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Old media meets new on the Med

A trip to Cannes for a technological festival has convinced Steve Homer that the future could be an interesting place
Cannes is probably most famous for its film and television festivals. But last week it bore witness to what may well turn out to be their long- term replacement.

Writing about technology can become pretty boring. But once in a while, you get a glimpse of where we are heading. In Cannes last week I saw the future - and the good news is, it is not all bad.

Cannes was hosting the third International Publishing and New Media Market, or Milia. The surprise was that the clearest strategic thinking came from people steeped in old media. One of the most enlightening was Andreas Whittam Smith, founder and former editor of the Independent, who was exhibiting for the second time with his new CD-Rom company, Notting Hill.

"This is 21st-century stuff," Whittam Smith said. "We don't think of the cinema as 19th century because it started in 1895, we think of it as 20th century. We won't think of this medium as being 20th century, we will think of it as 21st century, even though it started in the Nineties."

Interesting changes are already taking place. As technology steams ahead, it is not just making things faster. It is allowing creativity to flourish.

Don't forget how the early days of cinema consisted of films of trains pulling into stations - and look where the movie industry ended up. So don't dismiss interactive fiction or online multi-user games as a dead- end. In 20 years' time, we will look back on the quaint technology we are using today. This is the Next Big Thing. "Computer technology lets the user climb through the screen like Alice in Through the Looking Glass and become truly involved in the story," said the screenwriter Michael Utvich in a wonderful interactive fiction conference.

But this is also a new business sector. It took decades for jobs such as key grip and assistant director to be sorted out in the film industry. In the new media market, structures are still being defined. What shows more than anything else is the absence of an auteur - the film director or the book author, the creative star of the project.

Speaker after speaker acknowledged the pivotal role of the author. But on the exhibition floor things were different. "Not one-tenth of 1 per cent of the CD-Roms [in the exhibition] have the name of an author on them," said Robert Winter, co-founder and president of Calliope Media whose company won the Milia d'Or top prize.

"Publishers have to make sure CD-Rom authors enhance their reputation by developing a work," agreed Fionnuala Duggan, media development director of McMillan General Books. If an author gained an exciting reputation, then future projects would benefit, she said.

The other big talking point was, is the future CD-Rom or online services? Put another way, with all human knowledge and entertainment available on the Internet or places such as CompuServe or the Microsoft Network, do we need CD-Roms at all? The consensus seemed to be that for the moment, at least, CD-Roms do have a life because it takes too long to download information using phone lines - even if they have high-speed ISDN.

One of the eeriest sessions was Microsoft's Virtual Chat environment. Users around the globe will be able to meet each other using "avatars" - characters representing the user in online worlds. These avatars will be able to gesture - wave, smile or frown - and so communicate emotion to each other. Users will be able to download images of themselves to use as their avatars.

Link Virtual Chat with artificial intelligence and you start wondering where this technology might lead. Imagine a questionnaire capable of assessing your personality in depth. Imagine using artificial intelligence to create an active avatar that would pretty accurately represent your responses in online worlds. You could have a virtual cocktail party with 20 avatars while at home in bed.

Milia also showed a range of excellently produced software, from a superb disk on the Holocaust to fine cooking titles, from great interactive music titles to mind-boggling games. There is some dross, but the overall standard in this amazingly young industry was impressive.

An expanded version of the interview with Andreas Whittam Smith will appear in a CD-Rom Network special in two weeks.

The Milia Web site is http:// www.reedmidem.milia.com/