DVDs for the Blind

Posted: December 23rd, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: production | 5 Comments »

It almost sounds like a joke, doesn’t it? DVDs for the blind. What are the blind watching DVDs for? There’s nothing to watch, really. Go listen to an audiobook or something, blind people.

Well, you might be surprised to hear that the blind do buy DVDs, and play them, and enjoy the movies. Not all of them, but not everybody watches DVDs at all, so this isn’t surprising. In another useful bit of evidence on the side of the anti Digital Rights Management crowd, the blind sometimes end up having to rip the DVDs and extract the various titles/parts out of the DVD so they can play stuff without being hung up on menus and special features and easter eggs and the rest. They turn a DVD into a series of audio tracks in a playlist and go through those, basically.

A number of the interviewees of GET LAMP are blind. The BBS Documentary had an interviewee who was deaf and that was the first time I’d ever interviewed someone who couldn’t directly hear me. GET LAMP caused me to spend time with blind people for extended periods, in real conversation. One thing I learned was that blind is relative; a number of my blind interviewees can see, just not very well at all; one was born with no lenses on her eye. One is aware of some aspect of light, but it’s absolutely an abstract hue. And so on.

It’s amazing how flexible the human mind is; it will try to place items in context even though one might think it wouldn’t have any context at all. “Flame” means one thing, “mountain range” another, and interviewees mentioned how much text adventures expanded their knowledge of the world because you could “walk” among places with no guidance and all the salient features explained to you, right there. One mentioned how he didn’t understand how big an ocean liner was until he played a game that took place on one, and so on. Another was very sad for sighted people because of all the years we’ve watched television at 720×540 resolution. That’s so sad! His resolution is infinite.

As I interviewed someone who was deaf for my previous film and resolved then and there they should enjoy it like everyone else, so too does the interviewing of several blind subjects mean that I want them to enjoy the DVD as well. Hence, a blind-accessible DVD.

As opposed to my militancy regarding subtitles, I realize that I’m much further out on the edge with wanting to make a DVD blind or visually-impaired accessible. There’s just not a metric ton of these things.

I found a DVD that claims to be the first blind accessible DVD, with menus and the rest. That’s true, as long as you know what submenu to magically navigate to to turn it on. (I bought a copy to see.)

What is likely to happen with my DVDs is that when you put them in, it acts like any other DVD, but the first selection is an introduction to the disc, which says, out loud, what to hit to start audio menus. From there, we can have a bunch of other features, but then both “types” (blind and not blind) are happy. I hope. It’s the wheelchair ramp problem; functionality vs. aesthetics. I’ve seen it done right and wrong.

This means the episodes or films on this set will have descriptive video. Experiments are underway for that. It also means that everything gets descriptive video. This delays the project, or more accurately, the project takes the right amount of time to do this properly.

If you’re feeling cynical, you can also tell me how brilliant I am to market to the blind; the blind, after all, often were big customers of text adventures because these were games that were basically complete and total when read to you. You could play them in audio and get the same experience as others. And they were easy to hack into screen readers, since they always wrote to text rendering instead of doing graphics or whatever else your system used. So these were very popular so hooray, more potential customers. If it’s not obvious, this isn’t my main motivating factor, otherwise I’d “spice up” the whole movie with stuff that might, somewhere, appeal to a general audience even if it didn’t have anything to do with text adventures.

As I work this point, it also means I look at my editing in a different way; when you know your work has to be portrayed as much as it’s shown, you really want to smooth the thing out to the best quality. If I’m going to spend an extra week recording descriptive video, then it should be something worth describing.

We live in this great modern age, where machines can do an awful lot for everyone to enjoy content like never before. I hope this DVD set will be a favorite for blind viewers for a long time to come.


Adventure International

Posted: December 21st, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: Text Adventure History | 5 Comments »

Scott Adams When people think “text adventure company”, a lot of people think Infocom, but others also think of Adventure International, which was not only the first company to sell text adventures, but one of the first companies to sell computer gaming software at all. Based out of Florida and run by the husband and wife team of Scott and Alexis Adams, this company lived a relatively short but fascinating life from the late 1970s through to the early 1980s. I have interviewed both Adams’ and one of their employees, Dan Horn, but the reach of this company extends far beyond that. One of the co-founders of Broderbund Software, Doug Carlson, got his start with Adventure International, and with dozens of contracted programmers and artists, a lot of people moved through the company in one way or another.

