Broadcasting the Web: Interfaces for Science and the Mass Media (TV and Internet)

Prof. Dr. H.J. Krysmanski, krysman@uni-muenster.de
Katy Teubener, M.A. teubene@uni-muenster.de
Nils Zurawski, M.A. zurawsk@uni-muenster.de

 

Contents:

1. Overview
2. Introducing the EPS Project
3. The Setting and General Problems
4. Adventures and Explorations of the EPS Project
5. Applications: Storyboards and Interfaces
6. 'Webbing the Broadcasts'

Keywords: Internet, Interfaces, impact on media, mass media, science, new media development, promoting the Internet, software as a cultural practice.


1. Overview

Science is on the net; the net is part of everyday-science. Science is also becoming a major content source for television. But where and how do 'net' and 'television' join their efforts to promote science as such? For the time being, at least, cooperation between traditional TV and the Internet is scarce - in spite of the optional Web-site almost any TV-producer provides.

The principle idea of the ‚European Popular Science Information Project'(EPS) therefore was to explore and develop new ways of incorporating and transferring Internet science content into mass media TV.

In the course of implementing this task we focussed our attention on three issues:

  • How to make Internet content usable for TV-journalists producing science programs?
  • How to incorporate Internet-based information in science TV programs?
  • How to visualize the Internet on TV (interface design etc.)?

Cooperating with national TV producers in Germany we developed, among other things, storyboarding techniques using the WWW in order to process information, to develop 'stories' and to facilitate pre-production and production of programs.

In addition, we addressed the problem of how to integrate films, images, maps and other material available on the Internet into these programs. This led to experiments in interface design: providing 'windows' from the 'real world' of TV programs into the ‚virtual worlds' of cyberspace.


2. Introducing the European Popular Science Information Project (current website - future website )

Where science meets the public, new forms of publishing become significant. But changing the media changes a lot more: the awareness of scientific research in the public sphere as well as the media consciousness of science itself. The creation of different types of media formats and user interfaces accompanies these changes.

EPS, an European Commission-sponsored joint effort co-ordinated by the University of Münster analyses these new forms of communication in multimedia and networked environments - and participates with its own projects. There are two 'departments'.

EPS online: The role of scientific networks has been overshadowed by the commercialization of the Internet; nevertheless online science content and interaction on the Internet is growing at a rapid pace. The EPS Project addresses the interconnectivity between science TV programming and science content/services on the Internet by developing a database of science content exploring the feasibility of serious scientific information in a commercial environment.

EPS tv+video: Media production activities connected to the EPS Project concentrate on the development of science content materials for television. This at present involves the development of themes and formats for innovative TV science programming. Another core activity concerns the evaluation of science programs and videos.


3. The setting and general problems

a) Science and Youth Culture

'Music-Video-Clips', technically and aesthetically, to-day seem to represent the state of the art in audio-visual culture. Young audiences are developing part of their cognitive competence along these lines. Experimenting with the production of educational science videos for audiences like these whilst ensuring quality and responsibility will require high investments. A general problem is how to come up with products competing with MTV-fare and how, at the same time, to successfully disseminate cultural and scientific information in 'difficult' educational settings.

b) Internet Culture and TV

The Internet is not only changing the design and the reception of traditional media, but also the way they operate, i.e. how they present a given content to an audience, and even more how they can eventually establish a fruitful interaction between themselves and the viewer. Digital technology will not simply replace radio, TV or telephone or even newspaper, but merge with them, finding new forms to present its content to the public and to serve in the interest of the public.

c) Mass Media: the Gap between Hype and actual application of digital technologies

Many media people - in Germany - are only talking about the benefits of Cyberspace without fully exploiting the possibilities the Internet has to offer, regarding the production and dissemination of information for the good of an informed public. Their production methods and information policies are still very much focussed on power and control mechanism - and not on gauging the democratic and informational potential of digital technology.

d) The changing role of public science

The same can be said about the university and research system. In securing funding, Internet-hype abounds. There is very good equipment being used behind the closed doors of research institutions. But the obligation to inform and educate the public is not being met by vigorously by presenting and disseminating knowledge by means of the new communication technologies. Scientists still operate within a closed shop policy of specialized networks, far removed from the public networks.

