Monday, May 26, 2008

Collaborative video storytelling

Storytelling is not only one of the oldest art forms in the world (it's probably a photo-finish with cave/body painting and dance), it has also proven instrumental in the adoption of almost all forms of modern mass media. Books, Newspapers, Radio, Cinema, Television; all were swift to embrace the narrative arc as their dominant format. Whilst the internet is still a comparatively young medium, its usage has thus far been dominated by more task-oriented behaviours such as e-mail, search, banking, shopping, research and, of course, the unholy vanguard of so much consumer-facing technology adoption; gambling and pornography.

That's not to say that the web's early years have been devoid of storytelling, rather that technological limitations have kept it from being a primary driver of usage. The dial-up years introduced a latency which was unconducive to narrative flow and a metered mentality which discouraged extraneous usage. The experience of reading large amounts of text on screen also hampered the internet's challenge to the primacy of dead-tree media in the written-word storytelling domain (although Amazon is looking to change that with the Kindle).

Whilst the widespread adoption of broadband and upgrades to the internet's underlying infrastructure have removed many of the technical barriers to online storytelling (in all its forms), it's taking a while for the creative community to fully respond to the challenge/opportunity. The dominant forms of online video, for example, remain 'You've Been Framed' style YouTube clips and ripped music videos and TV shows. However, this is starting to change and new approaches to online storytelling are starting to emerge.

In his keynote at the Microsoft Advance '08 conference, Michael Eisner (ex-CEO of Disney), argued that "YouTube is to the internet what a nickelodeon is to the movies. It's the preliminary installment of what is to come" which he believes is "great, creative storytelling"; and I've heard Adam Curtis (acclaimed documentary maker) wax lyrical on the subject of how the internet might enable greater narrative complexity (listen to this audio clip from his recent interview with The Register for a flavour).

Whilst I'm inclined to agree with them both, the first fruits of this labour can be painful to watch. Prom Queen (produced by Eisner's own online-focused studio, Vuguru), may have attracted over 20 million views and innovated with format in so-far as each of its episodes was only 90 seconds long; however, it played like a seriously truncated episode of Dawson's Creek. As Eisner himself says; "What's missing is creative storytelling that capitalizes on a unique aspect of the internet, such as interactivity or community".

One way in which storytellers are attempting to harness the unique attributes of the internet (with admittedly mixed results) is via video collaboration. A couple of projects which have recently caught my eye in this space are Rootclip and Microsoft-sponsored Ultimate Video Relay. Both operate from a similar premise: a clip of the first act/chapter of an open-ended story is uploaded by the producers of the site, with users encouraged to determine where the narrative goes next. In the case of Rootclip this means actually going out and filming 60 seconds of video (using elements of costume for continuity), whereas Ultimate Video Relay is initially only looking for script submissions. In both instances, the community votes on which narrative direction they want to see adopted.

Whilst the narrative merits of the finished output might be questionable (Chapter 2 of Rootclip is essentially one protracted chase sequence), it's interesting to see experimentation in this space. I've embedded the opening chapter of Rootclip below (but not Act 1 of the Ultimate Video Relay, as the embedded video autostarts - numpties). Also worth checking out is the GooTube Conspiracy, an example of more organic, spontaneous collaborative video storytelling (more info at New York Review). It's going to be interesting to see whether this space explodes or fizzles out.

Rootclip: Chapter 1

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Mark Kermode BBC video blog

Every so often you get to be involved with a project which is not only professionally satisfying, it also resonates with your own personal obsessions. Kermode Uncut - the newly launched BBC video blog - has been one such project, marrying my passion for blogging with my fan-boy enthusiasm for the film criticism of Mark Kermode. Long-standing readers of this blog will know that I listen religiously to his weekly Radio 5 Live film review podcast with Simon Mayo (see My media consumption diet) and that his wife was my one of my tutors at University (see 8 random facts about me). Suffice to say, I didn't have to think for long before taking Nick Cohen (Multiplatform Executive for BBC Knowledge) up on his offer to help shepherd the project through its initial development phase.

So, why a video blog (or, if we must, vlog)? Well, anyone's who seen or heard Mark's review of Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End will understand how much of his reviewing is in the delivery and what a missed opportunity simply sitting him down at a keyboard would have been (excellent though his writing for Sight & Sound and The Observer is). It also felt like an opportunity to innovate with the BBC's blogging platform. With the possible exception of the Blue Peter blog (which Wikipedia credits as the BBC's first video blog), the BBC's blogs have been predominantly text-led to date, which was also starting to feel like a bit of a missed opportunity for an organisation which knows a thing or two about creating compelling video content.

Video blogging first started genrating buzz back in 2005 (aided and abetted by the launch of YouTube), but is still to go mainstream in the way that text blogging has, despite a few high-profile successes (e.g. Rocketboom, lonelygirl15). My hunch is that this may change in the coming 12 months as mobile video cameras continue to improve and sites like Seesmic, Qik and Kyte get users more comfortable with talking direct to camera (interestingly it was the Beeb that did much to pave the way for video blogging with Video Nation).

