Wishlist: A Newsstand for Video Content Publishers

We don’t have a TV. Seriously, I’m not saying that to sound hip. We cut the cable when we moved to New York City 5 years ago mainly to trim our monthly overhead. I moved from California without bringing my flat-screen TV (which wasn’t going to fit in my New York City apartment anyway). But we decided not to subscribe to cable television. We were going to stick with the web. And we don’t miss a thing. Well, OK… maybe I miss my 50-inch.


But since that time, significant strides have been made in video distribution: Hulu, Netflix’s Watch Instantly, iTunes Store’s TV Shows & Movies. Then iOS launches. I often wear bluetooth earbuds (Jaybird Freedom) when consuming most audio and/or video content on my iPhone and iPad. I build playlists on Vimeo & YouTube (Watch Later) via my social network (Fav on Twitter mostly). And then watch them with Denso at appropriate times (ie: lean back, while doing chores, at the gym). And, of course, there’s an array of video publisher content. TED is one of my favorites. The new Smithsonian Channel app is impressive too (see image below). All this to say that we are not short in excellent video content to be consumed on a computer, tablets and smart phones. We lack a way to organize it all.

Hence, my wishlist for a Newsstand for Video Content Publishers and Platforms (Vimeo & YouTube). But beyond a place to purchase/rent video content, but a one-stop shop for discovery, curation, consumption and share. And what if we can create and organize our own personal channel based on our own discovery (ie: Interactive Narratives Channel). Denso just launched this channel on their platform to allow for easier consumption. Maybe that could be a part of iTV from Apple.
 
Or maybe Hulu can support a bookmarklet called “Add to Queue.” That action will then put it on my Hulu Plus Queue.

Redefining Interactive Narratives & Multimedia Storytelling

AIGA recently updated its Pivot website and made available a few of the “main stage" presentations as videos from their convention in Phoenix. I’d recommend watching a few of them, including Jonathan Hoefler & Valerie Casey.
 
Accompany this with a recent interactive story we produced at The New York Times (more on this later), and I’m inspired to write this overdue post on my contributions to the conversation at AIGA-Pivot. It’s an opportunity to share some of my thoughts on what excites me today about interactive storytelling and the projects we are producing on the multimedia desk.
 
This past summer, Julie Beeler from Portland’s Second Story interactive studio graciously invited me to be on the Storytelling is Design and Design is Storytelling affinity session in Phoenix. I was honored to be a part of an impressive lineup, and it was apropos to be invited by Julie, as it was the work of her and partner Brad Johnson that inspired me to tell, explain and innovate in the space of Interactive Narratives.
 
Before we go down this interactive path, let me start with the importance of linear storytelling. An excellent story is often compelling because of its layers. Each layer reveals a new concept or an arc that compels the reader or viewer to continue their narrative journey. A cross-section of a sequoia tree, for example, is a visual way to show the layered life-cycle of a tree … in a linear fashion.
 
I can appreciate a well-told, impeccably paced linear story with complex layers. Books, movies and documentary films have been doing amazing and beautiful storytelling for decades, if not centuries. A number of sites and organizations, including i-Docs and DocLab, have helped in collecting some of the new work in the interactive documentary space.
 
And there are well-executed and well-told linear stories today in the multimedia space. I’m extremely proud of the recent work we’ve done at The Times, including the beautifully shot and edited Vanishing Minds, Lives Restored & A Year at War series.
 
Even before joining The Times in 2006, I launched Interactive Narratives to capture the best of online visual storytelling as practiced by journalists and storytellers from around the world. I included “narrative” in the site’s title because I wanted the site to reflect the sentiment and thought of storytelling but not necessarily confine the collection to journalism. The term “interactive” helps define the viewer’s experience. But over the years, I’ve grown to appreciate that the interaction is not just about the users’ experiences but it’s equally about the interplay of story elements to enhance the package in non-linear layers.  
 
I’m also inspired by how video games push the interactive narrative form. Beyond Pong, video games use storytelling to keep players engaged, peeling new layers in the arc as one “levels up” in the game.
 
Today, players are more accustomed to exploring a world outside the structured narrative. Take Super Mario Bros. A player could essentially zoom through the structured narrative on ground level. But what makes the game more compelling is the ability to take Mario through tunnels, underground caverns or even in the clouds to explore tangent story lines.
 
In the Grand Theft Auto series, the narrative structure widens even more as players have the ability to roam through the entire city landscape.
 
