Media Band's Maestro

An Interview With Marc Canter

"If no two songs have the same melody line, and no two videos have the same images, why should any two interactive pieces have the same interface?"

By Scott Rosenberg
Marc Canter is best known for founding Macromind and creating its popular Director software for multimedia authoring. But he trained as a classical musician, and at press conferences, he's been known to sing arias in a serviceable baritone. For the launch of his new CD-ROM, Meet Media Band, it was "Non piu andrai" from Le Nozze de Figaro.

Don't, however, suggest to him that today's multimedia pioneers might resemble the Renaissance inventors of opera, in that both are trying to cobble together a new total art form from existing parts; he'll wince. "The word opera has so many -- connotations."

"Interactive music video" is Canter's preferred label for Meet Media Band. Aiming to wed "MTV production values" to "the twitchiness of Nintendo," the disc offers two radically different experiments in the genre. "Undo Me" is like a branching song video, in which you choose how the singer should react to four dissimilar beaus; you can replay and rewind each scenario. "House Jam," a more free-form rave on cross-cultural themes, fires off sounds and images like an audiovisual machine gun your mouse can influence, though not exactly control.

Canter Technology itself is a pretty jammed house. The day we visit its office -- a tiny walk-up above the garage behind Canter's home on the edge of San Francisco's Richmond district -- we find Canter, a bald, bearish man in his late '30s, arguing with someone over the phone in German.

KLUDGE: You say your biggest markets are in Europe and Japan. Why's that?

CANTER: All along it's been very clear that Europe and Japan would grok multimedia faster than the US. The US has a very bigoted, single-language attitude. I'll never forget meeting this kid in Amsterdam who felt American kids have it so much better in life -- they get to go to college. He's speaking fluent English, French, German -- and he was Dutch, so he had four languages. I said, go to the US, and with those language skills, you got a job. And he was a bicycle messenger or something. In Europe, to deliver bread, from here to there, you have to go through three countries. So you switch through French, German, Italian.

KLUDGE: So you're saying the kind of brain architecture that handles multiple languages is friendly to multimedia?

CANTER: No. I'm saying that the actual physical handheld PDA thing you use when you deliver the bread that lists prices in all four languages: that is multimedia. They have it, they're already using it. With Japan, it's a very visual country. The average Japanese has to be able to read the Kanji alphabet, katakana and Roman. And no educated Japanese person knows more than approximately 35,000 kanji characters. There's over 50,000 of them, however. So there's this lifelong learning process. The other thing about the Japanese is that they don't stay at home. Even Grandma gets out. Because homes are so small. So the way multimedia reaches the people is not through home computers or home anything -- it's through street kiosks. You can get whiskey, beer, hot cappuccino, soup in every vending machine. So the Japanese are into gadgets, kiosks, public-space video walls -- that's multimedia. They're already there.

KLUDGE: You talk about Meet Media Band as a proof of concept. What's the concept?

CANTER: Right now everyone wants to know what the reality of the info highway is. What is the value it adds? What does it do that a CD-ROM doesn't do? What else is there besides shopping and on-demand? Well, here's what it does.

KLUDGE: But, uh, this is a CD-ROM.

CANTER: Let's back up. The reason Director is so good is because we had guys sitting next to us, artists and animators, using it, as we were developing it. This is very important. Look at IBM, with Warp -- or Microsoft and Chicago. They're still trying to do software with, what, 5000 programmers? That's not how you write code. You evolve it, you iterate it.

After I left Macromedia in '91 [after a falling out with investors], I came up with a new type of software: multiple-user, real-time performance software. Learning from what I did right the first time, I knew I needed a band to use it. Not just a regular band, a media band -- artists and editors and programmers. But I knew that nobody would care about a made-up band. I had to have a mythology, a fiction around it.

KLUDGE: So there's all this extra archival material on the disc, like a whole "Media Band" screenplay.

CANTER: Right. My premise was, if I was going to make a lot of database interactive TV stuff in the future, I first needed to create a there there -- an example of an interactive music video. So we started producing "Undo Me." But the script we came up with is in fact the script for the first three CD- ROMs. Because, just as I had been complaining that CD- ROMs were too small and slow, sure enough, when we tried to make our own, it was too small and slow for what we wanted to do.

Everyone has had this experience where their ambition far exceeded what was possible, and they put their ambitions to the side. But, gee, I don't think Sgt. Pepper was done that way. It's clear that people let the technology dictate the content. But when you flip that around and say, the content defines the technology, at first you come up with something you can't sell.

KLUDGE: "Meet Media Band" won't run on a lot of computers -- it needs 8 MB of memory.

CANTER: Less than that limits you. But if you assume that you've got the RAM, your world opens up. Most CDs are streaming media: little things are coming through memory and immediately being thrown away. We have exactly the opposite philosophy: We'll spend a lot of time loading in. Fill up memory! So that when it's there, there's actually something to do.

KLUDGE: And once it's there, it moves really fast. It's difficult to know sometimes what you're looking at. What are those things scattered around that look like table legs?

CANTER: They're supposed to be columns. The guy who did that, he and I have always understood what it was. But no one else seems to. Anyway, I spend a lot of time attacking that kind of stuff.

KLUDGE: The spatial metaphor?

CANTER: It's the only thing that people get nowadays. Everyone has VR envy. You look at these products, and what is the interactivity? Scrolling down hallways.

KLUDGE: Walking down a hallway isn't that exciting in real life.

CANTER: And yet 80 per cent of all the products have it.

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