Touring the Technology Factory
Human Code's Award Winning Multi-Media Mission
I have seen the future and you might be interested to know it's located right here in town, directly across the street from the Caswell House, at 15th and West. The name of the joint is Human Code and, if pushed to give a metaphorical overview of what it's like inside, I might suggest you envision yourself floating in a bowl of Lucky Charms.
Work with me. The building is the bowl. The mind-numbing quantity of hard drives, monitors, modems, printers, wires, desks, etc., etc. that pervade the building are the beige oatie cereal that is technically necessary for fortification. And the mostly young, across-the-board hip, mental overachievers that make Human Code hum hum hum would be, naturally, not unlike the brightly colored charms themselves. (Except, of course, they are far more substantial than dehydrated marshmallows.)
What goes on at Human Code is a little tricky to describe. If I say, flat out, that this company produces CD-ROMs, no doubt I lose half of the audience. True, computers are gaining popularity at an alarming rate. (U.S. News & World Report recently reported that in North America alone, 37 million people have access to the World Wide Web.) Still, there are those who prefer to sit in cafes and read, oh, I dunno -- the Unabomber Manifesto? -- and curse all this high technology. So, how to suck in all you people who think Windows are for washing and Apples are for eating? (Perhaps more tricky: How to hold the attention of you hard-drive-heads out there who learned everything you ever needed to know about computers in kindergarten?)
No hard-and-fast answers to those questions here. Just trust me: Human Code is a very interesting place, and knowing about it could be quite helpful. At cocktail parties. In chat rooms. And when it starts dawning on you that this company is showing up in the news more and more. Because Human Code isn't some fly-by-night computer operation: The company, in four short years, has won more awards than Forrest Gump and The Godfather combined. And it has attracted the attention (in the form of venture capital) of computer hotshot David Boucher and his partner -- none other than Nicholas Negroponte, Mr. MIT Media Lab, Mr. Smug Wired columnist, Mr. I've had e-mail since Nixon was president.
Pre-CDFirst, a little history. Once upon a time in 1990, a design company in town called Design Edge was owned in part by Chipp Walters and Liz Walters. Design Edge won six industry awards (two New Media Invision awards, and Nicograph and Business Week awards for design to name a few) for a project called Marsbook, commissioned by NASA as a concept model to show various politicians and other bigshots what the first Mars and lunar habitats would look like.
This model first took the form of a three-dimensional CD-ROM, which could be used to "walk" observers through the habitats. It was more successful than anyone could have guessed, and brought a response that startled Chipp Walters.
"They [New Media magazine] invited us to California to receive the [Invision Award of Excellence], and we asked them to send it," recalls Chipp Walters. "At the time, multimedia was not a big deal." Or so he thought. Finally, he decided to accept the invitation to the awards ceremony. "We got there, and there were 4,000 people who paid a lot of money to be there. It was like the Oscars. We started wondering what was going on."
The conclusion Chipp came to was this: "I realized in the Nineties we would see with software what happened with hardware in the Eighties."
Thus, Chipp and Liz decided to sell out their share of Design Edge (which is still around) and move more toward software, or what Chipp calls "selling razor blades instead of razors." Like those clever doctors who made Lee Majors bionic, Chipp and his new Human Code staff knew they had the technology to make a better, faster, and, above all, funner product for people seeking to spend huge chunks of time in front of the old PC monitor. Since this decision, Human Code has won eight more New Media Invision awards for their various products, and many other design awards from Business Week, The New York Festivals, ITC Interactive in Paris and the Association of Visual Communications.
Tech ToysThese funner things are, as hinted above, CD-ROMs. Now, Human Code also does other stuff. For instance, a segment called the CD Factory, which prepares businesses to create their own interactive CD-ROM titles to be used as interactive publicity or in-house training tools, just spun off into a separate business. And Human Code also develops online strategies for future work on the Web. But mainly, if you take the same tour I took, you'll get the feeling that most everyone is working on a CD-ROM in progress, a CD-ROM in development, or a new CD-ROM concept on the verge of spurting forth and begging to be developed.
An early Human Code CD-ROM, commissioned by a book publisher, was The Cartoon History of the Universe. As with any CD-ROM, you pop it in your computer's CD player (if you're lucky enough to have one) and voila! You are bombarded by a little cartoon man who, with your assistance (or, technically, your interaction) can zip you throughout all of history. As are most of Human Code's products, this one is fun, funny, and educational. Categorized in hip terminology -- edutainment.
The Cartoon History of the Universe is also getting harder and harder to find because the company that commissioned the work folded its multimedia department and decided to stick with book publishing. On the other hand, attempting to distribute and market this CD (even if Human Code did own the rights) or any other CD is not part of their big plan. Human Code focuses on multimedia development -- design and execution of all phases of CD-Rom creation, from concept through artwork implementation and feature improvement to writing and finally interface -- rather than publishing, which also entails product marketing and distribution. The products produced by Human Code's custom CD branch begin as ideas and materialize as pressed and tested CD-ROMs whose rights get sold to a publishing company with the means to bring the product to public attention.
Explains Chipp, "A lot of multi-media companies are failing now -- a ton -- because the distribution for CD-ROMs, the channels are impossible to deal with. There is a good demand for the CDs, but no one can figure out how to make money off of them. It's like there is this big demand for water and the spigot is only so thick and water only comes out in drops at a time."
Specifically, the spigot right now is comprised mainly of outlets such as Computer City and Comp USA. Only when the supply stretches to Targets and Blockbusters does Chipp Walters think things will change. For now, he says he won't spend "the $80,000 a month it would cost me for a display case at the end of an aisle at Comp USA."
