If you were among a certain handful of people watching the Ken Burns/Lynn Novick bio Frank Lloyd Wright Nov. 10–11, you could get a whole lot more from the broadcast after
it was over.
Most people watching the two-night series saw only a stylized “E” icon appear
briefly in the corner of the screen (with the disclosure “where available”),
But there was more for viewers watching on specially equipped personal computers in the
seven cities where public TV stations were putting out DTV signals. As participants in a
technical trial by Intel Corp. and PBS, they could take a virtual tour of Wright buildings
they had just seen in the film, rummage more broadly through talking-head comments, and go
deeper into an interview with old man Wright himself.
PBS is betting that “millions of Americans want to know more,” as Executive
Vice President John Hollar says.
The technology of choice, in early stages of its development, is called “enhanced
TV”–“enhanced” being a wretchedly bland adjective for something so vivid.
Thus far, PBS hasn’t found a better term, says Hollar. “We want to find a name that
belongs uniquely to public television.” Hollar is high on enhancement, like CPB
officials who are funding other prototypes of enhanced DTV (separate
“It can take what was a mass, one-way medium and make it a very personal way for
someone who loves science or architecture to go much deeper,” says Hollar.
The broadcast package was, in effect, like a CD-ROM disc downloaded through the
air–actually 225 megabytes, or about a third of a CD-ROM’s capacity.
Inside a viewer’s computer, a prototype Intel circuit board received the broadcast,
displayed the Burns/Novick film and saved the enhancement on the hard drive for later
“Burns explicitly did not want anything interrupting the documentary,” says
Carolyn May, senior project manager at PBS Online, who led the enhancement production
team. And so it was. There would be no mouse-clicking while Burns and Novick told their
That’s fine. The enhancement respects the film, Hollar says. Besides, as PBS Online has
learned, most people want to do their interacting after a program has concluded
What the testers saw last month–and what Hollar has shown to hundreds of professionals
in meetings since late October–is called “The Poetry of Structure.”
The part that worked best for Stephen Segaller, an Oregon Public Broadcasting producer
who has seen the demo twice, was jumping inside the 360-degree photos of Wright buildings.
“The magical capacity to be able to rotate the point of view, to look up at the
spiral of the Guggenheim, or out across the terrace of the Falling Water house–that’s
really something different from presenting a two-dimension, flat-screen view to
people,” says Segaller.
In a floor plan of the building, the user clicks on a specific room to enter, and a
normal view of the room appears, but this view is only part of a 360-degree globe, and the
rest can be seen by manipulating a pointer on the screen.While mousing around in Falling
Waters, the user gets a naughty thrill of discovery, coming across the dingey yellow
enamel appliances of the kitchen, perhaps the only room in the terrific house that wasn’t
The package also presents a batch of “interactive filmstrips,” as Carolyn May
calls them–stills of Wright buildings, juxtaposed with Wright’s words and related
comments from experts interviewed for the film. In the Guggenheim Museum area, a user
eventually would stumble across a black-and-white, 1957 interview between the young Mike
Wallace and the aged architect–excerpts beyond what appeared in the film.
Keeping the initial interface easy to comprehend comes at a cost: burying interesting
stuff like the Wallace interview several “levels” down in the guts of the
“It would knock people’s socks off”
Back in April, PBS and Intel decided to ask Burns if he’d let them enhance Wright.
The Wright bio was already scheduled for fall broadcast, and was expected to get a good
PBS hired Carolyn May for the project, and she wrote the design document in June,
before moving to D.C. When the go-ahead came, her team had eight weeks to produce the
A onetime journalist who worked at WOSU in Columbus, and then in film and video in
Seattle, May had dived into interactive software, working on the Encarta CD-ROM
encyclopedia at Microsoft and various educational programs at the Edmark software house.
Microsoft had also done a CD-ROM on Wright, though May was not involved.
The Burns/Novick team at Florentine Films was “incredibly helpful” in
providing 3/4-inch worktapes and other material for the enhancement, says May. She read
Wright to develop themes for the “filmstrips” and supplemented the outtakes with
photos from other sources, negotiating limited three-year rights with photographers.
After recording some audio quotes from Wright’s grandson, architect Eric Lloyd Wright,
May decided to expand his role, casting him as the voice of the enhancement. His voice,
already familiar to viewers, added a link to the documentary series, as did the Beethoven
soundtrack, the familiar talking heads, and the majestic personality and buildings of
Frank Lloyd Wright.
The producers worked with Interactive Pictures Corp. to create 360-degree photos of the
Wright buildings. Starting with two 180-degree hemispheres shot in each room with a
standard Nikon fisheye lens, the company’s IPIX software stitches them together seamlessly
and “dewarps” them, displaying a natural-looking perspective on the screen, says
Mike Sher, a vice president of the company.