e) The Internet as a source of popular science information

The Internet contains a vast number of science sites, ranging from simple representations of institutes and universities, databases and text collections, to useful applications for further research and teaching. Another big chunk is made up by the scientific online-journals, offering all sorts of interactivity. Other sites are indeed implementing TV programs by providing surplus information. Very rarely, though, do these sites add extra value to what is shown on TV. That holds especially true for the narrative structure of the content, which still is very much focussed on the TV-mass media-filtering-paradigm, disregarding the open structures the Internet and its audience value.

f) Theoretical considerations

There is a complex theoretical background for our activities we will spare out. We just want to mention the concept of 'cognitive mapping' in the sense of a pedagogical political culture which - under the conditions of the multinational and decentered communicational networks - seeks to endow the individual subject with some sense of its place in the global system. In addition, we stress the importance of developing the tools of the narrative (allegories and metaphors etc.) within science content presentation on the net. We also find helpful the notion of an 'interface culture' (Steven Johnson).


4. Adventures and Explorations of the EPS Project

In late 1996 the European Commission's 'Information Society Project Office' (ISPO) accepted the proposal for a media project that was to address the interaction between scientific internet activities (content presentation etc.) and popularization of science, especially in mass media television. The 'European Popular Science Information Project' (EPS) was set up and started working in January 1997. The international project partners included the British Film Institute (BFI), the German Research Network (DFN), the Computing Center (ZIV) of the University of Münster and Spiegel TV ( subsidiary of DER SPIEGEL and one of the largest German producers of commercial TV programs). In 1998 Spiegel TV was replaced by Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR), Germany's major public sector TV producer, and a local channel, Münster TV. The co-ordinating partner was the Institute of Sociology (IFS), University of Münster.

As far as 'broadcasting the web' was concerned, the original idea of the project aimed at the development of new formats for science programming on TV, at pre-production and production routines using Internet's possibilities in various ways and, in a wider sense, at gaining experience in bridging the two worlds of TV and Internet.

a) Producing commercial science TV programs with Internet support (Spiegel TV)

In 1997 Spiegel TV produced four science programs three of which were broadcast in November/December of that year. The EPS-project was participating in all stages of the production process, i.e. developing treatments and scripts based on internet research, opening up internet sources for visual material of various kinds, 'grabbing' video sequences from the internet etc. Researchers from the IFS were also involved in the actual filming, directing and editing of portions of the programs. We also tried to influence the actual format of the three programs that were aired. For this purpose the results of a BFI-study on science TV programming in North America and Europe were presented to the producers at Spiegel TV.

In addition the EPS team at the IFS began developing electronic storyboards in order to speed up communication during the pre-production phase, to identify and develop ‚stories', to contact and inform experts and interview partners etc. (for details on the storyboarding technique see below). The same storyboards were also used to document the broadcasts at 'Spiegel Online' (another subsidiary of DER SPIEGEL, see below).

The innovative character of the three science TV programs aired by SPTV as a result of the EPS effort was disappointing. Although commercially a fair success, their quality really did not differ much from usual science TV reporting - except for the fact that content actuality and completeness was enhanced and that the accompanying websites were better than usual. But there was some progress 'behind the scenes'. It was established that analogue TV production techniques (which at that time still dominated at Spiegel TV) were no match for the digital possibilities of research, communication and 'storyboarding'. Therefore many efforts by EPS ended in a vacuum - including the fact that the DFN had made available high speed connections into the European Research Network (which were never used by Spiegel TV). But Spiegel TV since has made many efforts to incorporate digital communication into its production routines. And EPS, after terminating cooperation with Spiegel TV in early 1998, has analyzed and evaluated its experiences with commercial national television to fairly great avail.


b) Development of a Commercial Science Online-Information Service (Spiegel Online)

From the original proposal: "Few commercial websites are responding to the fact that the Internet is a vast reservoir of scientific information. Commercial exploitation of this treasure trove is feasible through the development of 'help'- and counseling functions. Scientific expertise of a flexible, 'lateral' nature is to be provided for an individualized clientele seeking solutions for complex problems. Setting up an interactive 'scientific counseling service' of this kind at a commercial website would require stable information resources and the recruitment of experts on net structure and content."

