Did I Hear That Right…Film Slides On Supercomputers?

Digital presentations are a nearly ubiquitous part of business communications. Barely any conference, meeting or corporate event goes by without a projector or large display with a presentation being the centrepiece. Like many business innovations, it is so common that it is barely noticed, however, to become the norm there has to be innovators that push the limits of what is possible at the time. A presentation that can be completed on a smartphone and shown on a projector smaller than the palm of your hand at one point needed to be transferred to film and produced on supercomputers worth millions of pounds.

How Did You Even Make Presentations Without PowerPoint?

Before the use of computers, presentation tools were either outright printouts, posters or otherwise pasted up, and if they were going to be presented, they would be either recorded onto film stock for slide projectors or printed onto transparent sheets for overhead projection using a laser printer. One or both of these may be very familiar to pretty much anyone who went to school between the 1970s and the early 2000s, as overhead projectors and slide projectors were the standard for schools, universities, and businesses. Either used blank or as part of a pre-printed set, OHP sheets could be easily written on with a marker pen and swapped out, making them very cheap to buy in bulk if you don’t need bespoke information. This is fine for schools, where the curriculum is not going to fundamentally change between schools nor substantially change over a period of time, but what about times when you need custom graphics to be made, such as part of a business conference?

Genigraphics and the First Ever Presentation Computer

The first software packages to allow computer generated presentation slides to be created were made for supercomputers, most notably by General Electric’s Genigraphics brand. These were custom workstations built on the PDP-11 supercomputer architecture and were the first to allow for presentation graphics to be created and modified. In an age before what-you-see-is-what-you-get design, and indeed before the widespread use of mice and other pointing devices, early Genigraphics computers used a pair of joysticks and other buttons for its inputs, and needed an expert technician to work the equipment. The completed slides were then sent to a digital film recorder or later to a laserjet printer in order to be turned into slides or overhead transparencies, which were securely stored and sent via express delivery to a client, who uses either a slide projector or an overhead projector to actually present. This is why individual presentation pages are called “slides”.

This was the business of presentation creation, and eventually, Genigraphics were joined by Trollman, Dicomed, and Autographix in the field of slide creation. They were huge and expensive machines, but with millions of slides being created, it was a gigantic and largely curated business, ordered and commissioned by businesses in the way graphic design, copywriting and audiovisual hire would be today.

Funnily enough, Genigraphics would inadvertently set in motion the events that utterly torched this entire industry.

From Film to the Screen

The first sign of the times would be Bruno, Hewlett Packard’s what you see is what you get (WYSIWYG) presentation software, which was the first of its kind. This turned presentation creation from a specialised skill to something far more convenient and intuitive. Anyone could make a presentation using it, the marketing material crowed, although given that you needed a refrigerator-sized “minicomputer” to use Bruno and its follow-up HP Draw, only large businesses actually would. As well as this, you still needed a film recorder or laser printer to use it in presentations, as large displays and video projectors still prohibitively expensive. A typical presentation workstation, with its operator, software and hardware would be an investment worth between £35,000 and £150,000. Adjusted for inflation this is the equivalent of between £175,000 and £750,000 in 2018 money.

HP-Draw, however, was a sign of the prevailing wind. Two years later, Cromemco, an early personal computer company, would release Slidemaster for their System One computer. This was a presentation graphics application that lowered the cost to produce presentations from hundreds of thousands to around £4000. Better still, it allowed for presentation tools to be saved to standard floppy disks as opposed to massive tape cartridges. Just a year later, Video Computers Network created Execuvision, which allowed for slideshows to not only be exported to film slides or printers but be displayed on a screen as well. It also had a library of images with the software, setting into motion the idea of clip art in presentations. Four years later, we would then see the release of a software package so ubiquitous that presentations to this day are still named after it.

When PowerPoint Changed Everything From Film

PowerPoint, the software pretty much everyone uses, had rather humble beginnings, beginning as part of Silicon Valley startup Forethought. After a rather tempestuous early development period, over three years the idea took off in a big way, and the product then known as Presenter would be partially funded by and released by Apple in April 1987 as PowerPoint. Its initial product run sold out nearly immediately, and Microsoft took notice. They had plans early in 1987 to create a presentation tool, initially looking at the bullet point outlining tool MORE as an acquisition target to speed up development. During this time, however, they found out about PowerPoint, which was effectively complete and did exactly what they wanted. After overcoming initial scepticism from a Bill Gates who didn’t quite get what made PowerPoint so special, he agreed to the acquisition, and after a steady if disappointing initial launch for Macintosh, would launch a version for the brand new Windows 3.0 in 1990 and make three times the acquisition cost in a year, and sales have skyrocketed ever since it was added to the Microsoft Office suite.

Interestingly enough, the second, wildly successful version of PowerPoint was partly developed by Genigraphics, still working in the business of slide and transparency creation. Whether they thought it would boost their business model or failed to see the iceberg, they lent their expertise and graphical design to Powerpoint 2.0, with the main condition being an agreement that Microsoft include an icon that sends the slide to Genigraphics to print. The agreement began at Mac World 1998 and within three and a half months was generating 10% of the company’s revenue. However, it was also slowly cannibalising it due to the rise in digital projectors. Epson and Sharp had launched LCD digital projectors as early as 1989, and as they got cheaper and smaller, would grow to ultimately kill off the transparency and slide production market that formed the bulk of Genigraphics’ business model outside of its design work for Microsoft.

Still, until 2001 there was an option to send to Genigraphics, which involved sending the PPT file to them over the early internet or via floppy disk. Were it not for a series of legal defeats in anti-trust lawsuits, it may have lasted as long as Genigraphics were in the film production business. Don’t cry too much for them however, they have since restructured and have made a killing in large-scale printing in the medical business.

The story of presentations is a story of how rapidly an entire industry can rise and fall in the technology world, as well as a showcase of how even the nature of how we do business has changed with the charging forward of technology. Fisher Audio Visual has been at the forefront of this changing world and can recommend the perfect product for your business meeting, conference or presentation. To find out more about how we can bring that expertise to you, contact our friendly and informative team today.