The house party at the end of the Interactive Highway

Power computing and pop culture converge at Macworld Expo

Published: January 10, 1994
Dateline: San Francisco

From Day One, it had all the trappings of a holy crusade. Apple Computer's Macintosh, born a decade ago this month, would never be mistaken for just another box of silicon chips. The people who built it and the people who used it would make certain of that right from the start.

One second they'd be talking about changing the way people relate to information and before you know it they'd be drifting into some full-on metaphysical rant about intuition, personal empowerment and good tech vs. oppressive tech. They were downright scary at cocktail parties. Gradually, many of the rest of us got it. Now, after 10 years of Mac attacks, the true proportions of the crusade are coming into focus: It's about the culture.

As evidenced by the wall-to-wall barrage of digital dreamscapes on display at the 10th annual Macworld Expo in San Francisco this past weekend, Hollywood and Madison Avenue are already as good as conquered. The makers of pop culture are dancing the full-interactive, multimedia Mac Tango at a furious tempo.

The mammoth exposition, which drew 70,000 people from around the world to Moscone Center from Wednesday through Saturday, was dominated by eyeball- sizzling graphics applications and interactive technology of every imaginable description. You want dancing dinosaurs? Just say how many. Shimmering seas of copper to digitally enhance your fishing snapshots? Just a double mouse click away. John F. Kennedy rapping to a custom Camelot hip-hop beat? Can do.

There were no classic nerds to be seen. The Apple engineers, the applications programmers and developers who created the digital tools-of-the- gods, were accorded rock-star status. That kid with the cellular phone, the leather jacket and the godawful expensive Halliburton briefcase? Yeah, maybe he was a bike messenger last year, but he just bought a dozen Radius Rocket video accelerators -- at a thousand a pop. From the show floor to the after- hours parties, one could all but hear the satisfying click as the creative types jacked into the big cash.

The pop names from the Malibu/Maui/Marin axis didn't waste any time making their way to the head table of the digital banquet. There were the special- effects wizards behind "Jurassic Park," "The Last Action Hero" and several other big movies. There was jazz giant Herbie Hancock talking about personal digital assistants. There was actress and producer (and CD-ROM star) Shelly Duvall calling digital culture the biggest playground. There was rocker Todd Rundgren (meeting and greeting everyone, seemingly everywhere). And there was Graham Nash, rock royalty-turned-digital photographer, comparing the interactive software scene to the early burn-all-night ethos of rock 'n' roll.

For every rock star, video producer, digital flimflam artist and media savant who saw career opportunities at Macworld, there were probably 20 civilians who saw things such as: vacation videos a la MTV, electronic Christmas cards, better recipe files and custom labels for Uncle Stan's homemade wine.

Did it look a little familiar? It should. One would be hard-pressed to find a hot magazine, book, movie, television ad or album today that doesn't use at least some Macintosh technology. The Macworld crowd resembled the crossroads- of-the-world scene at any international airport. It was not uncommon to scan the badges at one of the product demonstrations and see an elementary school teacher from the Sierra foothills, an art student from New York and a freelance video director from the Philippines standing side by side. The ratio of computer industry suits to media-wise college kids seemed to be about 1-to- 20. This was less a computer trade show than it was a cultural festival for the new-breed information junkies of the middle class.

While the big graphics firms with their Vegas-scale wattage dominated the cultural festival, they were hardly the only companies to put on the show-biz face for the masses. Large-scale memory storage has never been considered one of the sexier sub-branches of the digital tree. But with the spread of high- powered graphics and video applications that suck memory like a ShopVac, suddenly even the memory firms are in show business. The gleaming brushed- aluminum Pinnacle Micro booth resembled a miniature disco -- complete with artificial waterfall, black lights and pulsing ambient-house music.

To nobody's great surprise, the most aesthetically sophisticated interactive software is coming out of Japan. The Yano Electric Co. spent $300,000 to develop its first CD, "Cosmology of Kyoto." It was money well spent. The disc is ostensibly a game, a walk through the ancient city of Kyoto in the year 1000. In truth, it is a primer on the mythology and history that shaped today's Japanese mind. You can jump out of the game at any time and consult 400 screens of Japanese cultural history to guide you through your journey. The art, which was done by traditional Japanese methods, scanned, and digitally painted again, is elegant beyond description.

Utsuru Yoshimoto, the lead presenter at the booth, is a lean, soft-spoken young man with the polished look and courtly manners of a career diplomat. Before Yano, he worked for Apple of Japan for several years. Now, he's going independent to surf the cross-cultural waters alone. He will be relocating to the Bay Area, permanently, next week. Why? This is where the action is, he said, dispatching the visitor with a crisp quarter bow and a firm handshake.

Over in the far reaches of the South Hall, the HSC Software booth was swamped, tallying $25,000 worth of sales in the first two days alone. This from a graphic application -- Kai's Power Tools -- that sells for $99. At HSC's mini-theater pavilion, it was standing room only, five deep in back, as Phil Clevenger demonstrated how to make mind-bending psychedelic graphics on the desktop. He asked the crowd how many use Photoshop (a very powerful graphics program). All hands went up. He asked how many considered themselves power users. Two hands. For a paltry $99, these Mac foot soldiers will be making some very interesting Rotary Club agendas and golf scorecards for their friends.

Kai Krause, the man who developed Kai's Power Tools, is at Macworld. But he doesn't do demos. And he doesn't walk the show floor. He can't walk the aisles without being mobbed. So he sits up in his suite, four levels above the action, sending orders through underlings. According to those who know, the man has never driven. He's never had need of a car that didn't come with a driver.

Around the corner of the HSC booth, artist Bill Niffenegger, one of the guest stars of the HSC show, was talking about the beauty of just messing around. "This technology is so accessible and so inviting that anyone can just play with the thing," he said. Is this mainstream culture? "You'd have to be living in some swamp somewhere, with no television, not to be personally touched by what happens here. Heck, even then you'd probably have some social scientist coming to study you and entering the data into a PowerBook."

Thursday night, HSC and several other big players at the show hosted a small get-together for about 1,000 friends. A hotel ballroom would have been less than hip. So they rented the Exploratorium, in the Palace of Fine Arts. What could be hipper than a full-bore rock 'n' roll A-list bash in an interactive science museum? And how 'bout securing the services of Mister Interactive himself, Todd Rundgren? The three-hour cyber-sock-hop, which an HSC staffer pegged as costing "right around six figures," was the hottest ticket of the week.

In one hangar-sized hall crammed with tech toys past and future, the players in computing, rock and interactive technology stood shoulder to shoulder. Raster Masters, a team of performance artists from Silicon Graphics, put on the best demo of the week, in the McBean Theater. The live interactive graphics show was downright seamless. The performance, which featured algorithm technology developed recently at NASA, was an M.C. Escher-meets- Brian Eno-on-acid kinda thing. They should have required seat belts in the theater.

Rundgren, the lead nerd of the rock pack, was in great form, holding court from the middle of a gleaming two-story bird-cage bristling with instruments and computers. At midnight, as the guests filed out through the flood-lit grounds of the temple-like Palace, one had to pause and wonder: This whole digital culture has been shot out of a cannon in the last five years. So at the rate things are moving, how long will it be before Rundgren's media cage, the Silicon Graphics show and the rest of today's eye-candy creations are enshrined in the museum for good?

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