We found the people at Spiegel Online (SPON) more than willing to work in that direction. In fact, an extensive service package (message boards, job market etc.) was conceived. Various scientific discussion fora were realized. The EPS Online contributions at Spiegel Online, in a way, constituted experiments in what science 'Internet TV' programming could be in the future. SPON provided the public window for some of the results of EPS 'storyboarding'. Each of the three SPTV/EPS pilot programs was accompanied by special pages within SPON presenting the full range of research results, links and hypertexts relevant to the topics. This information was posted in advance of the broadcast and remained there up to the next program change. SPON, being one of the most frequently visited commercial website in Germany, also registered good ratings for the EPS pages.

On the other hand, even before cooperation was terminated, the good will of the SPON was severely handicapped by a shortage of personnel - this branch of operations, which since has become very profitable, still being underfunded and neglected by DER SPIEGEL at that time.


c) Producing Science TV Programs on National Public Television (WDR)

Since May 1998 the EPS project has initiated cooperation with the Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR), Cologne. In contrast to the situation at Spiegel TV, where a science format was to be developed, cooperation with the WDR centers on an already well established popular science TV program called 'Quarks&Co.'. The bi-weekly program of 45-minutes is produced at a large live studio and features a well known science presenter. Internet-elements have been an almost regular feature, although they are presented in a conventional way, i.e. the presenter manipulating a conventional browser on a computer screen. Cooperation includes further development of the EPS-storyboard technology for research and Internet presentation (see below). The main effort, though, has been to develop and design a 'virtual window' - an interface - between the 'Quarks&Co.'-studio setting and visually attractive sites on the Internet.

Production of this TV-Internet-Interface is in the hands of company b, a subsidiary of Europäisches Filmzentrum Babelsberg, the new high tech media center near Berlin. Company b, so far, has produced one 3-D-Animation interface for 'Quarks&Co. which was experimentally used in one broadcast in November 1998. These experiments will continue in 1999.


d) Producing Science TV Programs on Local Public Television (TV Münster)

In addition, EPS has initiated cooperation with open channel 'TV Münster' (range: 150 000 households) in order to produce up to five experimental EPS-science programs (Campus or University TV) at a grassroots level. Again, using the internet as a source, as a communications medium and as a 'subject' is at the center of these efforts. The German Research Network (DFN) is supporting this work in view of its plans to further university TV productions along the lines of Internet TV. Here, too, 'company b', Babelsberg, is going to provide models for professional 'shells' in order to enhance what might be produced and aired at the grass roots level.

e) Summary: Current Structure of Activities Towards an Internet-based Media Presence of Science

Our general aim of contributing to the 'broadcasting of web science' has led to an interconnected structure of activities: a) producing storyboards not only for pre-production and communication, but also with an eye towards providing the narrative structure for TV-Internet and possibly Internet-TV programs; b) producing (animated 3-D) interfaces (TV-Internet) that can be integrated into TV-Program formats‚ into 'shells', into Internet-presentations, into ‚all-purpose-storyboards', providing eventually a visual user guidance system into various areas of scientific knowledge. The tasks presently pursued by the partners - WDR, TV Münster, company b, German Research Network, the EPS team at the IFS - all merge in the function of furthering the presence of scientific information in mass culture.

The Internet plays an integral part in this task, as it is the fastest growing medium for intra-science communication and presentation of content and for inter-webbing knowledge and the socio-cultural context. The Internet no longer is simply a technology, but a cultural phenomenon beginning to impact on the quality of mass culture in general.


5. Applications: Storyboards and Interfaces

The 'storyboarding' technology was basically developed for pre-production communication purposes so that partners could visually - at one glance - represent and discuss the state of research and conceptualization; check on the filmed and edited sequences; assemble information on the various sources of visual material; establish expert contacts; circulate text drafts, treatments and scripts; explore locations etc. The venture of interface design was a logical consequence of this work, leading, as far as TV production was concerned, into the (costly) world of 3-D-animations.