There were almost no exceptions to the rule that a software company did not survive the early 1980s without getting bought out or invested from the outside. Adventure International didn’t seek investment or money in that fashion and collapsed within itself. All parties I talked to seem to have bounced back from this experience.

As part of my research and archiving with the history of this company, I scanned in a catalog that I’d received when I was 13. It was one of the last catalogs they put out and show the company at the top of its game, at least in terms of the breadth of software and the face they put on to the world.

When the word “Adventure” is in the name of the company, you expect a lot of adventures, and AI didn’t disappoint. Scott created a bunch (the Scott Adams Grand Adventures) and they created additional games all the way up to the end. I thought the layout of the SAGA part of the catalog was particularly well done:

If you browse the pages, you can see the variety of software available – besides the expected adventure games, there was financial software, utility software, and even mailing list maintenance.

As a side note, when I was 12, I bought my first ever piece of computer software, and it was made by Adventure International: It was called Preppie! and was in some ways an obvious frogger clone (although the rules were slightly different). It was what felt like arcade quality at the time, and I bought it on cassette, meaning it was a 20 minute wait to play. And it was always worth it. Here’s what the game was like. (Youtube Video)

One of the great things about this documentary has been meeting a bunch of people whose names I only ever knew from brightly colored boxes.


Invisiclues and a Call For Assistance

Posted: December 19th, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: production | 7 Comments »

Back in the beginnings of Infocom, part of the issues with having games based on puzzles were that some people would run into difficulties with those puzzles. As a result, they’d mail questions to Infocom for help. Hints, if you wish, that would help them move on to the next puzzles. Lacking anything like an easily-accessible website to get information, people would rely on these questions and answers via mail. And there were a lot of them. Mike Dornbrook at Infocom was tasked with answering a lot of these questions in the beginning of the company’s history (others helped as well) and eventually decided it would be a much smarter idea to create a pre-packaged collection of questions and answers for the games, which could then be sold as products, along with maps and t-shirts and anything else Infocom/Zork related.

A problem presented itself, though: people would only want a slight hint, a nudge in the right direction.  They didn’t want to be handed the whole answer and they certainly didn’t want a pre-printed list of all the answers right there either tempting or distracting them. Some research and thought went into this problem.

The solution that Infocom came up with were Invisiclues, which were booklets printed in invisible ink. You could see questions but you couldn’t see the answers. To see the answers, there was a special pen that came with the booklet, and as you needed help, you would rub the pen in a box and a hint would appear. There were a few boxes under each question, and from that you could slowly work up from a slight nudge to being handed the answer outright.

From the excellent infocom.elsewhere.org site, here’s an example of how this looked. (Don’t worry, it’s a page that has a meaningless example and no actual hints):

If you’re wondering about what would happen if you read all the questions and got ideas from them, Infocom thought that through too – a portion of the questions would be answers to problems not in the game, and would ridicule you for trying to cheat.  There was always, throughout the construction of these, an attempt to balance the need to know with the desire to come up with the final solution on your own, which was (after all) the whole point of playing these games.

The process of these Invisiclues is interesting. At the time this was utilized (the early 1980s) the term for them was “latent image printing”, and referred to images that were printed but required additional chemicals or processes to be found. In this case, the chemicals in the pen (which had a yellowish tint) would activate the chemicals in the printed text and cause that text to become visible. It is all explained not-very-clearly in this patent, in case you want to whip up a batch for yourself.

Speaking of which….

One of the concerns with my documentary is that it reveals the solutions to games in the course of interviews. I definitely don’t want people watching this film to be exposed to solutions of games they’ve just gotten excited about while watching my documentary. How lame would that be? So I’ve been considering ways to get around this problem.

One possibility, which I may do, is a selection from the menu on a DVD so there’s a spoiler and non-spoiler version of the movie. But the other… is invisiclues!

