World Magazine, Issue 2.10, January 1998
Digital Illusion - Entertaining the Future with High Technology
book review by Dan Sarto
For every person with a formal education in some flavor of technology, there are a hundred more people who have had a smattering of classes here and there, and probably a thousand more people who are self-taught, self-proclaimed "software designers" or "computer consultants" whose technical zenith was learning to program Basic on an Atari 800. Considering the quality of the vast gobs of "beta release B0.15 rev 2" software available for downloading off the Internet nowadays, it often seems that the latter group of "Certified Atari Technologists" lead the development charge at many companies.
Marketing as a Must
As a breed unto themselves, entertainment system developers often seem driven by the same frenzy, (marked by a fast pulse, shallow, rapid breathing, and a sweaty forehead), that overtakes many 14 year-olds, and 40 year-olds for that matter, prowling the long entertainment software isles of large computer stores. With entertainment giants like Sony, Disney and Fox putting huge dollars behind any and every conceivable, and ill conceived, entertainment medium, the people that now drive critical product development decisions aren't always highly skilled veteran technologists, but rather media executives touting their latest mega marketing idea. You know, the ones who rig the schemes where the same cute characters adorn pillow cases, theme park rides, audio cassette sing-alongs, and interactive multimedia game cartridges, all at the same time. There's an old joke that needs updating for the '90s: What did the drummer say at his first paying gig? "Would you like fries and a Mighty Zanthrogeek CyberWarlock action figure with that?"
It's a given that product development in any industry must be market-driven. However, many high tech consumer entertainment companies appear driven by some blinding, hyped-up vision of what their focus groups and market research teams think people will buy. Their expensive miscalculations, a veritable cornucopia of "entertainment pabulum for the masses," fill the $9.95 bins at WalMarts and CompUSAs throughout the land.
So, what can we do to take a step back, catch our breath, and gain some much needed perspective on the dizzying worlds of digital entertainment? For starters, there's a book we need to read.
Getting Some Perspective
Clark Dodsworth Jr., a specialist in converging entertainment technologies, has gathered together a group of leading technologists to create a masterpiece - part history lesson, part blueprint, part vision of the future - that is a must read for anyone who hopes to make a living involved with creating, producing or distributing entertainment technology.
Digital Illusion - Entertaining the Future with High Technology is a tightly woven compilation of 35 chapters covering critical aspects of what Dodsworth refers to as the "entertainment beast and its future." Each chapter is penned by an industry expert, and then edited and crafted by the author into one comprehensive volume like little gems fashioned together into a magnificent tiara. Digital Illusion marries intelligent and descriptive narrative with detailed facts and explanations. This book has something for everybody, and should appeal to a wide audience. Newbies and wannabees can find solid fundamental descriptions about core concepts, tool sets, and practical uses of key technologies. Expert technologists can find fresh perspectives on where this "stuff" came from, where it is today, and where it's going tomorrow.
The book is broken into six sections. It starts with the recent history and context for the disciplines of high-tech entertainment, followed by sections on the infrastructure that enabling technologies are delivered on, the "magic" of content, the delivery of the "experience," and the evolution of the requisite keyboard-less hardware platforms. The book finishes with sections on 'Serious Fun,' the culmination of the high-tech experience in theme parks and special film venues, followed by the last section on the business of entertainment technologies, which focuses on subjects like arcades, multi-player games, virtual worlds, and digital productions.
Digital Illusion puts many important topics into perspective. Often overlooked in the frenzied, market driven pace of digital entertainment, product development is the fact that technological innovation is built in layers. Expanding from and building upon the framework of today's technology, inventions create new and hopefully more popular products, and most importantly, types of entertainment experiences. Dodsworth's book doesn't proselytize or pretend to "know it all." On the contrary, it puts an analytical spin on the why, when and hows of creating the pure enjoyment, the emotional and visceral "rush" we all experience with successful digital entertainment, in order to help us think and make more educated decisions.
Gizmos Don't Sell
The cool new spaceship simulator you ride at your local theme park, the awesome kickboxing game cartridge you pop into your PlayStation, or the "most excellent" movie featuring dinosaurs flossing with human entrails, are all created using tools and technologies that have been painstakingly designed and planned for many years. But why do kids flock to that one simulator at the arcade, or why does one effects laden movie become a blockbuster while another dies an undignified death? How many thousands of entertainment products are made using the same technology, with the same financial backing, only to fail miserably?
One important reason, and one of the most important lessons I learned in reading this book, is that technology doesn't sell. An enjoyable experience that can compete with other enjoyable experiences does. (Maybe that explains why my wife would rather go to a movie with her friends than have a quiet dinner with me.) As Dodsworth's book so wonderfully points out, it is the coupling of the myriad of digital development goodies with thought and creativity that produce successful entertainment experiences. For example, the latest and greatest 3-D computer gaming engine may have taken three years to develop. It renders, it slices, it dices. It allows for innovative and truly state-of-the-art gaming experiences. Of a handful of multi-player games created with that engine, one title sells as many copies as all the others combined. What's my point? My point is that the best and most successful entertainment technologists are those that not only understand the origins and evolution of the platforms and tools they use, but marry that knowledge with smarts and creativity to build new and better experiences for the consumer.
For every truly remarkable additional gizmo, gadget or black box, there are hundreds, if not thousands of innovations that come from the convergence and application of these latest gizmos that no one has done, or done well, before. With fresh paradigms of digital technology development and creative convergence being pioneered every day, the future of digital entertainment looks exciting and enticing. The next great digital entertainment experience is in the clearing just up ahead. Tread cautiously, because you might be walking through a digital mine field to get there.
Digital Illusion - Entertaining the Future with High Technology, edited by Clark Dodsworth Jr., Addison-Wesley and ACM Press, 1998. 545 pages, illustrated. ISBN: 0-201-84780-9.
Dan Sarto is an accomplished "hack" technologist and Chief Operating Officer of AWN.
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