Pivot to Interactive Narratives in the journalism and documentary space. Are there opportunities to engage readers/viewers with multi-layered, non-linear stories? During my presentation, I quote an Indian saying about education that goes:
 
Tell me, and I will forget.
Show me, and I may remember.
Involve me, and I will understand.
The second line has resonated with me and our work in visual storytelling for years. The third line helps in redefining Interactive Narratives. 
At The Times, we’ve applied a number of innovative story forms to our journalism. This interactive treatment isn’t for every story. Some narratives should remain linear and simple. While others can be enhanced by layers presented in interactive forms.
 
The NYTimes examples below have a common structure: a main backbone narrative with a beginning, a middle and an end. The narrative becomes the organizing structure that allows a reader/viewer to explore additional elements of the story. When I talk about non-linear narrative storytelling, as I did at Pivot, I use this diagram as a starting point:
image
This diagram evolved from an earlier one from 2009.

This diagram changes based on the elements of the story and forms available. The length of the narrative or the size of the circles may change. The circles of “sidebars,” if you will, are tangent to the main narrative and have obvious in-and-out points to the main storyline. The fine line between discovery and confusion can be resolved by thoughtful visual design.
 
Here are a few examples of how The Times’ multimedia desk applied this type of story form to a number of stories and interactives; the media that carried the main narrative is noted in parentheses:

I’m extremely proud of the projects that helped innovate on this story form. But I’ll be the first to admit that we’re not quite there. I’m looking forward to the day when both the main narrative and these interactive “sidebars” work explicitly together and each are edited and designed as integrated and interactive components to the narrative.
image
These sidebars are less about the story form and presentation/design and more about the experience and narrative flow. Imagine a written story or a video script written specifically to engage the reader/viewer in an interactive sidebar, or a sidebar that encourages a user to take a quiz, engage with an interactive graphic or offer their thoughts on Twitter or Facebook … or giving a reader/viewer a chance to go to a physical space and to share in the experience of the story augmented by their personal mobile device.

Now things can get interesting.

iPhone 4S

Just pre-ordered my iPhone 4S. After reading so many positive reviews and upon hearing that some people are already getting theirs in the mail, I just couldn’t take it any longer. Two things I’m thinking about while ordering:

  • Justified purchasing the 64GB one as I suspect I will no longer carry my Canon S95 around. And for folks who know me, that’s a huge step as I shoot stills and video nearly constantly.
  • I’m worry about my memory muscle even more with Siri. It sounds incredible.

That is all.

In Search of The Mavens

Yahoo’s announcement of dropping bookmarking service Delicious had many users scrambling to find alternatives. Being one of then, I eventually exported my links to pinboard. We’ll see if that was necessary but I hold hope that Delicious will indeed find another home.

It’s unfortunate that one of the many benefits of delicious was never exploited. To me, it had the potential of finding the Mavens, the “information specialists”, or “people we rely upon to connect us with new information.” Check out the sidebar, “How ReadWriteWeb Used Delicious,” from ReadWriteWeb’s “R.I.P. Delicious: You Were So Beautiful to Me" and you’ll see what I mean. (HT @ J Robinson)

Essentially, their sorting mechanism allowed them to find The Mavens:

Then we subscribed to the RSS feeds of all those peoples’ bookmarks in the future. We regularly find things that way before our competitors do.

I wonder, however, if there’s a way to go beyond this set of early Mavens. Rather than “grab URLs for companies and products,” it’ll be great if we can grab the URL based on the ones we bookmark or tag similarly. Of course, this may not lead to serendipitous discovery. Often times, you may find folks who are too similar to you.

However, if there was a way to discover beyond your immediate circle of influence, this list of Mavens might expose some very interesting finds. I did a presentation on this awhile back and used this slide to help illustrate how it might work.

Imagine, for example, that “cooking” was one of my frequently used tags. I might find value in a Maven that frequently tagged articles with “vegetables” but a serendipitous find might have come from a Maven that was really into “gardening” and so forth.

Essentially, your Mavens may have their own Mavens based on tangentially related topics. Those in the first and second circle of Mavens are your customized curators for web content. Finding and sorting their links will ultimately you save time and lead you to discover a new perspective beyond the typical echo chamber.

Update (1/9/2011)

Since Flipboard has yet to launch its semantic integration, News.me could appeal to those who need more than just an attractive layout of the news, or even popular trends, but need to find the news that’s highly relevant to them.

And, yes, it’s a need.

