09 October 2008

Hexolabs is stretching the limits of YouTube.

When you think YouTube, you think "Video." Some people go to YouTube for funny pet antics, some go to it for news, some go to it for vlogs, some go to it for copyrighted content...but it's mainly video stuff that drives people to the site, apart from the ubiquitous "song + photo slideshow" offerings. Interaction to this point on YouTube has largely taken the form of communication between people -- through comments, messages, and video responses -- rather than direct interaction between people and the videos themselves. Hexolabs, an India-based mobile company, doesn't seem to think that YouTube needs to be such a passive experience. They have utilized YouTube's annotation feature set to produce one of YouTube's first interactive games. Who would have guessed that YouTube might ever become a GAMING platform?

Hexolabs' game is called "A Car's Life." It follows the animated adventures of a car travelling through a simple black and white world. To advance to each successive level, the player/viewer must click on the annotation link that crops up on each video; if you fail to click the button in time, you get to watch the car suffer a terrible demise. The button is really merely a link to the next video in the series -- you can certainly watch the videos out of order. In fact, you can "win" the game without even playing if you want. Because the link to the next level disappears very quickly, you may well find yourself tempted to cheat -- the link is fully clickable if the video is paused. Once I knew where the link was going to appear on each level, I personally didn't find it too hard to win the game the "right way." All in all, I enjoyed the experience, mostly because it forced me to change the way I view YouTube. It's amazing how a feature like annotation can create a whole new world of possibilities. As a game, "A Car's Life" is obviously very simple and more of an experiment than a polished product, but for a YouTube game in 2008 it's fantastic. If you enjoy the visuals of the game, you might want to give some Vectrex games from the 80s a try -- for some reason, I kept thinking of "Armor Attack" while I was playing around with Hexolabs' creation. I know what I'll be playing for the rest of the day...

I'm sure we haven't seen the last of gaming on YouTube. It will be interesting, though, to see if game development is something that will be encouraged or discouraged by the corporate overlords. One could argue that gaming on YouTube makes the site less pure as a video destination -- "A Car's Life" is cool because there aren't many YouTube games right now, but if you want to play online games there are tons of sites out there that'll let you do that to your heart's content. Personally, I welcome the chance to do something a little different on YouTube from time to time.

01 October 2008

AOL Video's P & G Classic Soaps and Google's News Archive show us that even the ephemeral can be eternal online.

For too long, great content has been discarded hastily for convenience's sake. While many people have stacks of National Geographic magazines in their attic, only the most determined of collectors would dare archive their local daily newspaper. Considering that some of the longest running soaps have thousands of episodes, few of even the most obsessive of soap opera fans are able to relive all of their favorite storylines at a whim. The main obstacle to collectors of the past was a simple lack of physical space; newspaper collectors had only so much attic space and soap opera fanatics could only store so many VHS tapes. Even those brave enough to start such daunting collecting tasks faced serious archival problems related to the natural degradation of physical media. The digital age has made both space and the degradation of physical media much less of an obstacle, but some so-called ephemeral content has been quite difficult to find in digital form. Luckily, AOL and Google are helping to change all that.

AOL Video has featured classic soaps from Procter & Gamble Productions such as Another World and Texas for some time now. Soaps have a very uncertain future when their television runs end. SOAPnet is a cable channel entirely devoted to soap operas, both classic and current, but not every cable subscriber receives it -- I don't, for instance. DVD releases for classic soaps are limited, in part because of the sheer mass of recorded material we're dealing with when it comes to soaps. While best-of collections of favorite episodes might work for sitcoms, it's not a good approach for soaps where the continuity between episodes is very important. There's really no better way to view old soaps than online and on-demand, which is what AOL Video provides as a free, ad-supported service for soap fans. AOL's P & G classic soap collection is not exactly a complete archive of any of its featured series (bear in mind that many episodes of the older soaps no longer exist), but there are hundreds and hundreds of episodes available for viewing. It does annoy me that AOL Video doesn't offer a air date sorting option so that episodes can be conveniently viewed from oldest to newest (that's what new viewers will probably want to do), but I can't feel too angry because without this service some of this content would not otherwise be available. Kudos to AOL and P & G for helping keep classic soaps alive.

Old newspaper content has always been more available than classic soaps, but they've been buried in morgues controlled by the newspapers or stored on microfiche and microfilm in our libraries. What Google's News Archive does is make old newspapers and magazines much more accessible than they ever have been before. The amount of material already available is staggering -- there seem to be many different groups working on digitizing old newspapers, including Google itself. While Google is aiming to make much of this content available for free (monetized through ads of course, with revenue shared with the content providers), some content providers have opted instead to make their archives available on a pay per view basis. Helpfully, the Google News Archive's advanced search lets you limit your search results by price -- if you don't restrict your search to free articles, you may find it hard to avoid being inundated by New York Times PPV articles. There is lots of really interesting content available to be found here, including classic ads, even if you stick with the free stuff, and the archive is only going to keep growing. To me, this project is an example of Google at their best; say what you will about the company's dominant position in the Internet economy, but you cannot deny that they really do strive to make as much of the world's information available freely online as possible.

It's never been a better time to be a scholar, especially if your particular area of study happens to be classic soap operas or vintage advertising. Thanks, AOL and Google!