The emphasis was not on software development. We used the most simple and widely available methods - which was inescapable because of our partners in TV who were just beginning the leave the analogue world. But in addition, a wide documentation of work in the field of the topology of the internet was undertaken, various solutions and best practices were discussed with our partners, especially WDR, company b and DFN

Storyboarding and interface design, in the context of popularizing science, can be viewed as a strategic action to find and develop concrete narrative structures for ‚true science stories'. Together both strategies of carrying narrative methods into the digital environment might eventually lead to 'webbing the broadcasts' (see below).

a) Storyboards

The storyboarding technique is well known in film production, where - in 'comic book' form - all the necessary information needed for cooperatively shooting a film is sketched out, either to develop the general plot or to find practical, camera-oriented solutions for a given scene or sequence. In short, the film is pre-told in still pictures. And by now there exist various softwares for this type of storyboard.

We applied the general idea of storyboarding to our needs, i.e. to essentially pre-tell the intended science program or 'story' to all concerned (partners at different locations, interviewees, even the European Commission) and then to organize program production via the Internet. We wanted to include as much diverse information on a given subject as possible: texts, images, sounds and moving pictures available on the net - and making additional material available on the net. Eventually some of these storyboards developed 'a life of their own', independent of program production. Thus storyboards could be seen as an independent form of net culture: telling (science) stories the Internet way.

On one level we did nothing more than to use the existing technology of hyperlinks and browser plug-ins to connect what we thought would be fitting into a story or program. On a second level we not only connected various resources but we gave them a meaning that was not there before. We told a story, we connected and linked resources, put them into a context that was not intended by the original publishers, but which made sense. We commented on resources we found, we ranked them - giving them attributes with the help of icons etc. Thereby we began producing reference sites on a given subject, which moved from link collections to narratives that could be used for educational purposes as well as for the pre-production of TV programs.

The storyboards of EPS-IFS as they stand to-day do not represent a final statement on the subjects, but a work in progress, which is constantly adapted to the actual needs of the project and program production. In fact, we still experiment with ways and means to present these storyboards to 'outsiders'. Right now we have some storyboards simply outlining possible aspects eventually to be covered in a film. Some just constitute a background for negotiations with the editors and authors of the films and programs. Others try to catch the visual essence of films already edited etc.

One major effort by the IFS was directed at moving away from 'hand to mouth' pre-production routines and to develop tools, centered around computer mediated communication, for quick research, interactive co-operation in a multimedia setting etc. This resulted in a simple 'storyboarding' technology that could hold and disseminate all information being accumulated by the EPS-partners within a single, interactive frame of representation.

This type of storyboard was used with Spiegel TV, Spiegel Online and also with the WDR - because mass media production routines as we encountered them there (mostly pre-digital) did not permit any more elaborate use of such largely unproven methods.

A second type of storyboards was implemented in the process of editing the material shot for the experimental programs at TV Münster - with far less rigid production schedules. Stills from the raw material were digitized, arranged in order of their appearance in the final film and displayed on a website. As with the original storyboard of ideas and scientific content, these purely visual storyboards were eventually hyperlinked to resources, other images or films, sounds and texts. These storyboards could then be used to discuss the possible editing versions in a collaborative working environment, making suggestions about the order of images, the corresponding filmscenes and narration.

Working with local crews from TV Münster and with local scientists and researchers we can sense that software development and artful design of 'scientific storyboarding' would be a boost to the ability of scientists to tell their own story effectively to the public. All of them have a working knowledge of internet presentation and - moving from there - one could really achieve a 'media qualification' for scientists interested in the public role and impact of science and scientific research. In fact, they could be enabled to produce their own storyboards for further use and adaptation in TV, Internet-TV etc.


b) Interfaces TV-Internet

Interface culture is part of everyday life. Packaging is an element of communication. Interfaces, portals, windows are the mainstay of internet interactivity. Advanced TV channels like CNN or MTV are beginning to emulate the interface world, preparing for interactive television and pre-formatting user/audience navigation habits.

Science reporting in TV should have yet another motivation for developing interfaces TV-Internet. Interface design is progressing to a stage where its "more limber, loose fitting metaphors" will serve as a "corrective to the forces unleashed by the information age" (Steven Johnson). In other words, self-presentation of science on the Internet must be increasingly aware of the 'cognitive mapping' functions of interface design - and results of this awareness should spill over into the presentation of science in other mass media, especially television.