Certainly the typically more intimate, authored tone of a video blog is a good fit for Mark as this wonderful post on his past experience of the Cannes Film Festival demonstrates.

Props to: Nicholas Jones, Stevan Keane, Hedda Archbold, Nick Cohen, Claire Cook, Neil Bramah, Al Boley, Aaron Scullion and anyone else I've forgotten (as I invariably do).

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Apple TV + iPhone = games console?

As Wired's recent article on the fierce rivalry between leading gadget blogs Engadget and Gizmodo illustrates, no-one likes to be pipped to the (blog) post. So, it was with some frustration that I fired up my feed-reader this morning to discover that Daniel Langendorf from ReadWriteWeb spin-off last100 had posted an op-ed piece entitled 'What if Apple re-enters the console gaming market through the iPhone?' covering much of the same ground as a post that has been kicking around in my drafts folder for the past couple of months entitled 'Will Apple's next play be gaming?'.

However, whilst Langendorf joins the dots on Apple's likely play for mobile gaming with the iPhone / iPod Touch (check out the video of SEGA demoing Super Monkey Ball for iPhone if you've not already seen it) and speculates that they might follow it up with an "integrated game console for the living room - either a new product or the next iteration of the AppleTV", he doesn't connect the two, which in my mind is where the really interesting play is.

What the iPhone lacks as a domestic gaming platform is a big screen and what Apple TV lacks is an appropriate controller. Put the two together, connected via WiFi, and you've potentially got a Rolls Royce Wii (admittedly, with a price tag to match and you probably wouldn't want to throw your iPhone around the living room the way you do your Wiimote). That said, the potential of the iPhone as a controller for a secondary console is pretty interesting to my mind, combining the accelerometer of the Wiimote with the touch-screen of the Nintendo DS to theoretically provide a motion-sensing two-screen experience (e.g. tilt device to steer plane, stroke screen to target missile). Multiplayer would just be a matter of your mates whipping out their iPhones, selecting your WiFi network and joining the game, with information relating to the status of their on-screen avatar displayed privately on their iPhone.

So, do I think this is likely to happen? Er, probably not. Despite his well-earned reputation as an innovator, Steve Jobs is a 'softly softly catchee monkey' man at heart, as his initially cautious approach to introducing video to the iPod demonstrated. That said, he's due another bite at the gaming cherry after the Apple Pippin... In the unlikely event that it does come to pass, you heard it heard first ;-)

Saturday, May 03, 2008

The word on the web: 7 keyword trending tools

Unquestionably one of the most powerful ways in which products and services get promoted, word-of-mouth is not only notoriously difficult to generate; it's also very hard to measure. Pre-digital, finding out how 'talked about' your brand was meant arming yourself (or, more likely, a costly market research agency) with a pencil and clip-board and trying to find a representative sample to quiz, either by phone, mail or face-to-face. The arrival of email made contacting a large number of potential respondents much cheaper, quicker and easier but still relies on self-selecting individuals and only captures claimed, rather than actual, behaviours.

And then Google happened. For the first time, a small but significant slice of the world's interactions were being indexed and made searchable. The first tools to mine this data were somewhat limited in scope; Google Zeitgeist (launched in 2001) presented a small selection of top ten lists and charts of popular search queries, which tantalised the stats geeks amongst us with what could be discerned if open access to the database was granted. We had to wait five years, but in May 2006, Google did exactly that when it took the wraps off Google Trends, which enables users to chart trends for the search terms of their choosing.

Whilst knowing what keywords people are searching for is useful (and an important success measure in its own right), it doesn't necessarily directly correlate to how much your brand is being talked about. Fortunately, a new breed of products is emerging which focus on tracking keyword usage on blogs and in other community spaces. Icerocket's Trend Tool, Trendpedia, Technorati charts and Nielsen's BlogPulse Trend Search all attempt to trend word usage in the blogosphere, whilst the recently launched Facebook Lexicon collates keyword data from people's Facebook Walls and Twist charts keyword recurrence on Twitter.

The potential applications of these keyword trending tools are already myriad and my suspicion is that they are just the tip of the iceberg. Obvious next steps include mashing up the existing data sources to provide both aggregate and comparative trends across the various forums/services (e.g. Facebook users talk more about X than Y, whereas Twitterers talk more about Y then X) and beginning to contextualise the mentions to make more qualitative assessments (e.g. X % of keyword mentions were in a positive context, Y % were negative).

Below is a sample chart for each of the services I've mentioned, illustrating some of the interesting possibilities for this data in different market sectors.

Google Trends

BlogPulse Trend Search

Technorati charts

Technorati Chart

Icerocket Trend Tool


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