DaveNet: Saturday, September 13, 1997; by Dave Winer.

blue ribbon Marc Canter on DSS

Pop-up Video and the on-going evolution of User Interface design

My DSS dish is my favorite consumer product now adays. Even more than my kid's Tamagotchi pets, my ever handy portable phone or even my antiquated, overpriced Macintosh -- (yes, it's still sitting on my desk, being used as a tool to write this article). My DSS controller is part of my life, always in hand, ready to quickly jump to another movie, news, or music channel.

The coolest thing about DSS is that for the first time a successful, fully functional interactive menu driven system has been implemented with a remote control device. That device is directly tied into the on screen user interface built into each DSS receiver box. My DSS box (a Sony) actually implements their graphic interface as a sexy, transparent overlay on top of the video, allowing me to see what's underneath. The combination of dynamically downloading program and station information, regulating ownership through a built-in smart card, and then driving the user's experience from an integrated user interface device is what makes DSS 'rock the house' in my world.

The DSS system implements what everyone was touting as the first 'Interactive TV' interface back in the early 90s. It's the closest thing we've ever come to 'on-demand' video for everyone! I can sort through all the hundreds of channels available with the system, browse an on-line schedule, and get a paragraph of text and title on each show, which allows me to quickly judge whether or not I want to watch a show, which is another huge gain for the user's overall experience. I also love the ability to customize my channel listings and control my TV set and VCR from the same controller.

But the hottest thing about the DSS interface has to be the icons, which represent each available channel. The DSS system is the next big step in the evolution of graphic user interfaces, starting from Sutherland's Sketchpad in the early 60s, through Xerox PARC UI developments of the 70s, through the Lisa and Macintosh, Andy Herzfeld's infamous FROX system, General Magic and other PDA interfaces in the 80s and early 90s, (with only a little bit of regression backwards in that horrid interface we all now lovingly call HTML browsers.)

The world is sorting itself out, and the cream always rises to the top. Remember when the biggest argument corporate Amercia had against the Macintosh was that it was mouse driven and wasted screen display on stupid GUI interfaces? Well how quickly they changed their rap, once Bill Gates told them how the future would be.

Now DSS has taken the mantle of leadership and moved the GUI world a little further on, getting us ready for the era of PC TV.

So now comes along another major breakthough event in the development of user interfaces - 'Pop Up Video' - a new VH-1 show which puts 'pop-up' menus on top of the music videos as they're playing. We all recognize this technique as a typical multimedia feature - as a way of annotating some particular object, person or place in a video presentation. But to Joe and Jane Schmoe - this is heavy shit! "Somebody's sitting there, actually putting all this stuff in!" they cry.

Some of the pop-ups simply describe a particular special effect or production technique: "there's someone holding a stick down there, moving that bottle" or "the water tank sprung a leak during shooting, and they brought in 2,000 sand bags...." But some of the annotation actually cross-references the song to a musical influence, or plops down a photo of the band member and talks about their dog or where they live. Annotated video has always been one of the Holy Grails of the Information Age, and 'Pop-up Video' does it right!

I really like it when the pop-up literally has an entire other video inside, shrunken down - sort of like a graphic footnote or comment, or when they add an arrow to the pop-up, pointing at a particular object or person: "look at that hairdo - what was she thinking of?...." or "the couple fighting in back are married in real-life!"

It's actually gets a bit annoying, after a while as the pop-ups are constantly streaming and never seem to let up. But maybe this is the fuddy duddy in me - maybe my kids will grow up totally used to video being annotated at all times. Maybe they'll be able to pick through the clutter their email window, the station listings, annotated dialogs and still see the content below all these transparent overlays.

But Pop-ups wouldn't be so annoying if the end-user, who is now known as a viewer - could control whether or not the pop-ups where there or not. That's called Interactivity. It's just another button on the remote control device.

This is what the possibilities of Digital TV is all about - not whether or not it's HDTV - or if it's a set top box or PC. As we venture forward into the era of PC TV, the end user's experience will become more and more important, as we're move deeper and deeper into the domain of real consumers, not geeky computer users.

But those consumers are not dumb, and a VCR is hard to program anyway you look at it. That's why building PC TV capabilities into Windows 98 is so important. It gives us the opportunity of getting ready for these new devices - today.

VH-1 is actually promoting 'Pop-up Video' as a 'new kind of thing' - so they must feel it's a significant advance as well. MTV - their sister channel has experimented with putting up chat boards onto TV, and they've built in 'interactive' capaiblities into their new studio - at their corporate headquarters at 151 Broadway in New York, so they're one channel that's getting ready.

Are you?

Marc Canter, marc@canter.com, is a multimedia and web developer; and founder of Macromedia.

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