08 January 2013

Disastrous presentations

I just Facebooked the very funny article at The Verge about this year's incredibly ill-conceived Consumer Electronics Show keynote. (Update: There's now video!)

That inspired a friend to offer The Blaze describing a TED talk gone mad. And that reminded me of one of the most memorable corporate presentations I ever attended.

At the Computer Game Developers' Conference in 1995, Microsoft arranged a big presentation of their new graphics engine that would be bundled in Windows 95. They were renting out Six Flags for us for the night. But we had to sit through their propaganda first.

There were two kinds of developers in that room. There were developers who had worked on games in Microsoft DOS or Windows ... mostly DOS since even sedate turn-based games had trouble getting good enough performance in slow, buggy, crashy Windows 3.1. (That included me, sort of; I was a producer, not a programmer, so I knew the headaches by the transitive property.) Then there were developers who refused to work on games for the PC. Both groups had reason to hate Microsoft. The mood in the presentation theater was not receptive.

Just let us ride the roller coasters.

The Microsoft guy was tinkering with his PC as we came in, and then he started giving us a PowerPoint presentation. Two slides in, his computer crashes and he has to reboot. Laughter and jeers, but with a little note of sympathy; we'd been there.

Unfazed, the presenter continued his rap. His computer came back up. He re-opens his presentation file. Weird artifacts go kablooey all over his screen. The laughter really comes this time. The guy looks a little shaken, and calls to the wings for one of his colleagues. The presenter talks while his buddy tinkers with his computer. The guy tinkering with his computer waves to someone offstage, and a second guy comes out to help him. More chuckles from the audience.

The presenter starts talking about the meaty stuff: memory allocation, frame rates, et cetera. It's sounding kind of sexy, but we'd all heard BS promises from Microsoft before. I didn't even notice when the third guy came out in a lab coat. I did notice the fourth guy, who had a lab coat and goggles. The presenter keeps talking, as if nothing weird were going on, but the audience is starting to catch on. There's a fifth guy: lab coat, goggles, and Einstein hair. These guys are now brandishing strange-looking tools and waving their arms at each other as smoke pours out of the computer.

The presenter goes to the computer and hits a key. The smoke stops, the display goes back to normal, the mad scientists retreat back to the wings.

Fifteen seconds later, there's a computer running fast game graphics in a movable, resizable window, native in Windows. Inconceivable at the time.

A thousand developers applauded as hard as they could, whooping and stamping their feet.

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