There’s a mind set and a little magic that goes into making something look larger than life. That it cost a fortune. Making it demand your attention, your admiration, perhaps even your desire. The food stylist putting the finishing touches on the perfect Big Mac by applying just the right dot of ketchup with a syringe. We know that every burger cranked out after this one will pale in comparison, but this one is special. It has a purpose. It starts the process. Before the first customer arrives, this gorgeous burger sets the scene for what’s to come. It represents brand promise. It is this very mind set and magic that makes a great prototype.
When I moved to Los Angeles in 1995, my first job was a Visual Effects Supervisor. I worked for a boutique shop that did amazing work. None of our clients had the budget for ILM-style effects, but they all sure wanted their stuff to look like they did. The job routinely involved pulling off miracles and delivering on the illusion that millions were spent. This put me in a mindset that I use to this day for rapid prototyping. A little polish can go a long way, particularly if you can keep your audience focused enough on the polish so they don’t see the wires hanging out the back.
The goal of a prototype is to transport an audience into a future in which the product is mature, useful, delightful and desirable.
When envisioning the future, particularly in emerging technologies, you don’t always have the benefit of a marketplace that’s educated and familiar with your product. The goal of a prototype is to transport an audience into a future in which the product is mature, useful, delightful and desirable. Sometimes you have to pick a point in the future and keep that mindset while developing. Sir Ken Robinson once told a story about a little boy who was busily drawing a picture in class one day. The teacher asked him what he was drawing. He replied, “a picture of God.” Surprised, the teacher said, “But no one knows what God looks like.” Not missing a beat, the boy said, “They will in a minute.” That’s prototyping.
A little more than a decade ago, I was working at an interactive agency on a vision prototype for the forthcoming Xbox 360 platform (then called codename: Xenon). Our challenge was to create an experience that would give the Xbox engineers and product managers a target to aim for. The challenge became more difficult when we realized that the development environment wasn’t finished. At this stage in the game, Xenon ran on a Motorola chipset that could only be found in the latest Power Macintosh computers. Left with a specification of potential capabilities, we decided to build the whole thing in After Effects and use Flash to stitch it together and add hot buttons. This allowed us to create an experience that looked and felt like it was a true next-generation user interface running in a game engine. We explored what 3D ad units could be, how people would interact with each other and live hosted game-show type games. Some of these features are just now being rolled out on Xbox One, eleven years later.
I am constantly kicking the tires on new media production technologies and platforms. Podcasts, Twitch, Snapchat, YouTube Live – you can only read so much about something; sometimes you have to actually just build and launch to truly understand the nuances. In the case of podcasts, Dale Herigstad tossed an LA Times article on my desk in late 2004 which described this new, subscription “radio format”. Less than a week later, I launched the PJK Podcast. Today, people like Adam Carolla and Kevin Smith run podcast empires with multiple shows, real advertisers and millions of subscribers.
Its a great time to be a prototyper in the media space. The abundance of smartphones means everyone has easy access to not just a receiver – but a production studio and transmitter. The first HD cameras were the size of a briefcase and had to be perched on your shoulder. Now, your smartphone has that same technology in something smaller than a pencil eraser. My latest media experiment can be run entirely from a laptop (although I could do all this from my iPhone in a pinch).
PJK Live is testing the waters on YouTube’s beta Live Streaming capabilities. To set it up took less than a day and cost nothing. However, what the prototype does is on par with a live production studio. Live recording/transmitting, real-time switching between multiple sources, real-time compositing of graphics with transparency, audio mixing and remote correspondents. I’m using the open source Open Broadcaster Software that powers many Twitch and YouTube Gaming streams. It was a snap to set up, just follow one of the many YouTube tutorials to get started.
There’s an abundance of free/cheap software and training available to producers who want to quickly get an idea onto the screen. The quality of these tools allows for an amazing amount of polish and imagination to be applied. These capabilities can let anyone with a vision create a rapid prototype of the experience and share it with the world for feedback. I hope you will join me in my latest prototype as I experiment with short, live broadcasts to discuss topics like these.