a networking event like a Kiddush at shul. You want to flit around as much as possible (while not being too rude with quick getaways) but if you find yourself talking to someone particularly interesting, you stay put.

That was the case when I met up with Amnon Dekel. Dekel is an old friend (he used to run the Digital Media Studies program at the IDC in Herzeliya and hired me to teach a course) and he’s about to turn in his doctoral dissertation to Hebrew University. The topic: “indoor navigation.”

Dekel has identified a problem you probably never thought about, but that’s a potential “next big thing.” Mobile phones are great at using GPS to find their position outside. But they don’t work so well under a roof of, say, a library.

Dekel’s research specifies a methodology for locating objects such as books, and it doesn’t require transmitters to be installed all over the ceiling of the space. The idea is that you’d type in the title or author into your phone, and you’d receive a map telling you exactly which floor, section and even shelf you should head to.

Dekel has built a working prototype in the Harman Library on the Givat Ram campus of Hebrew University. His tests show that, using the system, it takes only half the time to find a book and people make less navigation mistakes and need less help from others to find the book.

The same technology could be used in warehouses, bookstores and manufacturing plants, Dekel says.

That’s not to say that it’s easy – staff at the physical site need to input data, items may need to be scanned – but it’s a fascinating start.

The system has yet to be commercialized (venture capitalists – take note). But, who knows (and Dekel will scold me for writing this), you could eventually crown yourself mayor of the Dewey decimal system!

This article appeared last year 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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Jeff Pulver

Jeff Pulver in Tel Aviv

Jeff Pulver is a galavanting kind of guy. The one time founder of voice-over-IP telephony company Vonage, Pulver has in recent years traveled the globe hosting hi-tech networking “breakfasts” that attract hundreds of attendees

On Sunday, Pulver was back in town with a combined breakfast and conference focused on “the state of now.”

Dubbed the “140 Characters Conference” (that’s the number of characters you’re allowed to type into the Twitter “What’s happening?” box), some 250 social media “characters” gathered at Tel Aviv’s Afeka College of Engineering to listen attentively to a whopping four dozen presenters who spoke either in panel discussions or alone in 10 minute increments  (a large clock counted down the minutes and, other than a few misbehavers, the time was scrupulously observed).

Among the presenters were Alon Nir, the entrepreneur behind “TweetYourPrayers” which allows petitioners to tweet notes that Nir physically places in the cracks of the Western Wall. Nir started the project as a hobby. By the summer, he had thousands of notes and had to enlist an army of volunteers (recruited via Twitter of course) to roll the print outs and cart them to Jerusalem. Find him on Twitter at @thekotel.

A highlight for Israeli music fans was the appearance on stage of rockers Yoni Bloch and Ivri Lider who talked about how they use Twitter to get closer to their fans. Bloch, a self-confessed nerd, initially found fame by posting his songs to an Israeli MySpace-clone and was flabbergasted when, several years ago – long before the advent of Twitter – he sold out a live show just by announcing it online.

Comedians Charley Warady and Benji Lovitt talked about how they use social media to try out punch lines for their jokes (“can you be funny in 140 characters?” asked one audience member).

On a more serious note, David Saranga discussed how the Israeli consulate in New York took to Twitter to counter negative reports coming out of Gaza during January’s Operation Cast Lead. He also pointed out one of the more effective campaigns to reposition Israel in the mind of the world: the 2007 infamous “Girls of the IDF” bikini photo spread in Maxim magazine.

The strangest use of Twitter discussed? Simultaneous tweeting while watching TV. While I find it hard to understand how one can actually enjoy a program while tapping away on a Blackberry or iPhone keyboard, veteran media consultant Dror Gill suggested that interactive media can actually restore some of the social cohesion that’s been lost in the modern world where families rarely sit down together to watch the contemporary equivalent of All in the Family.

Twittering away, he said, is akin to kibbutzing together in the family room…even if your fellow schmoozers are thousands of miles away.

To back up that point of global interconnectedness, host Pulver announced at the day’s conclusion that 6,464 people from around the world had tuned in to watch the conference live via the Internet and that for much of the day, this intimate little get together, tucked away in an off the beaten track corner of Tel Aviv, had been ranked in Twitter’s Top 10 “trending topics.”

See for yourself. Search for #140conf on Twitter.

This article originally appeared on the Israelity blog.

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