Besides allowing people the fun of what Invisiclues used to be like, they would serve a purpose, allowing people to unearth some hints about what people were talking about without dropping the total answer.. unless they wanted to hear it. It just strikes me as a fun idea.

The problem, though, is I have had an enormously hard time finding anyone who does it. If you have any idea, please write to me or comment below. Bear in mind, I spent a lot of time on this a while back, so here is what I know:

  • The place that probably makes the most of these types of book/pen combinations is Lee Publications. They have a wide range of books and even license very up to date properties to make books out of them. I can find absolutely no evidence that they would do an outside contract for someone to print, say, 5000 of these booklets. Maybe you can find a way?
  • With access to internal Infocom documents, I believe I have found the name of the company that did the original printing back in the 1980s. It seems to have been A.B. Dick company that made the “A.B. Dick Latent Image Pens”. Communication happens between them and American Printers and Lithographers over whether the pens are poisionous (they weren’t). American might have made the actual books themselves using A.B. Dick products. Both these companies were in Chicago. It’s been a bunch of years since then and I can find no evidence that either of these companies do this anymore.
  • It appears that several governments (NY and Federal) have tried to acquire these pens and paper for testing. Here’s a particularly dull example of that request. I find no indication they ever got them.
  • Possibly, just possibly, what used to be “latent image” printing is now under the header of “security printing”.

So I am not so much at a dead end but in a situation where I haven’t had time to track stuff down further. My suspicion is a lot of the really complicated jobs have moved to China, but that in fact may mean I just have to find the right US company that deals with China. Would you like to help?

Find out how I can do this, and you’ll get a credit in the movie.

Update: Dennis Jerz has put me in contact with Lee Publications and things looks like a deal might be worked out. Thanks a ton, Dennis!


A 2-For-1 Inspiration Day

Posted: December 17th, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: Interactive Fiction, interviews, production | 7 Comments »

Way back when I was in my early teens, I subscribed to a lot computer magazines and wrote out for a lot of promotional mail. Absolutely stacks of it, really, which I then kept in a huge box. I kept this box to the present day, more or less, and eventually I ended up storing this stack in a better fashion, utilizing plastic bins and file folders and bags.

Somewhere in the mass of mailings, I got a Compuserve catalog. Compuserve, if you never heard of it, was an online service which was available in the late 1970s-1980s, which had an hourly cost, and which provided many types of games, message bases and information. They also had a catalog of stuff you could buy, which came with their mailings and their magazine, which published monthly. I kept everything I had.

In one of the issues, was this ad:

It’s worth noting, by the way, that Colossal Cave adventure was a public domain product put out by Don Woods based on work by Will Crowther – it was never sold as a product by them, and they never saw a dime from such products like this one. So the t-shirts, the maps, the puzzle – none of it gave them any royalties or fees for doing so.

So, as a kid, I was floored not only by this amazing ad, but by that poster on the left that the guy in the gorilla suit is holding. Straining to look at it, I could make out details, and I was just completely blown away at how someone could take that game and end up being able to make a visualization of it like it was a real place. (Of course, some of it is based on a real place, but not all of it.) I just loved that thing, but I was a kid with no money and I guess just bad timing – I never bought one, and of course this product stopped being on sale after a while.

Every once in a while I’d think about this poster, and the artwork. I’d wonder where I could ever get it, who I could talk to. I drew a blank.

Here it is a little closer:

today-compuserve-adventure-wild-1983

Obviously, this photo was never meant to be a scan and wasn’t meant to show you the poster with any sort of clarity. I couldn’t make out a name, but I could see this thing looked great. It was, however, one of those things you have to let go about and so I was happy I still had this ad but I’d long ago realized I was never going to have it.

Fast forward to 2006, when I interviewed Don Woods, who was one of the creators of the original Adventure. Don Woods looks like this:

He smiles a lot more than this picture lets on. Don was a very gracious interviewee; I’d had to cancel my initial visit to see him when I got very sick, and when I healed up and asked to stop by, he happily let me visit and answered my questions for hours.

Somewhere at the end, while I’m packing up, he asks me if I want to see something neat. Well heck, sure! He went into the next room and brought out this:

The poster!

