Spinning Gold from Art

Once, when I was working for SGI, I was having one of those days where nothing made sense anymore. I had reached a dead-end in my work and everything I was doing was looking pretty pointless. My manager, recognizing a major case of ennui when he saw it, said to me, "Let's go for a walk. I want to show you something."

SGI, at that time, had dozens of buildings where all sorts of research was going on. We went into the bowels of one such building and I was introduced to a guy whose job was nothing less than being the resident genius. I guess other companies have these types: they are not working on any particular product. Their job is really just to play. Whatever happens to strike their fancy, whatever they want to explore, they just do.

What this particular genius was working on was a new type of Internet browser: one where information just seemed to float up from the screen, intuitively, like a stream of consciousness. If you liked what you saw coming at you on the screen, you didn't click on it: you just sort of rubbed it and brought it to life. The interesting thing was that this browser project initially started off as an art project.



I have been thinking about that browser ever since I saw a new email product demonstrated a few weeks ago called Netomat.

Forester Research last year predicted that by 2005, 92% of those online would be engaged in some form of personalized rich media email. And, as I recently pointed out in the Emerging Interest newsletter, the kind of product they will be using will probably look a lot like Netomat.

Like the browser I saw that day at SGI, Netomat also started out as an art project: an art piece developed for the Whitney Museum. I remember seeing an early version of Netomat a few years back when it was much closer to its art roots than to the product stage. Back then, Netomat was a very, very strange search engine. You would type in something you were interested in, and suddenly your browser was swirling with images and disembodied words based on stuff the program found in cyberspace. It was completely cool and completely useless all at the same time.

A few years later, however, Netomat has brilliantly melded form and function into one of the coolest personal rich media email products I've seen out there. With Netomat, people can draw on their email, drag and drop images, videos, audio files - you name it - in an easy-to-use intuitive interface.

You can even update the email while the person is reading it, combining both email and Instant Messaging. With Netomat, images and words aren't static: they float, bob, weave, disappear, and re-appear. Words can even be "rubbed" to reveal more information. Instead of reading an email, you play with it. And I'm not talking about the ability to just add a game, like pong, to your email message. Your email message itself can become a mystery that needs to be deciphered like a letter written in invisible ink. Netomat has invented a truly new and unique dimension to interactivity.

"Well, " you might be saying to yourself, "that's fine for personal email, but can I use it for marketing?" Let me just say this: the room where I saw Netomat demonstrated was filled with media buyers, marketers and advertisers. And that crowd voted Netomat the "Best of Show".

Netomat is still in beta stage, and not ready for prime time yet, but it will be soon. But the folks at Netomat have accomplished something that we need much more of right now: people who are looking at the problem of the Internet not from a marketing perspective, but from an artistic one.

What the industry needs now is more people playing, creating art projects and doing what they want without thinking about how it will make money. And we need great marketers and product developers who know who to spin all of those wonderful, impractical ideas into gold. The folks at Netomat have found a way to do just that.

- Bill McCloskey is Founder and CEO of Emerging Interest, an organization dedicated to educating the Internet advertising and marketing industry about rich media and other emerging technologies. He may be reached at

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