Great demos

SGI OnyxIt was 1994 and I’d drawn the short straw, a really short straw.

Our new product was called “Advance[1] and would revolutionise film and television post production and special effects.  It allowed you to build up a complex tree of operations to manipulate movie footage.  It ran on the latest kick ass hardware, the SGI Onyx, which sat 6ft tall and had 16 MIPS R4400 CPUs.

In our offices in London’s Soho we had gathered all the journalists that cover our industry and plied them with food and wine.

The demo started well as I went through my well practiced steps, playing back movie footage and applying filters and colour grading.

Then it stopped.  Just stopped.  I know that I’d pressed the correct button and knew what should be happening, but nothing was.  In that heart-stopping moment I knew it had crashed and that a reboot was going to take several minutes, but nobody else had realised.

A silent scream for help!

You’ll have spotted the key words which spelled disaster; “new product”, “latest hardware”, “complex operations”, “all the journalists”: bound to crash, wasn’t it?

Wind forward 8 years and we are demonstrating 2d3’s first product which takes image sequences and figures out how the camera had to have moved in order to record it (“camera tracking”).  If you are doing special effects you need this information in order to add any computer generated models into the scene seamlessly.  We were at IBC in Amsterdam and our closest competitors had the stand next to us.  Not that we cared or even noticed because the reactions we were getting to our demos were fantastic.

People who had had to do camera tracking by hand, or by using the previous generation of products went through a range of emotions during the demo.  They would start with scepticism when we said what we were going to show them, then disbelief when we first showed boujou tracking a shot completely automatically.  Finally, their mouths would drop slackly as they stared wide eyed, or nudged each other as if to say “did you just see what I just saw?”.

Like showmen we had figured out how to time the demo to get the best effect.  We’d go for an “ooh” every 30 seconds and an “ahh” every minute.  We’d tease them.  We’d show them a shot and encourage them to tell us that it was “impossible” to track, then press the big green button and, ignoring the screen, chat to them about something else, knowing that they were not paying attention because behind us, magic was happening.

That is the point.  We should consider all demos primarily as theatre.  They should have a plot, they should take us through a range of emotions.  They should engage our audience and gain their empathy.  They need to believe, to want.

At the end of the tradeshow our competitor’s demonstrator came over to our stand.  He had clearly been inhaling that which you can only buy in Amsterdam.  “I wanna tell you” he slurred “you’ve got a really great product”.  “Thanks” I replied.  “No, no” he went on, and on, “t’s really great, really great”.  It wasn’t that he thought the product was great, surely, but that he’d also breathed in people’s reactions to our demos.

Back to my less than perfect demo with the crashed Onyx where, finally, our fabulous marketing executive realised what had had happened and dashed to the front with a tray; “anyone for another sausage roll?”…


[1] Later to be called Illusion and then Media Illusion and then Avid Media Illusion and the Softimage XSI Illusion and then … you get the picture.

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4 Responses to Great demos

  1. Glad it wasn’t the Video I/O that failed you Chris!

  2. Hugh R Heinsohn says:

    This reminds me of something that happened to me when I was with 360 Systems. We had a new product called ShortCut – a portable audio editor. Very nice product. I was in India with an early prototype of the unit and we had a presentation at Doordashan – the All India national TV network. I was invited into the office of the Director of Engineering for the whole group – the big boss – for a personal meeting, a cup of tea and a quick demo of the product. I pull out the ShortCut and plug it in and – I kid you not – smoke starts pouring out of the unit. A big electrolytic cap had gone south. Embarassing to say the least. And, there I was in India with the only working prototype of the unit in the world!

    So – the next day – my host, my dealer in India – Sumeet Thadani – drove me around Dehli trying to find a place that could repair the unit. We did find a place – a little hole in the wall TV repair shop. The repairman found a cap that was close enough in an old TV and wired into place and the unit worked fine after that. We went back to Doordashan and were able to show it to the Director.

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