Blog Post

HASTAC 2010: Files Conversions and Access Across Time

Need to Convert a File? Ask a File Format Polyglot

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Kenton McHenry points out that there are over 140 different 3D file formats, the result of multiple vendors who create 3D software and have their own proprietary formats. Unsurprisingly, this creates a big problem for access and, as Kenton reminds us, data preservation.

If a vendor goes out of business, for example, there's the possibility of losing access to your data. A solution is to convert files to an open format, a task easier said than done. I applaud Kenton's work in this direction.

In his research, he concentrates on using the import/export features of certain applications to build connections. This is critical research, for sure, and time consuming too. When I looked at his Input/Output Graph, I realized the complexity of this work and the ways in which it might prove profoundly helpful.

Through the use of imposed code reuse, Kenton talked about ways of automating the system to make conversions happen in an efficient manner. He also talked about "utilizing whatever interfaces the software vendors make available to provide API like access to embedded code.

At this point in the presentation, I realize why Im getting my PhD in English. Kentons expertise is impressive and a reminder of all we sometimes take for granted. He provides several examples of how the automated system could move files from one program to another.  He also talks about the ICR engine and a file format called Polyglot, and later about a browser-based server that can manage numerous formats. 

In the end, the goal would be a universal converter and viewer.

Although Kenton is talking about 3D programs, he makes it clear that the implications are broader and can include a host of other file formats too.

In the field of Computers and Writing, file formats are continuing to be an issue. In 2002, for example, Professor Anne Wysocki produced a stunning piece of scholarship in Kairos: Rhetoric, Technology, Pedagogy that is difficult to access now. When you go to the web page for "A Bookling Monument," youre likely to see a note about Macromedia shockwave. To access this file, I had to find an old browser program. In my work with Computers and Composition Digital Press, were also thinking about how to produce scholarship that we can preserve--that is, scholarship that lasts.

The type of work that Kenton is doing is needed on so many fronts. The assumption being that we want our media to last and be accessible. For a related take on issues of permanence, you might take a look at Bill Morrison's "Redefining the Object of Cinema: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Media Obsolescence," along with Mona Kasra's excellent post and my own  reflection.

Thank you Kenton!


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