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Lost in Cyberspace

Multimedia comes full fruit on the 'Net

This article was originally published on October 6, 1998 by SignOn San Diego and Copley News Service.

While the national media is fixated on Microsoft vs. Netscape, Disney's newest online ventures and the latest search-engine mergers, a fascinating underground continues to percolate on the Web.

A lot of it is a philosophic continuation of the avant-garde movements of the last 30 years – only incorporating hypermedia.

Which makes sense; even as a lot of the more experimental art, music and literature was happening in the '60s and '70s, there was a sense that it only hinted at the possibilities. They tried for multimedia: the psychedelic light shows during rock concerts, poetry/jazz readings, performance art. These were all early attempts to create multimedia, to blend together various modes of expression and senses into a new form.

The concepts were there; the technology was lacking.

Until now.

Personal computers have been powerful enough to create multimedia shows for about a decade, since the advent of the 32-bit processors (Intel 80386 and Motorola 68030, plus the high-end chips from Sun, Silicon Graphics and others). In the early '90s, multimedia "magazines" appeared on CD-ROM, at first for the Amiga but later for Mac and Windows as well.

While generally clever and sometimes entertaining, most of these multimedia magazines failed. My guess is that it was too hard to find an audience through the sale of discs.

With the advent of the Web, though, finding an audience is much easier – and far less expensive. No more burning CD-ROMs each month, no more postage to mail them out – simply post your project to a Web site, list it with several search engines, maybe run a promotional campaign, and you're in business.

There are a lot of folks doing some very interesting things with this concept of online multimedia or new media. The main drawback on most of them is bandwidth – to create the kind of multisensory experience the artists are seeking, you're going to use a lot of data; data that can take forever to download on a 28.8 or even 56k modem. Cable and T-1 connections can make a world of difference in experiencing some of these sites.

alt-x is one of the best dedicated new media sites. It plugs itself (via someone else's quote) as "the best site for cutting-edge fiction, criticism and hypertext" – and the quote may be right. One of the features here is an online radio show, alt-x audio, which contains 30-minute segments of what they call "streaming word dub" – it's a nice combo of techno, folk and spoken word.

Once you have some music going in the background, check out the rest of alt-x. There are what they call their "virtual imprints" – - online books, some that also exist in print, others that don't, all very much beyond the edge. They also have their Black Ice Fiction section, Hyper-X (a hypermedia "online installation") and links to the GRAMMATRON – - an ongoing hypermedia project in conjunction with Brown University. It's disconcerting at first, because the reader controls the unfolding of the experience by deciding which links to follow. It's definitely not boring.

Not as in-depth, but still quite interesting, is Darryl Laferte's hypertext study for his thesis, There's a lot of theory here, and a hyperlinked bibliography that can serve as a nice springboard for exploring more of these kinds of sites.

Another haven of nonlinear creativity is Obscura!. Obscura! is a bit more techie than alt-x; these folks are just as into the technology as the creative process; in fact, at Obscura, the technology is part of the creative process. These are hardcore OS/2 and Amiga folks at Obscura, and their main business seems to be as a Web-hosting service.

But they also have some creative and off-the-wall stuff: like the Warp-O-Vision(r) Gallery, where you can submit any .jpg and have it turned into virtual artwork, as well as some newsgroups and other toys.

An imaginative, interactive and, well, fun site is the home page of Squint Records, a small label in Hermosa Beach. The graphics are surreal – the navigation menu in the bottom frame rolls like an ocean wave across your screen; it is very cool. And this is the only site I've found that is laid out horizontally – you scroll to the right in order to see the rest of the page. You can get sound and video from the pages of the label's bands – especially Sixpence None the Richer, which has some 45-minute RealAudio concert recordings that can last your whole online session.

Finally, one of the most polished, complete hypermedia sites is run by a Parisian multimedia development company, Dream Escape. More commercial than alt-x, there is nonetheless a similar level of sophistication and creativity here, with sound, video and hypertext all bound up together. It's a bit of a bandwidth hog, but worth a visit.