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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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Israel’s Top Ten Must-Have Gadgets

by Brian Blum on March 10, 2010

in Israel,Products,Startups

Israelis love technology. They are early adapters, and relentless innovators, always looking for ways to improve their lives in every possible area.

With the country’s talent for development, it’s no surprise that some of the world’s top gadgets were designed and developed in Israel. Israel21c asked me to put together a list of the ten best. Here’s my take:

1. DiskOnKey
sandisk-cruzer-micros 2
Dov Moran, founder of Modu (see below), previously hit the big time with his company M-Systems, which developed the very first DiskOnKey (or DiskOnChip as M-Systems originally dubbed it).

The concept is simple enough: Jam up to 64 gigabytes of data onto a tiny gadget no larger than a house key. The latest versions actually look like a key and can hook onto your key chain.

DiskOnKeys were part of the “one-two sucker punch” that killed the venerable floppy disk (the other being cheap recordable CD-ROMs and later DVDs). Aside from being a reliable way to transfer data from computer to computer, disk-on-keys are now finding new life, expanding the storage space of the latest portable craze, the NetBook.

In 2005, PC World named the DiskOnKey one of the world’s top 10 gadgets in the last 50 years. In 2006, international powerhouse SanDisk purchased M-Systems for $1.6 billion.

2. Powermat
CES-Powermat3x_Netbook 2
How many power cables do you have running under your office desk for all your computers, hard drives, modems, routers, etc.? How about those kitchen appliances and their connections to the sockets? Wouldn’t it be great to get rid of the clutter?

That’s what Powermat promises to do. The Israeli company’s technology lets you embed a power grid in just about anything – from a desk to a kitchen counter. Then, with a wireless receiver hidden inside a device, there’s no need for plugs anymore. Just position the device or appliance near a power “hotspot” and away it goes.

In a demo on the company’s website, a salesperson goes so far as to pour water all over a “Powermatted” kitchen counter – with no burn-outs or electrocutions. Other demonstrations show iPods and Blackberries charging when simply placed on a table.

The company is a joint venture between Michigan-based HoMedics and Israel’s Powermat. The first products will be available in time for this winter’s shopping season.

3. Epilady

epiladys
The story of this gadget is fraught with intrigue. We’re talking about a hair removal product invented in Israel that now has copycat versions worldwide. The original Epilady “epilator” was released in 1986. It had a rotating spring that worked by catching hair and pulling it out. It isn’t pleasant but, according to women, it works.

Newer versions have more of a tweezer action. Either way, the result is not unlike a waxing treatment, except that you can do it yourself at home, for a fraction of the cost. An Epilady treatment lasts up to four weeks.

Epilady was the first but has been surpassed by international brands including Braun and Remington (Epilady sued Remington over patent infringement but lost). Still, the company has sold 28 million units over a 23-year career and now sports 13 different models from the “Traveler” to the youth-marketed “Epigirl.”

Ironically, when the first Epilady came out in Israel it was given the “American” sounding name “Nice and Easy” while the company used the “Epilady” moniker overseas.

4. Modu

modu-phone-jacketss
Modu
looks something like a cell phone and something like an MP3 player, but isn’t really like anything you’ve ever seen before. Essentially, Modu is a tiny device with cellular capabilities that can be slipped into any number of “jackets” to give it a specific functionality. One jacket transforms Modu into a full MP3 player, in another it’s a camera. The plan is to create a mini-economy around Modu accessories.

Our favorite Modu jackets: Modu Executive (looks like a Blackberry); Modu Love (a stylish cell phone with a big heart); Modu Kids (imagine a cute green Nintendo DS); Modu Boombox (a little phone with big, built-in bass-enhanced speakers); and the Modu Bicycle Mate (that snaps onto your handlebars).

The company is facing increasing competition from Apple, Nokia, Palm and others, which may be why, despite raising nearly $130 million since its launch in 2007, Modu recently laid off 80 employees. Still, the news isn’t all bad. Just a week before the layoffs Modu announced the launch of a touch screen jacket using Google’s Android mobile operating system.

5. Boxee

Boxee Interface
Boxee
isn’t exactly a gadget. It’s software that’s intended to be integrated into other companies’ gadgets as their Internet media operating system. If it were just a TV playback system, Boxee wouldn’t be so hot; after all Microsoft and Apple have similar solutions. But Boxee excels at playing all types of video, audio and even image files. YouTube, NetFlix, Flickr and Pandora are all built in. And Boxee also plays well on the Xbox.

There are also a bunch of nifty social networking features that allow you to share what you’re watching with friends or tweet in real time.

Boxee announced recently that it is coming out with its own standalone hardware – the “Boxee Box.” In the meantime, you can install it on any computer you have – absolutely free. We installed Boxee on the laptop we have connected to our television and we love it.

