Tuesday, March 08, 2005

When multimedia was black and white

I remember those days, too. The first multimedia job I ever did was a demo to the company I was working for at the time (as a writer), in an attempt to convince them that it was going to be worth our while to get into the multimedia - or multi-media, as it was more commonly called back then - biz. This was in 1991, lo those days of old.

The demo, which was a Hypercard stack running on a Mac, worked too. I eventually ended up becoming a "creative director" of multimedia, sometimes running a group of as many as five other people, sometimes when times were tough, being the group.

The first paying multimedia job I ever did was for the defunct Digital Equipment Corporation, another Macintosh job, and not much more than an animated slide-show with music, as I remember, done with a very early version of Macromedia Director. In fact, the version was early enough that the only way it would run was on a Mac. Digital had a strong "don't use if not invented here" bias and we ended up hiding the Mac in a hollow podium, used a generic (that is, non-Apple) monitor, and I guarded the installation to make sure no one peeked.


A few years later I was sitting with another Digital client reviewing the prototype of an animation loop we had created for their COMDEX trade show booth. The loop displayed a classic `65 Shelby-Cobra GT350 zooming on-screen, then screaming off with a screech of tires as a notebook PC followed in the same fashion. The idea being, of course, that the PC they were introducing was faster than anything then known. I think it had all of a 75 MHz processor.

"Nice," said my client as he watched the loop. "You know, we're bringing a replica of one of those cars to our booth and giving it away. It's worth over 30 grand."

"Wow," I said. "How are you to give it away?"

"Oh, probably the usual goldfish bowl," he answered.

Not knowing much about trade shows at the time, I had to have him explain that they were going to choose the feedback forms of four people per day over the course of the show. On the last day, the 12 lucky people would have their names dropped into a goldfish bowl. A name would be pulled from the bowl, and they'd have their winner.

I chewed on that for a day or so, then called my client. "Given that this is such a major promotion you want to make as big as splash as you can," I said a little breathlessly. "I think we should come up with something that ties into the notebook introduction and is more exciting than a gold-fish bowl."

And we did. I had my development team create another animation (this was still so long ago we were doing it in 3.1 on the Mac, porting it over to Windows 3.0, and running it through the Director Player for Windows). This movie had the Shelby zooming on to the screen too, but then it waited there, faintly trembling, with the rumble of its engine throbbing in the background. There was a large on-screen button, based on the Cobra logo, displayed under the car.

"So here we are," I told the client as I showed it to him on one of their new notebook systems. "It's the last day of the show, and your finalists are ready to go." I brought out a helmet we had purchased and offered it to him. "Pick a disk."

We had created special disk labels for twelve 3.5-inch floppies, displaying the Cobra logo. The disks were identical. The client chose a disk from the helmet, and I distributed some of the disks to other people in the room.

"Try it," I said.

One after another, they inserted their disks into the notebook's floppy drive and clicked on the Cobra button. The first few players heard the car's rumble grow into a thunderous roar as it seemed to prepare to leap from the screen. But at the last moment the car began to shake like an ill-fed dog, the engine noise expired with a sickly wheeze, and the word, "Sorry" appeared on the screen. A few moments later, the screen reverted back to the original animation sequence, and the next person would try.

I had reserved one of the disks for myself, and after allowing a few people to go ahead I said, "I'll try now." Again the car's engine roared, but this time it screamed off the screen, leaving a blazing trail behind, which formed the words, "You win!"

The client loved it, we ran it for real at COMDEX, and the crowd loved it, especially the person who won the Shelby-Cobra replica. In fact, the promotion was so successful that the client purchased more replica cars and we ended up doing it four more times over the course of two years. I ended up traveling from Vegas to Chicago to Atlanta and New York, and learned more about trade shows than I ever wanted to know.

The first show at Vegas just about gave me a heart attack though. Since, in essence, what Digital was doing was a lottery,there were all sorts of rules and regulations imposed on us, including that the 12 disks had to be kept under seal until the show. Some ad rep was in charge of them.

Of course he forgot then in New York. Happily, I was a paranoid soul and had brought a duplicate set in case of trouble. I thought my client was going to kiss me.

So, it's the last day of the show, and all 12 lucky people are there for the drawing. Two of them had extended their stay just to be in the drawing. It's a big deal, lots of Press is there, a big gun from Digital shows up, the crowd swells. I'm standing with my client, who has my forearm in a death grip. Right before we start, he looks at me and says, "It'd be a shame after all this build-up if the first person wins."

"True," I answer. "But there's no way of telling. Even I don't know."

That wasn't entirely so. I had put a little white dot on the winning disk so I could keep track of it. Since people reached into a helmet in order to pull a disk, I wasn't worried about somebody figuring it out. Even if they knew about the dot, there'd be no way to get that specific disk.

First person goes up. Loser. Second loser. It goes that way to number 6. Loser.

Law of averages. When we tested it, sometimes it'd be earlier, but nothing to get worried about. I hoped.

7 through 10 take a try. Losers. The crowd's going wild. 11 is standing next to me and says, "That means it's either me or him, right?"

"Yep," I say. "Good luck." I look at the disk, don't see any white dot.


My client, who looks on the verge of a stroke, looks at the remaining person and yells, "That means you're the winner!"

"Let him try his disk!" the crowd screams back.

And he goes by me, and I'm trying to look at the disk, but his hand's covering it. My mind is working overtime. Did I screw something up? I knew I had put the winning disk in the helmet. Had our multimedia program gone bad?

He puts the disk in. It's the winner. The absolute, last disk.

Later my client and I are having drinks at a bar. "You son-of-a-bitch," he says. "You set it up after I told you I was worried it wasn't going to be exciting enough, didn't you?"

"Hey, it just worked out that way," I answered.

But he never believed me.

That's what multimedia was like, kiddies.

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