This is a detailed writeup of my notes taken during Douglas Adams' speech:
You can watch a streaming RealVideo clip of him starting the speech, but it's less than a minute long since my video camera battery ran out...

His speech was about how technology communications compares with non-technology communications. He listed different types of communications: one-to-one, one-to-many, and many-to-many.

In one-to-one communications, you only talk about mutually interesting stuff. In a cocktail party sometimes there are many one-to-one conversations going on, then people hear something that interests them and more people join in, and things get to a shared many-to-many but around mutual interests, with feedback as they chime in. You get to react to what you hear.

Enter technology-based communications. The telephone is one-to-one. Nothing special there. In broadcast media, like radio and TV, they only send out what they think many people want to hear. You don't say "Joe got up and went to work this morning just like every day". You cover unusual things, or things that affect many people: "News only". As a recipient of this type of one-to-many media you can't react back. That inability to react, he feels, drives people mad. When a movie is playing in a theater, it's identical whether there are 10 people or 1000 people or no people in the audience or if they boo, cheer or fall asleep. Each time it plays it is the same. That's not true of theater, where the actors or entertainers or writers can react to the audience.

"Interactive", he says, is a new word, but not a new idea. Before radio everything was interactive. You could react to things. We didn't have a word for it before because it was rarely absent. (He quoted Alan Kay as saying that whoever discovered water was probably not a fish.)

He told the story of the computer science department Coke machine that got connected to the computer network so that people down the hall could check to see if it was empty before they walked over to buy a drink. Since the network was on the Internet, anybody in the world on the Internet could check the status and even "push" the selection button if there was money left in the slot. While it may seem boring to know the status of a Coke machine in another city, people from all over the world would check it, and even "push" the button once in a while. To him, this was "the shot heard round the world." You could reach out to see into others' everyday lives and reach back to react. This completed a move back to the old way of communication.

He then talked about his experience doing computer games over the last many years. In the mid '80s it was text games. That was reading, where, he says, the playback medium is your mind. The storytellers of old interacted: "Daddy, why did he do that?" He discussed the Eliza computer program, which had just a few rules and basically fed back to people what they typed in rephrased into questions and appeared to many people to be intelligent. He said that it was only 12 lines of code. (Actually, as I recall, it was a little more, plus some data of key words and phrases, but it was shorter than what I'll write on this plane trip in characters, written in LISP.) If you pushed it, though, you could see the rough edges. Having worked with language recognition a lot in his years with games, he commented on how hard it is to do language understanding in a program. "Language is fractally difficult."

To show how such behavior, with rough edges, was acceptable, he then joked about how President Ronald Reagan acted like the Eliza program, feeding back questioners' questions to them, and changing the topic when it didn't work. "Reagan was about a 2K man" he said. He even had proposed a computer game called "An Evening with Ronald Reagan" that was realistic when viewed like his press conferences.

"Understand the grain of the medium you are working in. Use the limitations." He implored us to make the most of the limitations in our media while we still have them. "Difficulties are where your brain works," he said. The game "Myst" used the slowness of those day's CDROMs and systems to concentrate on the visuals and exploration of a haunting world, changing the ideas of games from fast reaction or lots of text.

He is now working in a company called the Digital Village. They are trying to go past the Myst-type of games to one with not only beautiful graphics but also engaging you with conversation to make it feel "alive". Called the "Starship Titanic", about a Starship that lands in your home by mistake that you can go on that is so big that it has canals like Venice, the conversation works like Eliza, but responds in audio. They worked two years on it, one year on refining the way to make the conversation feel right. (He said the process was like having someone give you a picture, then another one just like it, and then another almost identical, then another and another. At first you don't get what's going on, but eventually as they hand them to you faster and faster it suddenly comes together and you see a movie. That's how he felt when they finally got it right.)

But...he finishes his game, and his books, before he ships them. Once they're shipped, they stay the same. Even though the game has almost infinite ways of interacting with it, where even the game creators get surprises when they play it, it is fixed. When playing the game you are relating purely to a machine, not other people. He looks forward to the next stage, out to the Web. He wants it to be like theater where the reactions of the audience drive the writers and directors to modify the play over time. (That's why they often have "tryouts" before opening on Broadway.) Even Homer made changes, he assumed. You will be able to have an instantaneous feedback loop. He told the story of one of the books he wrote. Once in a while, people would come up to him and say "I loved your book, but I didn't understand the ending." He'd smile and say "Oh, you must have missed something. Read it over and then you'll understand." One day, he was doing a full reading of the book for a "books on tape" version. Sure enough, when he got to the end, he didn't understand it either! Too late, he couldn't change the printed copies and it was a year after he had last worked on it and didn't remember what he was thinking.

He talked about his new venture, h2g2.com (Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.com = H2G2.com) a guidebook with realtime feedback from people. You won't go to a recommended restaurant only to find that it closed a year ago. He also talked about how they solved the problem of moving quickly around the Starship in his new game without having to pre-render everything. They have a "Matter side" view, which is pre-rendered, and a "Data side" view, which is how the "ship saw itself" and is easier to render in realtime.

With respect to all of this experimentation with new media, he pointed out how movies started out as "portable plays" -- making up for the fact that traveling theater companies couldn't make it to every city. Later they realized that film was a totally different medium and that they could put the camera on a crane or cut between NY and LA or do closeups, etc. Likewise with our new media, we must experiment and realize that it will evolve quite a bit.

Finally, as a close, he said that we've come full-circle. That with the new connected medium of the Web and Internet, we are back to the small village where everything is interactive, that all conversations can be two way.

(Back to Friday morning)