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Dead medium: Children's Dead Media
From: (Stefan Jones)

A lot of the Dead Media examples Bruce provided are from the deep dark past. Here are some from a more recent epoch . . . kid media from when I was growing up, now dead and forgotten.

Noninteractive Multimedia for Kids

Film Loops

A proto-VCR contraption, developed for schools. The media was a film cartridge: An endless loop of super 8mm film in a sealed, asymmetrical transparent plastic case. The player was about the size of a carousel- type slide projector. Operation was marvelously simple; the operator merely jammed the cart into a slot in the side of the projector and hit play. I seem to remember a reverse and still frame setting.

There was no sound; running time was about five minutes.

My high school had a few dozen of these; the ones I remember involve demonstrations of biological processes (cell division, metamorphosis, reptile homeostasis). There was also one of "Galloping Girdy," the bridge in Washington state that wiggled itself to death.

Major flaws: Bulbs burned out frequently; my teachers took about five tries to get the cartridge inserted properly.

Kiddie Film Strip Projector

When I was a kid, a cousin got a swell visual storytelling gadget for christmas. The projector was a TV-shaped box with a rear-projection screen up front and a turntable up top.

The media was a 35mm film strip enclosed in a stiff plastic holder; I seem to remember these "sticks" having gear teeth along one side. Each stick was accompanied by a 45 RPM (?) record. There may have been nine or ten slides per "show."

Operation was not quite foolproof. The stick was inserted in a slot up top, and the corresponding record queued up; lots of leeway for error and accidental breakage, there. Once inserted properly, the stick descended into the machine, one frame height at a time; this in itself was fun to see. I don't know what synchronized the sound and pictures, but it worked quite well.

The stories were kid stuff: Raggedy Ann & Andy, etc. The one that interested me most at the time was a quickie adaption of Doyle's _The Lost World_. Very dramatic. The "production values" of the stories were pretty good: Nice narration and music, plus brightly colored cartoon artwork.

ViewMaster Knockoffs

I was going to describe the Viewmaster here, but I recently learned that the things are still in production! Indeed, gift shops at historical landmarks and scenic wonders still carry Viewmaster reels for touristas to bring home.

I find this really remarkable. Who would buy the things, in this age of Game Boys and cynical, post-literate youngsters? Perhaps they've become "old fashioned" enough to be acceptable to Amish families. (After all, the classic Viewmaster ran on ambient light, and the reels were strictly rated G.)

While the Viewmaster struggles on, its many variants and knockoffs have passed on. Here are a few:

-- Viewmaster itself released a "talking" version when I was a kid; I think it had small strips of magnetic tape next to each slide. The viewer was a beast, from what I remember; it had to contain a tape player, batteries and loudspeaker.

-- I remember a friend getting a knock-off of the viewmaster. The media were rectangular cards, and inserted into the viewer vertically. Notches along the edge allowed the advance mechanism to get a grip on the card. This strikes me as a much saner scheme than the Viewmaster proper, which had circular reels.

-- Another knockoff, which I remember being advertised on TV under the name "Captain Stereo", also had rectangular cards. This variant had no slides; the color pictures that formed the stereo pairs were simply printed on the card! I imagine the viewer somehow projected light on the front of the card.

Portable Film Viewers

At least one company offered a kiddie film viewer when I was a youngster. Light was provided by the sun or a handy light bulb; the film was advanced by a hand crank.

The carts, each about the size of a had a minute or so's worth of 8mm film. The only one I remember was an excerpt from a Mickey Mouse cartoon.

I've asked some friends to think about Dead Media. I'm getting some interesting feedback. Someone mentioned Teddy Ruxpin, the animatronic story-telling bear (who had two chances at life before snuffing it, and whose mechanism is still begging to be hacked and exploited for dadaist purposes), and QXL, the quiz robot. Both of these casette droids are _toast_, and these are just two of a growing legion of interactive dolls, video-watching puppies, and space fighters that react to stuff on cancelled TV shows. These things are _really_ dead; unlike, say, an orphan computer platform, there's no audience of obsessed users willing to churn out new software for these.

If this trend continues, we'll no doubt someday see semi-sapient robot robot things, perhaps in the form of animals with pee and spit-up proof plush shells, languishing unused in closets for lack of new programs. Or, maybe, covered in green vinyl and reprogrammed to do yardwork.

Somewhere between live media and dead media is ephemeral media, something that might deserve a passing comment, if only to contrast it to the really dead stuff. Example: I've been working for a multimedia company. I get lots of trade junk mail. Every once in a while I get a thick envelope with a folding cardboard and plastic filmstrip viewer . . . a really nifty item. But after looking at the attached film strip once (I've seen 'em advertise things like monitors, virus removers and data conversion services) the thing's garbage. The thing's too simple to become "dead," but its usefulness is pfft!