Video avatars are like newspaper illustrations of old.Long after Tiger Woods has been forgiven his transgressions, one lasting legacy of his extramarital activities will be a new journalistic art form: the animated news report. Millions of people have now viewed the online animations produced by Hong Kong-based Next Media depicting the wronged wife coming after Tiger Woods with a golf club and smashing the back window of his vehicle, causing the now-famous accident.
This may or may not be what actually happened, but one lesson of technology applied to information is that every medium finds its ultimate conclusion, from talk radio to reality television. In the case of online video, animated "news" will fill the gap where there is no actual video. (If you've somehow missed this animation, view it at http://tinyurl.com/YL9H6X6).
Journalistic traditionalists tut-tut; animations are not re-enactments so much as a potential version of the news. Even leading new-media journalists are ambivalent. Kara Swisher, who blogs at the Journal's All Things Digital Web site, quipped, "It's not pretty, but it is hard to avert my eyes from the bizarre video report," comparing it to a video game "gone awry." She said she couldn't tell "whether such faux representations of how news might or might not have happened is a good or bad thing."
Mr. Lai says there's no confusing the animation with real video. "The avatars are still quite wooden looking," he said, though he plans to make them more realistic as the technology improves. Still, viewers need to be discriminating, keeping in mind the difference between enactments and real footage.
Which reminds us that quite a few news stories would benefit from animation of reality: How about congressmen pretending to read the entire health-care bill, or Iranian arms-control negotiators secretly sniggering at U.N. diplomats?
Next Media launched its animations last month, and regulators in Taiwan have already fined the company for its sometimes-graphic depictions of murder and other crimes. Mr. Lai is philosophical. It takes time to get used to new forms of media, he says, "especially when you have competitors who fan the public's sentiment out of fear of an innovation's disruptive competition."
Next Media is based in Hong Kong, which has long enjoyed bragging rights for having more news outlets than any other city. Even under Beijing's rule, the former British colony has remained vibrant and transparent due in good part to its colorful spectrum of news media, including Mr. Lai's free-market and democracy-championing Next Magazine and sister paper Apple Daily.
There is a technology precedent for Mr. Lai's news innovation. Before the era of photography in newspapers and magazines, enterprising editors used similar creative license to help readers imagine how news might have happened. The Illustrated London News, founded in 1842, used woodcut-like drawings to depict dramatic scenes, everything from sightings of royals to natural calamities to lynchings of robbers during California's Gold Rush.
The pictorial newspaper sensationalized crime with a purpose. The editors hoped to "infuse a healthier tone of morality into the popular mind upon the subject of such dismal atrocities." When the newspaper printed a drawing of a new archbishop, every clergyman in Britain got a free copy.
As similar newspapers launched in the 19th century, the Illustrated London News hired an army of artists to interpret the news quickly, telling readers, "We shall be able to keep our wood engraving department further in advance by the retention of permanent artists ready at a moment's notice for the contingencies of every public event."
Mr. Lai plans to share his technology with news companies around the world. He reports that "we're in talks with news agencies and some major TV channels" in the U.S. to cooperate in producing animated news.
Another technology genie out of the bottle, destined to change our view of news.