Moviemaking, 1995-present

In 1995, I was in a summer program where we made a 45-minute movie from scratch, using a shoulder-mounted VHS video camera. We used no editing equipment because it was too expensive. Instead, we shot the movie in sequence, starting a new clip by rewinding the VHS tape to the end of the previous clip (trying to be as precise as we could). To get background music, we carried around a boombox that played a cassette tape as the scene progressed. Any camera-angle cuts had to go along with breaks in the song. We approximated fade-to-black transitions by gently covering the camera lens with a black cloth. The credits were hand-written on a long piece of scrolling paper.

Considering all of the technological hurdles (and the fact that we were about 10 years old), the quality of the movie is astonishing. Really, the fact that we could inexpensively make any sort of movie at all felt like quite a breakthrough.

Last week Apple introduced the iPhone 4. It not only lets you record video but has an app for editing — including background music, subtitles, and advanced transitions. All of the video is high-definition. And the whole device fits in your pocket.

I wonder what sorts of movies are possible now with just an iPhone and a creative team.

Update: The first such movie has been made (it’s well done, though only one and a half minutes long).

The transition to touchscreen computing

In conversations with friends about the iPad, what seems to surprise them most is the idea that Apple will phase out the Mac in favor of touchscreen devices. I think part of the reason for the surprise is that news outlets have focused so strongly on the limitations of the iPad in its current, initial form. I like to remind people that the first Mac was black and white, could only run one application at a time, and had no hard drive. Similarly, the first iPod was enormous by today’s standards, had a small capacity for songs, and only worked if you also had a Mac. What’s most interesting about the iPad is not where it is now, but where it is going.

Despite all of the limitations of the first version, consumers have already purchased over 2 million iPads. This is not just some toy for tech nerds.

And we know from using iPads that the touchscreen interface feels more real than an indirect mouse cursor ever has. That’s what gives iPads the “magic” that Apple commonly cites.

Earlier this week at the All Things D conference, Steve Jobs gave a few hints about where he thinks personal computers are going.

Walt Mossberg: Is the tablet going to eventually replace the laptop, do you think?

Steve Jobs: PCs are going to be like trucks. They’re still going to be around, they’re still going to have a lot of value. But they’re going to be used by one out of X people.

And this transformation is going to make some people uneasy. People from the PC world, like you and me. It’s going to make us uneasy because the PC has taken us a long ways. It’s brilliant. But… and we like to talk about the post-PC era, but when it really starts to happen, I think it’s uncomfortable for a lot of people, because it’s change, and a lot of vested interests are gonna change, and its gonna be different.

So, I think that we’re embarked on that. Is it the iPad? Who knows? Will it happen next year, or five years from now, or seven years from now… who knows? But I think we’re headed in that direction.

Mossberg: Well, you don’t really think it’s going to happen next year, right? I mean, it’s a longer process than that, isn’t it?

Jobs: [pauses, shakes head slowly, brings up his hands] Sure!

Mossberg: [laughs]

(Transcribed from a video of Steve Jobs being interviewed at the All Things D conference.)

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer (in his interview at the same conference) dismissed the iPad as a “fad” that was difficult to take notes on during a meeting. Good luck with that, Microsoft.

Update: In the first quarter of iPad availability, Apple sold 3.27 million iPads and 3.47 million Macs. In the previous quarter (ended in March), Apple sold 0 iPads and 2.94 million Macs. And Apple’s iPad manufacturing has not even been able to keep up with demand.

Tim Cook (paraphrased) commented: “If you look at how long it took us to sell the first million iPods, 20+ months vs. one month of iPad, it’s a phenomenal difference. It’s not following the typical early adopter curve and cross into the mainstream. It’s gone straight to mainstream. Our guts tell us this market is very big, and we believe that iPad is really defining the market. We want to take full advantage of it so we are investing enormous time and resources in increasing our capability to getting iPads out to as many people as we can.”

Update 2: (July, 2010) Apple’s success seems to have caught Ballmer’s attention; he now says that producing a new Windows tablet to compete with the iPad is “job one urgency.”

Update 3: (October, 2010) In the second quarter of iPad availability, Apple sold 3.89 million Macs and 4.19 million iPads. A few days later, Apple held a special media event to reassure audiences that they still care about the Mac — and to introduce the new Macbook Airs, which are starting to function more like iPads…

Can software tutors reform education?

I just read Disrupting Class: How disruptive innovation will change the way the world learns by Clayton M. Christensen, et al. I’m not sure whether the book’s findings were obvious or profound, but I was fascinated by the theory of disruptive innovations — technological changes that overtake an existing market in ways that make it almost impossible for incumbent organizations to make the transition. The authors use this theory to predict what sorts of education reform are possible.

One way to summarize the authors’ vision is as follows. There are plenty of cases when a students’ learning experience in school is not well matched to the student (for any number of reasons, be they learning style, teaching style, intelligence type, socioeconomic background, etc). In such cases, the affected student would benefit from a personal tutor to fill in the gaps. Personal tutors for everyone is obviously too expensive. But if we can make computer software that performs reasonably well as a tutor, it would be better than nothing. As the software technology matures, it might even be better than a human personal tutor for teaching certain subjects. In fact, some students might notice that actually going to class is unnecessary; they can learn all of the material in a faster and more enjoyable manner via the tutor. If this is true for a large enough number of students, schools would have no choice but to undergo reform in a way that embraces the software tutors and focuses on providing the services that computers cannot, such as coaching, motivation, teamwork, and other emotional skills.

There are a lot of “ifs” in this vision. However, it seems fairly certain that some version of the scenario will come to pass. The authors think that successful software tutors will be based on lesson contributions from the network of teachers, students, and parents who are also benefiting from the system. How far the vision goes depends on how well the new technology is able to visibly and measurably demonstrate effectiveness — a goal that has historically been elusive in attempted education reforms.

Update: If you have any trouble imagining these changes taking place, start with college-level lecture classes. Some students already skip lecture because they learn better from reading and doing problem sets. But why would anyone attend lecture in person if the best teacher in the world can be viewed online at any convenient time in high-definition video, paused and replayed as necessary? Real-life teachers and TAs quickly assume the role of facilitating, grading, and other forms of individualized feedback and assistance.