Update (10/29/2011)

I joined Pinterest last month. And although I’m not active, I can see how this could get interesting if the masses were to “collect” here, sort of speak. I especially like the ability to not simply save the URL as in delicious, but to “save” a discrete piece of media. In Pinterest, it’s currently images only. But I can imagine a much more powerful discovery engine if folks can “save” a collection of quotes or paragraphs in a sharable service. Pinterest also highlights the original “Pinner” of that particular piece of content. In Search of The Mavens can be that much closer.

Flipboard

While the interwebs is still buzzing about the new “social magazine” iPad app Flipboard, I thought I’d add my two cents to the fray. Despite some of the challenges (see “some obvious CONS” below), there are a number of brilliant things happening with the app that I hope inspires others moving forward.

Preloaded Headlines and Summary from my Twitter and Facebook Networks.

Ironically, this is the current buzz around the web: is Flipboard scraping content illegally?  Wherever this legal mumbo-jumbo falls, I do hope there’s a solution. It’s just brilliant. My wife commented yesterday on how she would use Twitter if the feed were displayed this way. Otherwise, the stream is just daunting. This magazine-like layout for my Twitter and Facebook stream is a significantly much easier and elegant solution. Power this functionality with Semantic Data and this magazine-like browsing experience will be remarkable.

Visual Mode to Content
The main page is an auto-rotate through the current feed’s set of photos/images. As a 4th screen (yes, I have 3 screen in my work space), I would use this visual mode as a picture frame into the day’s rotating news/buzz stream. Great idea. Obviously, the images are a bit random and I would love a way to determine the visual feed.



Social Network Integration
I can retweet, like and comment right in the app. Is there a reason to go to the website at this point? I’m sure Zuckerberg isn’t very happy about that.



Creative Grids
On pages where a gallery of images are present, Flipboard will automatically devote a grid of photos to the entire page. Smart.


There are some obvious CONS to the app:

  • Being a week out, it is a bit buggy.
  • I wish Twitter list actually work cause that would be great channels. And I wouldn’t feel so bad about how much effort I put into my relatively useless Twitter lists.
  • Content isn’t cached. So no subway reading.
  • The seemingly random selection for photos as well as their crops could stir an issue for visual purist.


And as the app evolves, I’d love to see:

  • Instapaper integration
  • Google Reader integration

Some reviews around the web:

UPDATE: Well, well, well… it looks like there is Instapaper via Settings. Thanks for the heads up, Marco!

The Roles of Video Games

I’m looking forward to diving into Tom Bissell’s latest book “Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter" not only because I feel connected to the "gamers" genre but also because of the idea of combining interactive narratives with games intrigue me. In his recent interview with “On The Media,” Bissell points out:

This is a medium that is actually open to more directional influence from smart people working within it than any other popular medium around right now.

It’s exciting to me where this genre is going. Games themselves will certainly get more visually realistic and the interactions with them will be more engaging. But the idea of engaging users with compelling narrative and possibly even understanding the world around us is inspiring. And I can only imagine the opportunities to use the same techniques to push how we tell multimedia stories.

Obviously, the idea isn’t new. But here are a few links that might comb together some ideas as to where we are headed with these types of interactive narratives:

  • Play the News - “a web-based platform that brings interactive gaming elements to the online ‘news media’ industry changing the paradigm of news consumption from passive reading to active engagement.” (Poynter’s Sara Quinn interviewed Eric Brown and Asi Burak back in February of 2009 in “Interactivity, Role Playing in News Games Engage Readers”)
  • Enter the Story - “a thirty year project to convert the world’s greatest stories into adventure games”
  • News Games - “research on the relationship between journalism and videogames at Georgia Tech”
  • Saving the World Through Game Design (The New Yorker: May 2008) - Jane was also recently on TED  with “Gaming can make a better world.”
  • Design Outside the Box” Presentation (Dice 2010) - “Carnegie Mellon University Professor, Jesse Schell, dives into a world of game development which will emerge from the popular ‘Facebook Games’ era.”
  • Picture the Impossible - “Players participate in a range of activities, including casual web-based games, games that bring players out to events and locations throughout the city, and games that involve the tangible aspects of the Democrat & Chronicle newspaper itself.”

Other reviews of Tom Bissell’s “Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter”

Facebook famously co-opted the word “friend” and created a new verb.

This NYTimes’ article, “Are 5,001 Facebook Friends One Too Many?,” as well as the fact that Facebook apparently isn’t going away anytime soon with the failed “Quit Facebook Day,” got me thinking about how I  choose “friends” on FB.

I used to have this crazy rule that I needed to at least have had a drink with someone before I accepted or extended a “friendship.”  Better yet if I can recall the topic of our last conversation. Then I noticed how many of my old high school friends were on FB and it would nearly be impossible to go by the “drink” or “last conversation” rule.

