Christopher Cerf, Creative Catalyst

Moves Muppets into software
by MICHAEL CIRAOLO

II Computing Volume 1 Number 1
October / November 1985

Christopher Cerf is a joy to be around. He’s a bright, bubbling man who’s always in motion – not with manic energy, but with the enthusiasm of someone who can’t stop having a good time. It isn’t easy to capture Cerf on paper. It would be easy to simply say he helped launch the National Lampoon, designed award-winning software, earned wide acclaim as a writer and editor and won two Grammy awards, one for “The Electric Company” score. Nor would it do justice to his creativity, genius and energy to blithely describe his latest contributions to the Muppet Learning Keys, Kermit’s Electronic Story Maker, or other software reflecting a 16-year association with the Muppets.

Christopher Cerf

Christopher Cerf defies conventional description because he transcends conventional levels of energy and enthusiasm. More than anything else, he likes to have fun.

Fortunately, for Apple computer owners, the 42-ycar-old “Renaissance Kid” has brought his sense of fun to software, in the guise of Jim Henson’s familiar Muppets. The teams of Henson Associates (HA!) and Christopher Cerf Associates, both of New York, jointly produce software considered educational, though it is far removed from traditional drill-and-practice software. The association started shortly after the beginning of”Sesame Street” in 1969. Cerf was already “hopelessly hooked on doing things that were funny … and useful – a little bit of music, education and humor:’ At the time, he worked for Random House’s Beginner Books division, publisher of Dr. Seuss. Excited by the potential of “Sesame Street;’ Cerf joined the multimedia division of Children’s Television Workshop (producers of”Sesame Street”) the following year. It was there that he met Jim Henson. They collaborated on many successful projects in a variety of media: books, games, toys. “We wanted to do something unusual, unique, useful and state-of-the-art. We wanted to be at the cutting edge in something we enjoyed.”

Cerf and Henson started, among other projects, M.I.T., the Muppet Institute of Technology, where the motto is “Learnum est Funum:’ One of the first M.I.T. products was the Muppet Learning Keys, a colorful, oversized keyboard with numbers, letters in alphabetical order, and Stop, Go, Erase and Oops functions. The keyboard plugs into Apples or other computers and is now being supported by other software adapted to work with the Learning Keys. The Learning Keys, named one of the products of the year (1984) by Info World, sold an impressive 60,000 units during its first year.

THE BEST PEOPLE

When you talk to Cerf about his contributions, he stresses not his accomplishments, but the nature of the team to which he lends his talents as coordinator and catalyst. That team is composed of the best people available, according to Cerf. “You don’t teach someone new. You go to the best!’ This group of Henson Associates, Cerf Associates and individuals from various publishers is one team – “you can’t tell whds working for whom, when it’s working.”

There are two ways to produce software, according to Cerf. The first, traditional approach, is to come up with an idea, write a program to represent that idea, and then sell the package. Cerf prefers a second apRroach, which helps define his role in creating and developing software. Cerf describes his role as that of coordinator, supplying creativity and acting as a catalyst. Making excellent software products is akin to producing a movie or a children’s book, wherein, for example, “The writer doesn’t do everything. You need an illustrator, who can communicate with the author, a cover illustrator and someone to keep all this from becoming too expensive.”

Similarly, he says, “A good educational program has clear and well-written text, animation that is effective and a good sense of movement. You want entertaining pacing and the best music the computer can support. Bring all this together with education on the top. The general rules are that you take the best people available who have fun working together, people who are goal-oriented, and you end up being funny and silly and creative:’ Since few people are top-notch at all the aspects involved in producing state-of-the-art software, Cerfs team includes writers, animators, artists and programmers. It also includes pioneering computer educators, some of the original Muppet illustrators, ex-Disney animators and former National Lampoon staffers.

None of these people are confined to the bounds of their professions-each team member must understand how the group fits together and understand the process, so that each request to other members is realistic.

Christopher Cerf Associates have made some in-house developments that contributed to the larger Henson/Cerf team. One such effort was a technique for digitizing illustrations into Apple programs. This enabled them to bring in illustrators who didn’t necessarily have computer experience.

COMMITTED TO HAVING FUN

Cerf believes that “if you can do something entertaining and educational, kids will learn. Products have to be entertaining- people have to choose to use the software.

“You should be able to explore what you want in the computer, not what the programmer wanted … Early educational software would ask Johnny, what’s the capital of Pennsylvania?’ and if he couldn’t answer, he’d be there all day. Programmers should keep computers from being aggravating.”

Explorable software lets you change one variable at a time, so that you can understand what your command did. The change, according to Cerf, should change both a sentence and the animation on the screen (in a typical Muppet program). ‘The ability to change one variable and see the result gives children a sense of total control and power over the program.” Cerf’s understanding of kids comes not from parenting- he hasn’t – but from understanding his own sense of fun and curiosity. The entertaining nature of Cerf’s software does more than teach. It also sells programs in a sensible, old-fashioned way. “You can’t just throw money at something to have it sell – products have to sell themselves. It has to be word of mouth between kids and parents.”

A QUIET TIME?

Some would say it is foolish to design software and even introduce products when the entire industry is approaching a standstill. But Cerf has no patience for those who claim the home-computer market is dead or software sales are “flat.” “I just want them to go away! All the gadget freaks bought computers, and the industry produced 411 nearly identical programs, all with the same ads. We’re growing naturally, and that may be slow.” A slow market doesn’t bother him. “It’s nice to have some quiet time. We’re in a quiet time right now:’ Indeed, Cerf is looking beyond the quiescence to things he’d like to see in educational software. “The next big breakthrough in educational software is sound. Imagine a program that could read a sentence (from StoryMaker) to you. I’d love to hear a character say the letter or word, as it appears on the screen, in the voice of Kermit, not in conventional speech-synthesizer noises:’ Although Cerf won’t discuss his long-range plans,

he is willing to talk about some of his upcoming projects. Collaborating with author, humorist and ex-bodyguard Douglas Adams, who wrote the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (as well as related books, radio show and software), Cerf is working on a conversation program that lets you “talk” with Ronald Reagan. This program would add artificial-intelligence techniques to an updated Eliza-like program. Eliza was a program that could carry on a conversation with you, asking questions and making comments much like a psychiatrist might. In addition, Cerf asks, ‘What if parody, satire and good writing are added?” He calls the process of bringing artificial intelligence to Reagan “challenging:’

In time for Christmas, Cerf’s team will probably have more products for the Learning Keys. The addition to the Muppet Discovery Disk will be a multipurpose program covering most of the kindergarten curriculum, according to Cerf. One part will focus on numbers, the structure of words and putting words together. Another part will involve classifying shapes and colors, similarities and differences. The package will come on two disks in the school version from Sunburst, and on three disks for the home market from Koala.

Another upcoming product is The Mystery of the River of Song, the first in a series of Fraggle Rock adventures. These adventures will let you become a Fraggle, in situations where the graphics and text change dynamically: the same situation isn’t always accompanied by the same graphics. CBS will release the Fraggle adventures. Looking further, you can expect to see the fruits of collaboration between Lucasfilm and Cerf in conjunction with the upcoming movie Labyrinth. Beyond that, Cerf won’t say. //

PRODUCT INFORMATION

Muppet Learning Keys
Koala Technologies, Corp.
3100 Patrick Henry Drive
Santa Clara, CA 95052·8100
(408)946-4483

Kermit ‘s Electronic StoryMaker
Simon & Schuster, In c.
1230 Ave. of the Americas
New York, NY 10020
(212)245-6400

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