Commingled Bits 5

Books without Pages

Hypermedia is an extension of hypertext, a term for highly interconnected narrative, or linked information. The idea came from early experiments at the Stanford Research Institute by Douglas Englebart and derived its name from work at Brown University by Ted Nelson, circa 1965. In a printed book, sentences, paragraphs, pages, and chapters follow one another in an order determined not only by the author but also by the physical and sequential construct of the book itself. While a book may be randomly accessible and your eyes may browse quite haphazardly, it is nonetheless forever fixed by the confines of three physical dimensions.

In the digital world, this is not the case. Information space is by no means limited to three dimensions. An expression of an idea or train of thought can include a multidimensional network of pointers to further elaborations or arguments, which can be invoked or ignored. The structure of the text should be imagined like a complex molecular model. Chunks of information can be reordered, sentences expanded, and words given definitions on the spot (something I hope you have not needed too often in this book). These linkages can be embedded either by the author at "publishing" time or later by readers over time.

Think of hypermedia as a collection of elastic messages that can stretch and shrink in accordance with the reader's actions. Ideas can be opened and analyzed at multiple levels of detail. The best paper equivalent I can think of is an Advent calendar. But when you open the little electronic (versus paper) doors, you may see a different story line depending on the situation or, like barbershop mirrors, an image within an image within an image.

Interaction is implicit in all multimedia. If the intended experience were passive, then closed-captioned television and subtitled movies would fit the definition of video, audio, and data combined.

Multimedia products include both interactive television and video-enabled computers. As discussed earlier, the difference between these two is thin, thinning, and eventually will be nonexistent. Many people (especially parents) think of "interactive video" in terms of Nintendo, Sega, and other makers of "twitch" games. Some electronic games can be so physically demanding that one has to get into a jogging suit in order to participate. The TV of the future, however, will not necessarily require the hyperactivity of Road Runner or the physique of Jane Fonda.

Today, multimedia is a desktop or living room experience, because the apparatus is so clunky. Even laptops, with their clamshell design, do not lend themselves to being very personal information appliances. This will change dramatically with small, bright, thin, flexible high-resolution displays. Multimedia will become more book-like, something with which you can curl up in bed and either have a conversation or be told a story. Multimedia will someday be as subtle and rich as the feel of paper and the smell of leather.

It is important to think of multimedia as more than a private world's fair or "son et lumière" of information, mixing fixed chunks of video, audio, and data. Translating freely from one to the other is really where the field of multimedia is headed.

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Updated on April 15, 1996