And then I noticed how some folks were using it as their own branding tool and used it to extend their network. I would imagine that these folks accepted any request for friendship. I tried that out for a bit but quickly realized my news feed became all but meaningless. Now, I’m a bit more selective in industry circles, as I continue to use Facebook for personal social networks and Twitter for professional networks for the most part.

On occasion, my wife and I play this little game where she goes down through my list of friends on Facebook and if I can’t identify how I know them within five seconds, I un-friend them.

The iPad & Writing

I couldn’t agree more about the longer writing statement from Gizmodo’s Joel Johnson on “The iPad Is Such A Great Travel Computer That I’m Selling My Laptop" (via "The iPad as a writing coach’s dream" from Nieman Journalism Lab).

For long typing sessions, I found myself putting the keyboard on my lap while placing the iPad off to the side — sometimes not even in direct eyeshot.

It’s especially handy when you’re also sitting with an infant:


With that said, however, it is difficult to cite quotes from stories and posts cause the cut and paste from safari to my writing app, Simplenote, is just too cumbersome at the moment. I also wish there were better dictionary and thesaurus integration.

The iMoleskine Wishlist

Nothing beats pen and paper - especially if Moleskine keeps putting out interesting products like its new line, Moleskine Passions: Wine Journal. But that doesn’t stop me from wishing for an app (or system of apps) that would allow me to quickly sketch out an idea, wire-frame it, work out flows & relationships and make annotations. I should also be able tag it, share it and allow disparate ideas to relate to one another by making it visually & textually findable. An Internet Moleskine, if you will.

As I noted in my “Potentially Because of the iPad" Flickr gallery, one of the challenges the iPad faces in becoming a drawing tool is the resolution of the stylus. The ideal would be a ballpoint pen rather than a Sharpie, but I have yet to find one that demonstrates the ability to draw a fine line with touch. Yes, some apps can generate a line, but I’m talking about drawing.

But here are a few iPad apps that get us a step closer to a day when an iPad can become a companion to my Moleskine.

  • Penultimate - This app from Cocoa Box Design best replicates the look and feel of a Moleskine. The 4px-ish digital pen feels natural on the large writing space. At $2.99, the infinite number of notebooks is a great way to organize notes by project or thoughts. You can also set the background to graphed, lined or plain. At the risk of taking away the Moleskine form, I wish there was a way to type in annotations via the virtual keyboard.
  • iNapkin (v2.0.2) - At 4px, the smallest pen size on this app is surprisingly fine, considering my finger touches the glass at about 35px. At $2.99, iNapkin delivers what it promises: the ability to make quick sketches on a digital napkin, make annotations, then mail it to yourself or friends. I wish Tekton was the typeface for annotations to visually match the drawing forms. 
  • Keynote (v1) - For quick, elegant presentations, Apple’s Keynote can get the job done in a flash. I put together a presentation a couple of weeks ago by simply importing a set of images and converting them into a Keynote deck. Boom! Instant presentation. However, I quickly missed Keynote’s desktop ability to link an image to a Web page as well as play a video file. Both should have been a part of this version. The shape and line tools, though, are very similar to the desktop version of the app, and it could possibly be used for wire-framing and illustrating relationships. Navigating full application functionality on a touch interface takes a bit of getting used to, but Keynote has Apple’s elegance and intuitive interfaces.

Apps I’m keeping an eye on:

  • OmniGraffle - At $50, OmniGraffle from The Omni Group is a bit expensive for my budget. Granted, the iPad app might be appropriately priced, considering OmniGraffle on the Mac is an amazing tool and the professional version costs $199. But I’m waiting for either more recent favorable reviews, a price drop or a competitive product. I’m also very curious to see what The Omni Group does with OmniOutliner for the iPad.
  • Wireframes for iPad - Speaking of competitors, Wireframes for iPad looks promising. Right now, it’s just a website. Cost is still unknown.

Of course, to round out the experience, I would also want peripherals with the iPad:

  • Pogo Sketch ($14.95) looks like a good stylus. It’s definitely better than a sausage stylus, but I’m holding out for a stylus with a real pen on the other end.
  • Trip Jacket ($39.99) will cover your iPad and make it look like a Moleskine when not in use.  With the M-Edge line of products, I’m more drawn to the Executive Jacket.T  The ultimate cover, however, would be one that holds a real Moleskine, a stylus/pen and, maybe, my iPhone.

Then I’m good to go.