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Participative Video: Virtual Reality Illustrations

ByJack Powers

Published: June 15, 1996

It’s always bothered me that some folk’s idea of the best and highest use of interactive media is a CD-ROM or web page with a video spewing out through a playback window. Multimedia geeks jump through all sorts of technical hoops in order to put TV on a computer screen, and the result is almost always a disappointing reading experience.

Video is the opposite of interactive media. The pleasure of the new interactive texts is that they are participatory: the reader helps craft the narrative by wandering down hyperlinked story threads, browsing searchable databases, customizing info retrieval agents and personalizing the interface. Every customer gets to drive through the content at his own pace, following his own interests and inclinations, playing the medium like an information instrument to get what he wants.

With video, all you can do is watch, the passive couch-potato recipient of somebody else’s fixed content. Broadcast TV has a broad bandwidth—there’s lots of information packed in movement, sound, color and cuts—but it is an utterly linear medium. Data streams into your eyeballs at 30 frames per second, and there’s no wandering off the script. Until the advent of the remote control clicker and 50 channel cable systems, viewers had no control of the experience. Now at least we can customize our viewing a little by hopping from channel stream to channel stream; it’s a more enjoyable experience, at least for the spouse who’s got the clicker.

Multimedia TV has an added drawback: it looks like hell. Most people don’t have a fast enough CPU or CD-ROM drive, the right playback utilities, adequate memory or a big enough color palette to get good television on their computer screens. The best they can hope for is a quarter screen of jumpy, coarse, 256 color images flipping by at less than 15 frames per second with unsynchronized sound. And if it’s web-based video, it takes a lifetime to download. I pulled a 43 second movie clip of the Hakuna Matata song from The Lion King off the Disney web site: with a 14.4kbps modem, it took 49 minutes.

We’re all experts on what good TV looks like. A $200 color set with a rabbit ears antenna shows full screen, full palette, fast-moving synchronized video—and with a battery we can even take it to the beach. The best we can get on a $2,000 computer is a poor imitation.

Multimedia video creators compound the technological problem with bad design, mimicking the conventions of broadcast television on the little screen. On regular TV, you have plenty of time to establish the visual and aural tone with five to ten seconds of scene setting and titling that usually has little informational content. Do the same on PC video and you’ve just wasted half a megabyte of disk space and three minutes of download time. Once the bloom is off the multimedia rose, readers are wary of clicking on video playback that demands lots of time and resources for little informational or entertainment content.

The best multimedia publications use video for illustration, not narrative. Instead of a fat, wasteful, self-indulgent TV clip, the best multimedia video is pure show and tell: how to open a bottle of champagne, for example, or what a kangaroo looks like in the wild. Illustrations like these have a high information value and tend to be worth the aggravation of PC video playback.

An even better form of video illustration breaks the linear constraints of standard TV by letting the user drive through the illustration himself. Virtual reality illustrations are standard in hot video games and are coming to the web in two important new formats. By letting readers move through the virtual environments at their own pace, these new illustration formats complement the participative texts of new media with participative illustrations.

On the web, virtual reality comes in two distinct flavors, Apple’s Quicktime VR format and the new Internet standard Virtual Reality Meta Language (VRML). Quicktime VR is essentially a photographic technique: Using a special $400 tripod mount, you take 16 to 24 carefully spaced photos in a 360 degree circle.. A $600 dollar Mac program helps you stitch the frames together in a 360 degree circle by morphing the edges over one another. Apple’s VR playback routine, freely downloadable on the web for both Mac and Windows, lets the user drive around and zoom through the panorama on screen. Depending on the image, you can tilt the camera up and down to capture a full 180 degrees of vertical viewing in your 360 degree horizontal panorama. Quicktime equipment and authoring techniques are fairly cheap and straightforward, concentrating on capturing the world photographically.

On the other hand, VRML ( pronounced “vur-mull”) programs construct object-oriented vector art environments that have greater browsing capabilities but require a 3D artist to render the environments digitally. VRML worlds potentially offer greater flexibility but they take a lot of time and talent to draw.

Because you can manipulate and explore them, VR illustrations are better than video clips and they take a lot less time and space to download. Look for an explosion of vector interest in the next year or so. In the competitive creative world of the web, faster, cheaper and better almost always win out.\\



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