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The Slide Show Revisited

The Slide Show Revisited

Digital Technology Gives New Life to That Old Family Vacation Warhorse-the Slide Projector

If you're very, very, very old, you may remember a form of presentation called the "slideshow." This was a visual display presented on a "screen" from "transparencies" using an ancient device called a "projector."

At the height of its reign, the slideshow was a very powerful form of expression. It was enormously versatile, and capable of being more persuasive than other forms of presentations (such as movies and videos). All these facts of history were forgotten with the advent of digital photography, for reasons that must have seemed good at the time.

For starters, although digital photos could be printed inexpensively enough, they didn't lend themselves to inexpensive projection. Digital projectors whose resolution and color-depth were adequate for photos could cost thousands, tens of thousands, and even hundreds of thousands of dollars. Second, although there was something to be said for sitting an audience in a dark room, turning off the lights, and making a bright picture on a huge screen, it wasn't said very loudly. Manufacturers of monitors were speaking louder, and they seemed to have a point.

But there's still something to be said, however softly, for the dark, still room with the big projected picture. It makes the presentation a special event. People don't happen by, they come deliberately to see it. They enter a space set-up for it-chairs all in a row, the screen ahead, lecterns or loudspeakers placed as needed. They sit down and collectively wait for the show to begin. They share the initial plunge into darkness, and everything that follows-the joys or sorrows, boasts or confessions splayed-out on-screen before them. The experience, shared, is more than doubled.

None of this is news to the presentations industry, of course. Just try to find a boardroom in corporate America that doesn't have everything you could want in PowerPoint presentations. Bar charts and pie graphs are where most of them started, and plenty of 'em ingeniously updated the venerable overhead projector to full digital status. We were using overheads in the 1880s, and we're still using them today. They're certainly cost-effective.

Cost-effective for business. For personal use, well, maybe there were better ideas. The digital revolution has already asked the consuming public to buy a lot of new stuff, most of which was nonexistent before 1980. First there's the PC, then the printer, then the Internet connection, then the scanner, then the digicam, then the external disk drive to house all those photos, then the DVD burner-does it ever end?

Now a projector? In the ancient days of transparency film, a projector was not all that expensive. The best that can be said today is that their prices are coming down. But in a day when "the television set" has been superseded by "the home theater," maybe it's not so unlikely that Joe 'n Jane Foto will spring a couple grand on a projector. Can they get a good one for that price?

Turns out they can. Maybe someday soon they can get one for an even better price. If a CD-R burner cost fifteen thousand dollars a short time ago, how much will a digital projector cost a short time hence?

The History of the Power

Mention "home slideshow" in some circles, you'll get a smirk. Or maybe a quiver of dread. Is there anything more boring that someone else's vacation pictures? Depends on the vacation, I guess. But if they were so bad, slideshows wouldn't have lasted so long. And before the high price of projectors put them on the sidelines, slideshows were a major resource for hundreds of years.

Hundreds? Maybe thousands. It's sometimes said that the slide projector, or magic lantern as it was first called, was invented by Athanasius Kircher, a Jesuit priest in the mid-1600s. It's a certainty that Kircher illustrated and described both projectors and slides, as he wrote them up and the books survive. It's sometimes said that because of Kircher's published descriptions, home slideshows became the popular rage in 17th-century Italy.

Making a slideshow doesn't require rocket science-or at least didn't before the digital age. If you hold a piece of colored glass to the sun, a colored light will be projected. Cathedrals started using colored glass in their windows before A.D. 600. The saints in the stained glass do not just sit passively in their sashes. Comes the sun, they're beamed into the church, across the floor, into the pews, upon the faces of everyone assembled. They sweep the room as the world turns. If you were religious, it was possible to see animated slide presentations in Western society for the past 1500 years.

It has been possible to see projected images in Eastern society even longer. Researchers report that the use of mirrors projected images in China, two thousand years B.C. It can't be proved, but some speculate that the biblical "handwriting on the wall" was, in fact, projected. The technology was available.

The Technology Evolves

The dissolve, the basic transition of cinema and video, where two pictures cross-fade, is generally attributed to one H. L. Childe at the Royal Polytechnic in London in the early 1840s, dimming one magic lantern while brightening another overlapped on the screen.

"Dissolving views" shows became the rage of the second half of the 19th century, utilizing grand wooden projectors with two or three optical systems. The magic lanternist had always been an itinerant, walking from town to town-especially in Europe-with his projector slung from his back. Like the troubadours, he was the source of news of the world-slides at 11.

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