6. Eye-Fi

Eye-Fi
Here’s an idea that’s so obvious it’s a wonder no one else thought of it. You’re at a family event, your child says his or her first words and you have the good fortune to capture the moment with your digital camera. You want to share it with the world but to do that you’d have to get back to your house, plug the camera into your computer via a USB cord, upload it, and then post it to Facebook or your blog.

With Eye-Fi you can upload those photos wirelessly from anywhere. The company sells a standard SD card (that you need to run your camera, anyway) that has built-in WiFi connectivity. That means that anywhere there’s a hotspot (which these days is just about everywhere) you can upload your photos to one of 25 sites that you specify in advance through the Eye-Fi software.

The Eye-Fi works with all the top cameras, from Canon to Kodak. The company was founded in 2005 and two of its four founders, Yuval Koren and Ziv Gillat, are Israeli.

But we have to ask: Is there still a market for a wireless SD card? Anyone with an iPhone already has the ability to wirelessly upload pictures – and even video – immediately. The answer: Standalone cameras with higher resolution than a phone-cum-camera haven’t gone the way of the dinosaurs yet, nor is there any reason to think that they will, which means Eye-Fi has plenty of visibility ahead.

7. MobileEye

MobileEye
Speaking of visibility, another Israeli high-tech company, MobileEye, combines a tiny digital camera with sophisticated algorithms to help drivers navigate their vehicles more safely.

Consider the lane departure warning system. When a driver starts drifting out of a lane or doesn’t use the turn signals, the system rings an alert. The MobileEye application is so sophisticated that it can even sense when a driver is “about” to change lanes inadvertently.

Fused with the car’s steering system, MobileEye takes the camera that much further. Other applications include a forward collision warning, traffic sign recognition and pedestrian detection.

MobileEye has been around since 1999 and has deals with GM, BMW and Volvo, among others. The company maintains R&D in Jerusalem but is now headquartered in The Netherlands.

8. Ctera

ctera-cloudplugs
Israeli company Ctera makes a small gadget that connects to a USB hard drive, transforming it into a cloud-based offsite storage system.

It’s a two-step process. First, data is backed up from your main computer to the external drive. Next, it’s sent to servers “in the cloud.” The result is that your computer isn’t constantly sending data to the Internet and slowing down processing speed. With this gadget multiple computers can now be connected to a USB drive that used to be tethered to just a single machine.

Ctera’s “Cloud Plug” is small enough to fit in an envelope which can be mailed from an ISP (Internet Service Provider) to its customers. ISPs like the device because it gives them a way to monetize all the online backup traffic they’re losing to third party services. Ctera also sells the gadget direct to the public for $199. Given that it’s not a question of if, but when, your hard disk will die, cloud storage has a rosy future. Ctera aims to be in the thick of it.

9. Easy-2-Pick

easy2picks
Airplane travel is stressful. There are the security checks, uncomfortable seats, tasteless meals and then, of course, there’s the fact that you’re hurtling through the air at breakneck speeds in a tin box. But perhaps the worst party of all is waiting for your luggage. You never know when it’s coming up the conveyor belt. You grab a bag only to discover that it belongs to someone else. Wouldn’t it be great if you could just sit back and wait for your luggage to alert you when it’s arrives?

That’s the idea behind a simple device from Easy-2-Pick, a small Israeli company founded by two American Express travel agents. The gadget has two components. One piece attaches to the luggage, the other fits in your pocket. The range between the two pieces is only 15 meters, so the alert only sounds (it also lights up and vibrates) when your luggage is close by.

The Easy-2-Pick system was red hot when we first wrote about it last year. It seems to have floundered since then as the inventors search for distributors. Still, it’s a wonderful idea and we hope it succeeds. Imagine the same technology being applied to your keys… or your car, when you can’t remember where you parked.

10. Medical imaging via cell phone

rubinsky_smIn the Western world, we take for granted high-tech tools for physicians and hospitals such as the hand held ultrasound wand that displays the heartbeat of a fetus or detects a tumor. But how would you use that same device in a remote village in Africa where there isn’t even any electricity?

Boris Rubinsky, a professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, has come up with a novel concept: blend the wand with a cell phone. The phone powers the medical imaging device, then transmits the resulting data to a central processing facility – perhaps even in Israel – where it’s turned into an image which can then be messaged back to the village physician’s phone

The entire process is not unlike the trend in medicine in recent years where X-rays taken in the US are sent to Israeli radiologists for review and then returned via the Internet – saving money and time (it’s daytime in Israel, while it’s still night in the US when radiologists may not be so readily available).

Rubinsky’s life saving gadget is still just in the prototype stage but it has a promising future (and Rubinsky has the patents to back it up). Next in line: Rubinsky is working on a gadget that will extract small amounts of electricity from potatoes – just enough to charge a cell phone in those same far flung third world villages.

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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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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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