Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Bob Abel: The Father of the "Interactive Experience'

Robert “Bob” Abel is largely an unknown name in the world of interactivity. Which is unfortunate because he easily could be known as the Father of the Interactive Experience – and the originator of the Mashup. For me, Abel was the inspiration for my career -- which was to connect reporting -- with storytelling.

An Emmy and Golden-Globe winning film producer, a 33-time Clio-award winning advertising executive, Abel is considered a seminal figure in the world of computer animation and special effects in commercials and motion pictures (using computer-controlled cameras). So what do you get when you cross a creator, a curator, a curiosity for computing power and an insatiable drive to connect with audiences? You get Bob Abel, interactive producer.

Back in the late ‘80s, Apple introduced a unique technology called the HyperCard. It combined database capabilities with a graphical, flexible, user-modifiable interface and was the first consumer product that introduced the concept of “hyperlinking,” being able to access external information with a single link. Abel realized the potential of the technology and set about creating a very ambitious production called “Guernica.”

Inspired by the anti-war painting by surrealist Pablo Picasso, Abel wanted others to be able to witness and explore that chaotic time period. Using HyperCard and videodisc technologies, Abel let users explore Picasso’s interpretation of the mayhem and tragedy following the aerial massacres of Basque civilians in Guernica, Spain, a cultural bastion of art and history during the Spanish Civil War. Picasso’s imagery is of course symbolic in and of itself with its strewn body parts and dying animals – and Abel enriches these symbols by providing access to archived interviews, footage and news coverage by different witnesses to history.

By choosing from an array of “witness” tools, users could click on various portions of the painting – the horse, the bull’s tail (a plume of flames and smoke), the women – and glean different types of information about the painting, the artist, the economy at that time -- or the war itself. Each tool allowed the user to obtain different types of information embedded in the painting – for the richest possible user experience.

Abel saw the potential of mashing-up disparate types of information around a narrative. While a person may skim right past the 2D painting hanging on a wall in a museum or printed on the page, Abel believed that they would stop and interact if it was embedded with information. In fact, Abel saw titles like "Guernica" as the ultimate educational tool – self-paced and self-directed.

This archtype of interactivity that was lauded by many, sniffed at by some who couldn’t fathom the huge price tag, didn’t actually deliver on all promises. Abel’s ambition outpaced the storage capacity of the videodisc, and while the experience should have been seamless, the tools of that time were primitive. The interface (necessarily) had so many windows and drop downs – and screens (NTSC interlocking on computer screens was not available yet, so video would open a window on a second monitor) it was hard to get your bearings. I believe Jonathan Gibson was the interface designer -- and while it was a kluge – it was utterly brilliant.

In truth, Abel was years ahead of the technologies out there, and his death in 2001 cut short his ability to see how user-driven experiences would become the Holy Grail for media companies. Although, I can’t help but believe, that this artist/executive/visionary would be disappointed in the convergence efforts by the media in general. Bloggers have keenly understood that assets are enriched when accompanied by links -- but the media still seems obsessed by the linear flow.

When given a chance to present complex information in this method of self-paced exploration, at best they create a list of links out to archives (at worst, they do nothing). Worse still, they have yet to truly harness the power of computing – the power of perspective.

Abel knew that to pique curiosity you need a narrative. And while media and news companies have the very archives that Abel’s videodisc called out to – I have yet to see one attempt to mashup information in the way that Abel managed to do with both Guernica -- and another effort, underwritten by IBM, to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the voyage of Columbus to America. Abel titled it: "Columbus: Encounter, Discovery, and Beyond" (a multicultural experience). Massive in scope, it drew from 2,300 articles and had 400,000 soft links. A whopping 180 hours of instruction.

As today’s media struggle to find their relevance, perhaps what they are really missing is the consummate storyteller, the producer – who can weave together all of these loose threads of information into a rich tapestry of the likes of "Guernica."

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