The Struggle for Multimedia's Soul

At Intermedia '95, It's the Big Guns vs. the Big Minds

February, 1995

By Scott Rosenberg

Multimedia has a new apostle: Charlton Heston. The actor stood up before a trade show crowd at Moscone Center early Tuesday morning to promote his new CD-ROM, "Charlton Heston's Voyage Through the Bible."

In the voice that has personified the Testaments for so many millions, he intoned, "CD-ROMs are offering viewers the ability to do things like alter story lines entirely -- even to change how the ending comes out."

Imagine, the interactive Bible! Stop the Lord from slacking on the seventh day -- and learn what He does with the overtime! Rot the apple before Eve gets her hands on it! Reverse Pontius Pilate's crucifixion verdict!

Well, not really. From the preview offered, Heston's CD-ROM won't be anything like that. It will simply embellish the King James text with a variety of multimedia extras, like videos of the actor traipsing through the Holy Land. For $50 or $60 or $70, consumers will receive, in one package, the equivalent of a half-hour videotape and an illustrated book. The biggest differences are likely to lie in the CD-ROM's poorer video quality and superior indexing.

So what's the big deal? Intermedia, the annual conference that celebrated its 10th anniversary this year by moving from San Jose to San Francisco, has become a good place to assess the state of this still-emerging industry. And this year's show suggested that, beneath the celebrity hype and the blather, there's a struggle going on for multimedia's soul.

On the one hand, every media corporation -- every movie studio and publishing house and cable network -- now has an "interactive division." These enterprises are desperately trying to figure out what the new medium is and how to make money with it.

On the other hand, a growing crowd of impassioned multimedia author-entrepreneurs has some very clear visions of what the medium might be. And though they'd plainly love to earn some money with it, they care more about seeing their projects through on their own terms than about signing away control for bucks.

No prizes for guessing which group has the most exciting ideas and promising products.

Of course, the dichotomy isn't quite so simple. As a walk on the Intermedia exhibits floor amply demonstrated, little-guy projects can be silly, too -- like Museworthy's "Paparazzi!: Tales of Tinseltown," a videogame which casts the player as a shutterbug hunting for images of ersatz celebrities. And the big guys sometimes come up with good ideas -- though more often they make deals to acquire or distribute them.

Still, the great bulk of the CD-ROMs that cause you to wonder, "Why'd they waste their time doing that?" emerge from multimedia's corporate hives. Heston's Bible disc, for instance, is a project of Jones International, the satellite- and cable-TV firm headed by Glenn Jones. (His "distance-learning" project, Mind Extension University, garnered some recent headlines for signing up Newt Gingrich as a lecturer.)

This CD-ROM may or may not be a hit or make money for Jones. One thing is for sure: It will not define the new medium. It will not show people why multimedia should matter to them, because it won't do anything they haven't seen before.

Tuesday night another event unfolded on the same stage from which Heston had read his teleprompted speech: a sort of open mike called "the Muiltimedia Three-For-All." Participants each had no more than three minutes -- strictly enforced via a "Gong Show"-like car horn -- to deliver rants or show off works-in-progress. Most chose the latter.

It was, mostly, an impressive parade of multimedia creator-author-designer-promoters -- pioneers who have worked solo or led the same sort of small, independent teams that were responsible for CD-ROM successes likes like "The Seventh Guest" and "Myst."

Rick Smolan, the photo-journalist whose "From Alice to Ocean" was among multimedia's first critical hits, showed off his new "Passage to Vietnam" project -- a collaboration between foreign and Vietnamese photographers that, like "Alice," weds a coffeetable book to a CD-ROM.

Tony Bove, a former computer journalist, previewed his "Haight Ashbury in the '60s," to be released in May. The CD opens with a screen offering three choices: turn on, tune in or drop out. "Let's face it," Bove argued. "This industry was built on the shoulders of hippies."

Jim Ludtke, the gifted animator who collaborated with the Residents on their cult CD-ROM classic, "Freak Show," offered a glimpse at the work underway on a sequel, "Bad Day on the Midway," that's due next fall.

Shannon Gilligan, author of "Who Killed Sam Rupert?" and its interactive-mystery sequels, displayed her new "Comic Creator," a CD-ROM that lets kids make their own comic books -- part of a trend toward open-ended multimedia products that aim to transform the "user" into a collaborator.

Joe Sparks of Pop Rocket provided an introduction to his long-gestating "Total Distortion," a high-volume, high-speed CD-ROM game that casts the player as a music promoter in a futuristic punk underground.

Abbe Don showed the latest version of her multimedia installation "We Make Memories," a family chronicle whchronicle which she hopes to publish on CD-ROM.

And Marc Canter sang along to a demo of his new "Meet MediaBand" CD-ROM, a collection of experiments in imagining how an interactive music video might work.

Three minutes isn't much time. But each whirlwind presentation bore witness to the passion these artist-developers bring to their work. And their products reflect their personalities in ways you immediately sense.

These CD-ROMs weren't conceived to exploit an asset or edited to please a focus group. Yet several speakers complained that such practices are strangling the infant medium in its crib.

"Things are too tame," said Allee Willis, a Los Angeles-based multimedia artist. "Your brains should be exploding."

If you still haven't found a CD-ROM that can blow your mind, and most of us haven't, would you search for one in the interactive-division committee rooms -- or the garages and lofts?

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