May’s assignment was to make the enhancement look different from TV and different from
web pages. “I insisted that this be beautiful,” says May. “It would knock
people’s socks off. I wanted to give people a slice of the possibilities. It mirrors the
old paradigm, so it looks very filmic and broadcast. And it also references the
possibilities for the future. The viewers become active participants, pursuing their own
May envisioned an interface decorated with words and images crossing slowly at
90-degree angles–objects as translucent as those sketched by an architect on tissue
paper. She worked with freelance producer Peter Stonier and R/GA Interactive, a New York
multimedia company, which executed the project within Intel’s guidelines.
Intel gave them a target of 225 megabytes for each of the two evenings. This led them
to save material on Wright’s final masterpiece, the Guggenheim Museum, until the second
night, for instance. And it required them to reduce the full-motion video of the Mike
Wallace interview to a small rectangle of 320 by 240 pixels.
Stonier assembled the package in the Shockwave format, using Macromedia Director
software. Though the software is standard in multimedia, its ability to synchronize
pictures and sound falls far short of video-editing standards, he observes.
Individual elements of the file–“cast members” in Macromedia
terminology–could be no larger than 10 megabytes, he said, in order to minimize the loss
if transmission were interrupted.
One notable difference from other kinds of multimedia projects on Stonier’s resume is
that they “tend to slide,” he mentions. There was less leeway for delays when
you’ve got a national broadcast deadline.
“The headline is: it worked”
Intel backed the creation of the slick Wright package “to show broadcasters and
content creators that there’s a world of opportunity out there,” says company
spokesman Adam Grossberg. But the November broadcasts in seven cities were explicitly a
technical trial, to see if the whole chain of technologies would cooperate, Grossberg
“The huge headline on this is that it worked,” says Hollar. “It was put
on a server here, fed to the satellite, downlinked and rebroadcast locally, captured on
PCs, and it all ran.”
Intel wanted to know, for example, how much redundancy it needed–how many times it had
to send each packet of data–to make sure that the whole thing got through the crowded
airwaves intact. Was twice enough, or six times? In the trial, the enhancement went out
three times, Grossberg said.
For the next part of the Intel project, Hollar says, PBS expects to enhance four
episodes of Zoboomafoo, the new Kratt Brothers animal show for kids, for broadcast
The Zoboomafoo episodes will certainly be used in Intel’s consumer trials in
mid-1999, he says, and Wright may also be used.
After consumer trials, the next big step is usually going to market. “We don’t see
anything impacting that natural progression,” says Tom Galvin, director of market
development for the Intel Content Group. He sees big possibilities for delivering sports
statistics, local weather and home shopping. “The capability of turning advertising
into a sale is very compelling,” he says.
“You’ve got people where you want them,” comments Stonier. “They walk
out of The Lion King and right into the Disney Store.”
The technology is also advancing toward the market. Hauppauge Computer Works announced
in November that it will bring out a relatively cheap DTV receiver board for PCs next
year. The WinTV-D board will receive both analog and digital TV and is expected to deliver
a 720-line progressive picture–the low end of HDTV–on an ordinary VGA computer monitor,
according to Hauppauge. It will sell initially around $300; analog TV boards are now going
for just $80.
The card can be cheap, Galvin says, because the real computing horsepower for handling
the video data resides in the computer’s main microprocessor–usually, in today’s world, a
chip made by Intel. Though Galvin doesn’t say so, putting the video bitstream into
personal computers may help bolster PC and chip sales in the industry’s proven
method–giving consumers a dazzling new reason to keep upgrading to ever-more-capable
So far, PC chips have been able to handle full-screen standard definition video only
since Intel brought out the 266 MHz Pentium II processor, says Galvin, but he expects that
new Intel chips in 1999 will be able to reproduce the highest high-def video. But HDTV on
computers may be held back by the same problem that curses stand-alone HDTV sets: it’s
hugely expensive to make a monitor big enough to show such a fine picture.
On the software side, an industry alliance called the Advanced Television Enhancement
Forum (ATVEF), which includes Intel, PBS, Microsoft, CableLabs, NBC and other interests,
is proposing a set of codes that bring together video pictures and web-page material on
the same screen, whether it’s broadcast, cable or satellite-delivered.
The online option
Beyond the near-term tests, pubcasters will have to figure out how much “enhanced
TV” should be delivered by broadcast and how much by the Internet or other two-way
wired connections. The completed Wright package will feature an Internet link to PBS
Online’s merchandise section. Clicking on the icon will launch a web browser and start the
modem dialing, says Galvin.
Connecting with PBS Online could also deepen the editorial material available to users,
though Hollar indicates that dial-up Internet connections aren’t fast enough to give
viewers the Wright enhancement’s big graphics, moving images and rapid interaction. Cable
modems and other wired technology “may change all that,” he says.
May would like to see online connections used for chatrooms for architecture
enthusiasts, or collaborative online projects like designing a virtual village of Wright’s
highly modular, inexpensive “Usonian” houses.
“There’s so much we wanted to do that we couldn’t,” says May. “That’s
OK. This is a demo. It’s a beginning.”