On his own, Don had brought out one of the dreams of my childhood, a poster I had long forgotten about (I hadn’t even recalled it during this interview) and just laid it out in front of me in (somewhat) pristine form (it had a slight stain in the corner).

With this, I found out the artists’ name: Dennis Donovan. And I knew now that it was drawn in 1981. I don’t really have a hope of tracking him down, but in this photo, which I have in high-resolution, I at least can rest easy that I got to see the whole thing, in the flesh, and was able to bring that chapter to a close.

Don Woods was an inspiration for me when I played Adventure in 1981. This poster was an inspiration a couple years later. And I got to meet both, finally, on the same day.


Time-Lapse Interactive Fiction

Posted: December 14th, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: interviews | 1 Comment »

Besides sitting for a number of interviews, Nick Montfort let me know about various events and news that might be of interest to me and the documentary. One of these was a reading of interactive fiction given at the school he was finishing up his Ph.D in, entitled “Autostart” (or AU7OSTART, if you read the posters he had made up). I didn’t record the event itself (we agreed it would be needlessly disrupting), but I did end up interviewing a number of people at that event, including Aaron Reed, who wrote Whom the Telling Changed.

Aaron is what we currently call a “Modern IF” author, meaning his work spans primarily the last decade or so, and like most modern IF authors his work wasn’t done for a company or under contract but because he wanted to express himself via this medium. Aaron recently put together this time-lapse film of himself working on one of his projects.

This fun little film is associated with his current project, Blue Lacuna, which he’s been working on for quite some time. (As of this writing, Blue Lacuna is in the final phases of testing.) While the short-form IF Competition games have gained a lot of traction in the current era, a few people like Aaron continue to do long-form Interactive Fiction that can represent months or years of work.
Aaron’s IFwiki entry is here.


Life with the Editor

Posted: December 9th, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: production | 3 Comments »

Here’s the place I’ve been spending a lot of time, lately: my video editor.

I edit using a program now called Sony Vegas; I am not a fan of Sony and their practices in the areas of copy protection and manipulation of law, but the fact remains that for the moment, Vegas is still an excellent program, the product of a group called Madison Software who created a number of excellent programs for sound and video before being absorbed a few years back. Sony has unfortunately made the software progressively hostile to anyone not using Sony equipment but generally has allowed the program to be what it always was: shockingly easy to use, slick to be creative in, and best of all, fast.

I generally don’t encourage people to edit like I do, but it works for me. I’ve read a lot on how various filmmakers have done movies and the fact is that everyone does things slightly differently, but for me, I have built this methodical process that takes a lot of time on the front end but then allows me very fast freedom at the end.

With over 120 hours of recorded interviews, it is cost prohibitive for me to keep all the footage around on drives. (It would take, roughly, 29 terabytes of disk space to keep it all “live”). There’s some great trickery out there where you make a much smaller version of footage, edit with THAT, and then at the end attach drives as you go to pull in all the stuff you need; I find that hopelessly cumbersome. So, instead I do something else cumbersome: I watch all the footage, and re-render out lossless clips with names indicating what the file contains. This is what’s in the upper corner of the screenshot. (You can also make out that I add rough ratings to clips like KEEPER, ABSOLUTE KEEPER and so on, just as a little note to myself down the line.)

After months of effort, I end up with about 4,000 clips, probably totalling 40-50 hours, out of the original 120 (the rest is setting up, me asking questions, answers where the answers is essentially “I don’t know”, and so on). From this I split them down further into groupings of discussion – I know, for example, that very little about a specific product will end up in another section about historical items far predating that object.

Somewhere in here is an undefinable quality, where I remember someone said something relevant, even though there’s no other indication they did in the description or the subject. Other times, I bump a bunch of people together saying the same thing, and then choose the best example. And even more fun are sequences where I can get 2-3 people discussing the same subject from different distinct angles. Those are fun to find and to watch.

If this sounds long and tedious, you’re half-right. It’s definitely long, but it’s never tedious. I love going through footage, remembering the journey to get that shot, the questions I asked, the meals and sights I saw on that trip. And when it just clicks up against another clip shot months or years apart, I just love watching things flow.

Again, my approach isn’t for everyone. But it works for me.