It is here - for the purpose of organizing, selecting and interpreting knowledge - that interface design becomes part of cultural heritage and must be seen as a medium "as complex and vital as the novel or the cathedral or the cinema" (Johnson). Interface software, in addition to being a system of protocols, is becoming a form of cultural practice.

Starting with our above storyboards and exploring ways of presenting the topology of cyberspace, we have begun to look into the possibility of TV-Internet interfaces. At this early stage this amounts to generating interest for this idea within the television industry and to produce demos showing how 'windows' could be opened into the world of science on the Internet.

Of course, television has developed some spectacular animated portals into the world of 'data superhighways'. But these designs usually have little to do with the real workings of the Internet. On the other hand, the Internet is frequently presented as a blurry of small images flickering on a computer screen with someone sitting in front of a PC trying to make things work. This is neither aesthetically nor practically very useful nor in any way attracting people to use the Web for themselves.

To overcome these shortcomings EPS, together with company b, European Film Center Babelsberg, has been experimenting with TV-Internet interfaces, trying to symbolize the Internet, its netlike inter-connected topology, virtuality and functionality. Eventually a format was developed to represent the Internet on a huge screen that was fitted into the live studio of the WDR-TV science show 'Quarks & Co'. Thereby, the Internet became an integral part of the studio.

The presenter of that show simulated interactivity with the enlarged 'Internet topology screen' containing keywords, paths etc. The search and surf process, though, was pre-produced. The main purpose of this first TV-Internet interface, which so far has been used once, was to establish routines between the 'digital artists' at company b and the producers at WDR / 'Quarks&Co.' The 3-D-animation sequence was very costly to produce, 'analogue' production routines at the WDR were brought into disarray - but this interface, now in place, will be used in further programs that merit the inclusion of attractive internet material.

 

Some elements of the interface design for WDR were influenced by Plumb Design's Virtual Thesaurus and Natrificial's Brain software. (see here)


c) Integrating Storyboard- and Interface-Technologies for Use in Educational Websites

Another path opening up is the use of these techniques for enhancing the functions of websites within a university teaching environment. We have, as a spin-off, used websites in several large seminars (50-200 students, all with internet access) for coordinating, communicating and presenting seminar content. We found, that 'mass media aesthetics' that work for the popularization of science also work for teaching - since all students, just like anywhere else, are immersed in mass culture and understand that language.

While the cultural background is the same, the technical requirements for developing 'interface culture websites' for teaching purposes are much simpler. By starting here, the next step, 'broadcasting the web', might eventually be easier.

A technology for 'website teaching' would include an ergonomic user-interface (integration of different media types, performance of a semantic interface), a mix of different communications technologies (mailing-lists, netnews, groupware-solutions on the basis of data-bank or HTML etc.), a maximum of platform-independency for allowing the use of software in heterogeneous environments. Such a website would divide into three modules - coordination (emphasis on screen design), communication (mailing lists, web-based discussion groups and netnews, IRC, collaborative work with HTML) and presentation (homogeneous interface, integration of video, images, VR-environments, information retrieval).


6. 'Webbing the Broadcasts' - the Internet as a Media Resource Platform

The 'broadcast quality' of the Internet, in spite of rapid advances, will not be up to the quality of other mass media for some time. EPS has tried to contribute to the presentation of Internet content - as it is - within mass media television. Another basic idea was that by webbing science content, which still makes up the most fascinating aspect of the Internet, it could be demonstrated that the flexibility of net operations, in the long run, will deeply influence to 'interactivity' and content flow between the different media or 'broadcasts'.

At the heart of this process of content management are, we feel, techniques and methods like electronic storyboarding (for narrative purposes) and interface design (for intelligent aesthetics). Eventually, on the basis of this, Internet operations can develop into a resource platform for all the media. In an abstract sense, this is a trivial observation. But in practice, as we have learned, it is very difficult to carry through.

 

References:

Steve Johnson: Interface Culture: How New Technology Transforms the Way We Create and Communicate. Harper 1997.

Plumb Design's Virtual Thesaurus

Natrificial's Brain software.