An Inflection Point in the History of Multimedia: Video Ethnographies of Visual Almanac and News Navigator
The Computer History Museum’s Center for Software History has been conducting what we call “video ethnographies” to record and preserve the experience of running historical software. To put it simply, a video ethnography is a filmed demonstration of a historical piece of software, running on its original hardware or in emulation, demonstrated by a person with firsthand knowledge of the software, including original software creators and developers.
We believe that to properly document software, more than just its bits and code need to be preserved. Software is a performance, and must be experienced live in order to fully capture its nature and workings. As software ages, it becomes more difficult to preserve it in a state in which it can be run. Therefore, it is important to capture the experience of running the software on original hardware when it, and many of the software’s original creators, are still available. We call these demos “ethnographies” because beyond simply demonstrating the functionality of the software, we are simultaneously interviewing the demonstrator about the significance of the software in its larger cultural and social context.
Over the course of 2018, the Center for Software History has conducted two video ethnographies surrounding a key moment at the end of the late 1980s and early 1990s, the birth of multimedia, which can be defined as a form of media that mixes text, graphics, audio, video, and animations together in an interactive and nonlinear form.
The first is an investigation into the Visual Almanac (102675565, 102647922, 102651553), the Encyclopedia of Multimedia (102651553), and other software titles in CHM’s permanent collection that include LaserDiscs. These titles were created by Apple Computer and ran on Macintosh computers connected to a LaserDisc player via an RS-232 serial cable. Software on the Mac controlled the playback of video on the LaserDisc, allowing an interactive and nonlinear viewing experience. This software came in the form of a HyperCard stack. HyperCard, created by famed Apple software engineer Bill Atkinson, was an interactive hypertext environment that combined text, graphics, and sound. With a scripting language (HyperTalk) and an external plug-in architecture allowing developers to later add animations and even digital video, it became an authoring platform for much of the multimedia software of the early 1990s. In many ways, HyperCard presaged the modern World Wide Web. Prior to digital video becoming widespread on desktop PCs, HyperCard lacked the capability to show video, but could be configured through plug-ins to control content playing on an attached LaserDisc player. The Apple Multimedia Lab produced many of these hybrid computer/LaserDisc titles for educational and marketing uses.
Of course, Apple’s invention of QuickTime, the first digital video format to become widely available on desktop PCs, made the use of computer-controlled LaserDiscs obsolete for multimedia applications. Announced in 1990 and shipping in 1991, QuickTime allowed for small postage stamp-size videos to play in a window, and depended on an efficient compression/decompression algorithm (codec) code-named “Road Pizza” that would be fast enough to decompress video in real-time. QuickTime video, embedded in HyperCard stacks and shipping on CD-ROMs, blew open the doors of the multimedia industry, and is still with us today in the form of the MPEG-4 video standard, which can be found in everything from mobile phones to 4K streaming TVs. In February, I hosted a CHM Live panel event, “Press Play: The Origins of QuickTime,” a conversation with Bruce Leak, Peter Hoddie, and Doug Camplejohn, three former Apple developers who played pivotal roles on the QuickTime project.
Although QuickTime did not ship until 1991, the first public demonstration of QuickTime technology may have been in the fall of 1990, at an educational computing conference called Educom, held that year in Atlanta, Georgia. This took the form of a daily news magazine called News Navigator that ran on kiosks at the conference and contained news stories with embedded video content from CNN. News Navigator, the brainchild of then Apple marketing manager Greg Gretsch, was implemented as a set of HyperCard stacks by Clate Sanders, a HyperCard expert at Georgia Tech.
In December 2017/January 2018, the Center for Software History worked with Clate Sanders to restore his original HyperCard stacks (which were still stored on old magneto-optical disk cartridges), and run them on an appropriate vintage Macintosh. We produced the following video ethnography of the News Navigator, with interviews of Greg Gretsch and Clate Sanders and demonstration by Clate Sanders.
Taken together, these two video ethnographies straddle a crucial turning point in the history of multimedia. On one side, the Visual Almanac, involving a complicated setup in which text, graphics and sound were mixed in a hypermedia format on the computer, but video remained separate, controlled through commands sent over a serial cable to a separate machine playing videodiscs that were still essentially analog. On the other side we have the first public demonstration of fully digital, compressed video embedded in hypermedia, freely mixed in with text, still graphics, and audio clips, albeit in a prototype form. What we see in the News Navigator is not that far removed from the websites we see today, in which the mixing of these heterogeneous media forms, and especially the embedding of digital video (such as in this very blog post) is taken for granted.
About the Center for Software History
The purpose of the Center for Software History at the Computer History Museum is to collect, preserve, and interpret the history of software and its transformational effects on global society.
Software is what a computer does. The existence of code reflects the story of the people who made it. The transformational effects of software are the consequences of people’s creation and use of code. In the stories of these people lie the technical, business, and cultural histories of software—from timesharing services to the cloud, from custom code to packaged programs, from developers to entrepreneurs, from smartphones to supercomputers. The center is exploring these people-centered stories, documenting soft-ware-in-action, and leveraging the Museum’s rich collections to tell the story of software, preserve its history, and put it to work today for gauging where we are, where we have been, and where we might be going.