The Onyx Project

Nearly twenty years ago, in connection with my book, Fumbling the Future, I had the good fortune to meet the key players at Xerox PARC who invented personal distributed computing. The experience was a world-class classroom for learning about the challenges of innovation. But learning from others about innovation is never as instructive as innovating yourself. And, for nearly six-and-a-half years now, I’ve also had the good fortune to have had that opportunity through working with Larry Atlas (and others) on conceptualizing and bringing to the market an entirely new form of video story-telling: a fully browseable NAVworld — a written, directed and acted world made with our new NAV technology and approach.

This past week we released for sale The Onyx Project which stars Academy Award nominee David Strathairn as Colonel Robert Henderson, a man and a military officer stationed in Afghanistan who wants — no needs — to tell his story about why, on the eve of the 2004 US presidential election, he launched an illegal, unauthorized and ultimately disastrous mission into Pakistan. As viewers browse their way through Henderson’s world, they learn — they experience — that Henderson’s testimony is not about right versus left.  It’s about right versus wrong.

In one scene in The Onyx Project, Henderson says about America, “We seek to innovate. But it is tradition that binds us together.” In his story about our efforts, New York Times writer Richard Siklos picked up on this line to capture the challenge we’ve faced in our efforts to bring innovation to story-telling itself. The new video story-telling architecture we’ve created is one that invites creative people with imagination — and viewers with imagination — to experience and explore a new context for taking advantage of tradition — narrative, plot, character and so on that are written, directed and acted — while innovating the experience of story telling and story viewing through an architecture that is non-linear instead of linear. (It is non-linearity, by the way, that calls for the use of the word ‘world’. NAVworlds are NOT movies — they don’t spoon feed beginnings, middle and ends. Instead, they are browseable worlds that, in turn, are built around plot, narrative, character and story.)

In Fumbling the Future (as in Clayton Christensen’s classic, The Innovator’s Dilemma) the challenges of innovation unfold in part because established enterprises — while they have tremendous resources and opportunity — also face significant and understandable obstacles when confronted by innovations that challenge ‘the way we do things around here’. Habits — of career, of investment decision making, of existing product economics, of skills, of internal culture and more — array themselves on the opposite side of those who recommend a new product or service that must be made, delivered, sold differently.

There is much more to the challenge of innovation than this of course. Still, time and again over the past six plus years, we’ve had the chance to see this phenomenon first hand. And it has been fascinating. It’s also been the case that, prior to The Onyx Project, our innovation was not yet a ‘real thing in the world’ — a fact that understandably made it even more difficult for those (who usually found what we were doing interesting) to, nonetheless, hold off from taking risk.

Now, we are fortunate to have something ‘real’. And, in that sense, our journey moves to a new stage. But, as we remind ourselves regularly, it took Xerox 14 years from Chester Carlson’s conception of ‘dry writing’ to the first sale of the Xerox 914 copier.

We’re into a new — and exciting for us – stage of the journey. But, we expect, we still have a lot of road ahead. And there’s no doubt that we depend on people — writers, directors, producers and viewers — who have the imagination to explore and experience Henderson’s NAVworld in The Onyx Project — both to enjoy it on it’s own terms and to get a taste for of what other NAVworlds might be possible with this new form of story-telling.

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