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02.11.09

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Phaedra

Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
MEDIA MAN: Tristan Harris, who helped develop a new publishing tool following a Knight Fellowship at Stanford, says websites shouldn't look flat.

Web 3.0

Apture adds a new window to the two-dimensional screen

By By Rory O'Connor


WOULDN'T IT be cool if you could instantly access all the richness and multidimensionality of the Internet—any relevant digital media concerning any subject you're interested in, including text, stills, audio and video—without ever leaving the site you're on?

The dream of the so-called "semantic web" is to use "smart programs" to tag and link to information across media while providing context and depth to stories without human intervention.

Such a deep "Web 3.0" experience is said to be just a vision on the horizon, still years away from becoming a reality. But the future is now, thanks to a trio of recent Stanford graduates who created Apture, a new communication platform that literally adds fresh dimensions and a web of information to previously two-dimensional posts.

"The web is flat," says 24-year-old CEO and co-founder Tristan Harris. "I don't mean that in a Tom Friedman–like, democratizing, 'anyone can compete' kind of way—I mean the entire online experience is flat. Most people still think of the web in a linear way.

"We want to unlock the fantastic potential of digital media and take it beyond the page."

Using Apture, Harris says, the webpage is transformed from a flat "piece of paper" into a more powerful, interactive, intuitive and "hyperrelevant" multimedia experience.

Depth Charge

It is often said that military planners prepare "to fight the last war." The same is true of many in the media, Harris believes. Faced with disruptive new technology, media makers often respond initially by attempting to re-create familiar, previously dominant media. Old models and metaphors are grafted onto the new medium until someone eventually comes up with a conceptual breakthrough that emphasizes and enables its unique qualities.

So it is not surprising that the web—still in its infancy—has emulated previous media forms, from books and newspapers to radio and television. Despite all the new technologies and applications associated with the web, we still essentially approach "new media" content in much the same way as that still found in the "old media."

Apture.com intends to change all that by allowing online users to bring up relevant text, video, audio or any other digital content in a pop-up window. As they move their mouse over an Apture-linked term, a box appears with a menu of related material chosen by the publisher, providing users with a cornucopia of in-depth related content.

Clicking on any item in the menu opens a window where users can access that content—Wikipedia, Amazon and IMDb reference information; videos from YouTube, Google, Blip.TV, Metacafe, Veoh, ESPN, Comedy Central, Hulu, BigThink, Revver and Imeem; images from Flickr and Wikipedia Commons; music from Imeem; news from WashingtonPost.com; PDFs, Microsoft Word, PowerPoint and Excel documents via Scribd; Google Maps and MyMaps; podcasts, MP3s, you name it—without ever leaving the original page.

Apture provides a simple point-and-click system to add cross-reference links to webpages.

Rather than hunting for embedded codes to post, say, a YouTube video, users can just search for relevant multimedia and insert it with one click. And get this—although large publishers like the Washington Post must enter into a commercial agreement to use the platform, Apture is free to any blogger.

Apture has its roots in conversations between Harris and his colleagues and journalists in the Knight Fellowship program, which attracts top talent to Stanford's campus each year. Talking with the reporters sparked many of the concepts behind Apture, so it is not surprising that early adopters include such leading journalistic enterprises as the Washington Post, the BBC and the new nonprofit news organization ProPublica.

Those not yet aware of Apture's immense potential run the risk of being trapped in a two-dimensional media time machine, according to Harris. "Journalists need to think about content in multidimensional ways going forward," Harris says. "Information on the web is still being published in much the same way it has for years. Meanwhile, we have the richest communication mechanism ever created—yet much of the resources and content remains buried.

"The web lets you make content dynamic—and Apture lets you present it with empathy and interactivity. Journalism is a process of curation, not an end point ... and two dimensions no longer cut it. People want 10 dimensions of content now!"

Simply put, Apture adds context to journalistic content. Even the best text-based online post benefits from adding links and multimedia, because the web and the way we interact with it differ from all previous media.

Harris says Apture is "a game-changing technology" for the web at large but says it is of particular use to the news media and publishing industry.

"Reading patterns aren't always linear. As something piques readers' interests we want to be able to give them the opportunity to dig deep, satisfy their curiosities and become even more involved in our site," Harris says. "Apture enables new forms of storytelling and journalism. When you're telling a story, you've got the whole world's media at your fingertips."

Is Apture "a paradigm shift in publishing and online communication," as Harris would have it? There's no doubt that it provides new tools to users that enhance their online experience and makes it dead simple.


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