Not to worry. Human Code has established such a reputation for quality it has attracted business from companies like NASA, Apple Computer, ATT, and perhaps most importantly, the Discovery Channel. The latter commissioned both the award-winning Nile: A Passage to Egypt and Operation Weather Disaster. Both are interactive CD-ROMs that appeal to a fairly broad age range, and both incorporate a boatload of information and action.
For example, I tested out Nile: Passage to Egypt, on my little Henry, who will be five in no time. It held our interests simultaneously and at times I actually wanted to gently shove him out of the way and take over the mouse and keyboard. The CD features local actors acting as tour guides, as well as some actual photos and video clips of places along the Nile. Since it covers 5,000 miles, it lasts for more than a couple of days. Operation: Weather Disaster, though not my cup of tea, managed to mesmerize me anyway. Why? Because it features local actor Bill Wise -- Mr. Charisma, Mr. Cackle -- as an Arizona weatherman gone totally mad. The video clips of Bill alone make the CD-ROM worth its price. And seeing a local boy get such great exposure (this CD-ROM is being touted nationally) gives the same tingles you get when you hear a Kathy McCarty song in a Rick Linklater movie -- very GO TEAM!
Software Director Gary Gattis photo: Michelle Dapra
The TourTo understand, as well as a non-hard-drive-head can, how these CDs actually come to be, it helps to pop into the various offices in the Human Code suite. The hushed tones (both shades and sounds) and the low lighting is quite reminiscent of a psychiatrist's office. The ponytailed guys and the fashion-conscious gals give vague sensations of a situation comedy where everyone is sort of the same age and really, really likes each other. Everyone is friendly here. And everyone is enthusiastic.
Lloyd Walker, an executive producer, discusses this enthusiasm, well, enthusiastically. He has seen the company from two sides. "I've gone from being a creative person to someone who organizes teams and thinks about the future and who tries to put projects together that make sense. We're making entertainment here, not just applications, so the degree to which people are passionate about their work shows up."
At this point, Walker turns into a human multimedia tool. Perhaps because his work revolves so much around the visual, perhaps because he is a painter, he seems truly compelled as he rolls back his chair to the drawing board on the wall. He sketches two pillars and tops them with a nice triangular pinnacle.
"The pinnacle of good multimedia development is supported by these two pillars," he begins. "One is, a person's got to have core competencies as a writer, an artist, a special talent. The other pillar is they must have the technical ability to embrace tools on the computer and mess around and learn how to do things in new ways."
Those without such ambidextrous skills need not apply. In fact, these days, no one need apply at all. Doesn't it make sense that there is no shortage of applications for a job for which the description is, basically, "game maker"?
Those who work at Human Code seem well aware of the good fortune that is their employment. Gary Gattis, the software director, is a young man with a great job and a smile that does not seem remotely feigned as he discusses his work. "I'm in charge of designing the interactivity for all the different things on the CDs," he says, though admitting that, "it's kind of overwhelming."
The technical aspect of his job -- hammering out the hands-on kinks, i.e., what happens when the player does this vs. that -- might evoke a yawn from many. But remember, Gattis gets to work from the ground up and he can go anywhere his imagination leads him.
Of Operation: Weather Disaster, Gattis recalls, "Discovery came to us and asked for a science-based game about the weather. Switching to a sarcastic monotone, he continues, "And we said, `Oh boy, that sounds real exciting.'" When the prototype turned out to be less than thrilling, Gattis' job turned out to be more so. "They said, `Okay, instead of being mostly educational, you can make it mostly a game. You can have a villain and you can blow stuff up and you can kill people.' So that's what we did."
Human Code, in four short years, has won more awards than Forrest Gump and The Godfather combined.
Even with the weight shifted to fun, Gattis had to research the hell out of weather to the point that he laughingly affirmed, when asked if such were the case, that he is now a meteorologist. "We got the education in places like here," he says, clicking around, demonstrating on his monitor an area full of snowflakes. "You have to arrange these snowflakes as how they form in different temperatures."
Walker likens the process to fine art. "A lot of times, we don't have the whole thing blueprinted out before we start. It's like sculpture. You can probably do things faster one way, but not better that way. You need to be able to back out of a plan and do something different. That's our process here."
Fortified for the FutureAs Human Code moves even further into the future, the exponential growth of Internet users will shape a new direction for the company. No longer will they be able to stay at the forefront by relying solely on award-winning CD-ROMs. Chipp Walters, with a brain that appears to whir and click as fast as any computer from one program to the next, seems unperturbed by the challenge.
"If you're on the cutting edge of technology -- not the bleeding edge -- there's a real opportunity there financially in terms of being able to control your own destiny," he says. "There are forecasts of a $12-20 billion computer industry by the end of the century, and that's the low end. Right now it's at $4 billion and it could go up to $100 billion."
Specifically, his plan includes both vision and caution. "The Internet obviously has got a lot of growth," he says. "There are all kinds of ways Human Code can survive that growth. We don't want to take too many major risks in multimedia. A lot of companies have done that and fallen by the wayside. Two years ago, multimedia was the incredible opportunity. Now you don't find anybody investing in it. They're investing in the Internet."
To that end, the folks at Human Code all give basically the same advice to those of you wanting to bust in now, before the field becomes even more jam-packed. Just hop on the Net and start surfing and clicking and paying attention. That's what Chipp Walters still does. And Gary Gattis, who no doubt took his fair share of being called "nerd," is laughing a good last laugh at those who scoffed at him. "My background?" he asks, and then answers himself. "I've played computer games my whole life."
Spike Gillespie is the author of "Avenue W," an online column for Prodigy.