Marvel shows off adapative audio for digital comics at SXSW

(CBR) For the third year in a row, Marvel has used their presence at the South By Southwest Interactive festival in Austin, Texas to unveil their latest digital initiatives. Headlining the publisher's announcements at the “Marvel: The House of Ideas” panel were the addition of adaptive audio and AR enhancements to Marvel Unlimited, an original short-form documentary program titled “Tales to Astonish” and a new all-ages Infinite Comics series based on Disney XD's “Ultimate Spider-Man” cartoon.

Marvel first revealed plans to bring audio to digital comics at last year's SXSW, under the name “Project Gamma.” That name has been dropped, and previous technological partners Momentum Worldwide and CORD are no longer involved. For the current version of the project, Marvel has teamed with Emmy-nominated composer David Ari Leon's SoundMind Music and Firelight Technologies. Leon has worked on multiple Marvel-related projects, spanning from the 1990s “Spider-Man” cartoon to “Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes.” Firelight Technologies are the creators of audio content creation tools FMOD, used in multiple high-profile video games including the “BioShock” series.

Despite some modifications, the basic concept behind the adaptive audio remains the same as when it was announced last year — a non-looping soundtrack meant to enhance the reading experience with music and sound, but not dialogue.

“One of the things that's taken a while is to figure out, 'How do we not make it gimmicky?'” Kristin Vincent, Marvel vice president of digital products, told CBR. “How do we not make it just looping music in the background? How do we make it an immersive experience that's truly an adaptive score that the user controls, that adds to the storytelling? The collaboration has been eye-opening to me — it's actually becoming a tool in storytelling, as opposed to just being music looped on.”

At least from the outset, adaptive audio will be a Marvel Unlimited-exclusive feature; it will not be available on comiXology or Marvel's comiXology-powered app. The technology will first be applied to the “Captain America” comic book series by Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting, specifically issues #8-#9 and #11-#14, which feature The Winter Soldier. Adaptive audio debuts on the app today, roughly a month before the release of the “Winter Soldier” film on April 4.

Though adaptive audio has now been publicly known to be part of Marvel's plans for a year, John Cerilli, the company's vice president of digital content and programming, stated that they're taking something of a “wait-and-see” approach before committing to how ambitious their plans are for the feature, or if in the future new comics might potentially be structured with audio components in mind.

“We want to see how the fans react to it — we do think they're going to react very positively,” Cerilli said to CBR News. “I think anybody who actually touches the thing, feels the thing, and of course hears it — they're going to have a positive reaction. Once we start getting those reactions and seeing how people are interacting with it, we'll make some bigger decisions on where to go next with it.”

Along with adaptive audio, Marvel's AR video content — akin to behind-the-scenes DVD extras and first introduced with “Avengers vs. X-Men” in 2012 — will also be added to Marvel Unlimited. Traditionally, Marvel's AR is triggered by using a mobile device to read a code embedded in a print comic book. In Unlimited, the enhancements will be integrated as an option within the digital pages.

“You're reading, and as you're paneling through, a little icon of a camera quietly pops up at the bottom, and then goes away if you don't interact with it,” Vincent explained. “You just keep going if you want to continue reading the story as-is, or you can push the button and see the video in context.”

AR is also scheduled to arrive in Marvel Unlimited today, starting with the first six issues of writer Jonathan Hickman's current run on “Avengers.” Non-Marvel Unlimited members can try both features with free trials of the adaptive audio in “Captain America” #8, and the AR content in 2012's “Avengers” #1.

These new features represent a further commitment to the Marvel Unlimited platform, which premiered in 2007. Then known as “Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited,” the service allows Netflix-like access to thousands of “streaming” Marvel back issues — now close to 15,000 and counting, according to Cerilli — with a six-month delay before new titles arrive. Last year, the name was streamlined to “Marvel Unlimited,” and debuted on iOS devices. Currently Marvel is offering new and former members the first month of service for 99 cents, a discount from the standard $9.99 monthly price.

“I think of it as a place where we can experiment, because it's a very different model,” Vincent said. “We're always looking for people to experience comics in new ways while staying true to the essence of comics and what people love about them.”

Responding to speculation that Marvel may someday use Marvel Unlimited to cut out the middleman and sell same-day, single-issue digital comics through the service, Cerilli said, “Will books be in there day-and-date someday? Who knows. It all depends on how the market goes. A couple of years ago, we never thought we would have digital comic of any form available day-and-date.”

For years, Marvel has release original video content on their website, like the comedy series “What The–?!” At SXSW, Marvel announced what's likely their most ambitious video series yet: “Marvel's Tales to Astonish,” a series of short documentaries (about 13 minutes) named after the Silver Age comic that introduced Hank Pym. The goal is to put the publisher's famous stories into a larger context, starting with 2006-2007's “Civil War,” by Mark Millar and Steve McNiven. “We've [published] some amazing stories over the years, and there are a lot of metaphors in the stories that we've told over the years,” Cerilli said. “Marvel has been at the forefront of some pretty groundbreaking endeavors. We just want the world to know that — yes, we do tell great stories, and they happen to be superheroes, but there's a lot more involved.”

“Marvel's Tales to Astonish: Civil War” will be directed by Eric Drath, who won an Emmy for the 2008 HBO boxing documentary “Assault in the Ring.” Cerilli said that corporate synergy helped bring Drath to Marvel — Drath has worked for ESPN Films, and ESPN and Marvel are both owned by Disney.

“To him, [“Civil War”] was interesting, because you had two of Marvel's most major characters squaring off against each other,” Cerilli said. “All of us who grew up reading comic books, especially Marvel, we all know that our heroes beat the crap out of each other. But this was interesting to him, and one of the things that led him into this. We started telling him more about the story, and why they were squaring off against each other, and the concept of what the Superhuman Registration Act really meant to the real world that we live in.”

When the NSA scandal broke last year, the themes of “Civil War” became even more resonant for Drath, Cerilli said, and helped further galvanize the focus of the piece.

“The documentary tells a great, great story that, much like 'Civil War,' it's hard to take a side on,” Cerilli said. “In a way, both sides were correct, and in a way, both sides were wrong. Eric illustrates that beautifully in this first episode.”

Among those interviewed for the inaugural “Tales to Astonish” are not only Marvel mainstays Joss Whedon, Clark Gregg, Brian Michael Bendis and Stan Lee, but also news personalities Tucker Carlson, Chris Hayes and Curtis Sliwa. No release date has been established by Marvel.

Original video in general and “Tales to Astonish” specifically are high priorities for Marvel, according to Cerilli, and the hope is for these mini-documentaries to find a home outside of

“The distribution of the shorts is a very, very big topic around here,” Cerilli said. “It's one of the single most important things that we deal with on the digital side. We've had great success with the deal we made with Netflix, but that's a different animal. The non-fiction video has a place too, and we believe it's going to get not only through the Marvel channels, [but] other folks will be picking it up.”

Marvel's first Infinite Comics surfaced in 2012, with a Nova short packaged with “Avengers vs. X-Men” #1. Meant to take advantage of the features provided by digital devices (though some have later been brought to print), the format has since become a weekly fixture at the publisher.

The next step for Infinite Comics is “Marvel Universe: Ultimate Spider-Man,” featuring new adventures based on the Disney XD animated series. It's the first all-ages Infinite Comic series, set for 24 installments — #1-#6 will be written by Eugene Son, #7-#11 by Matt Kindt (who wrote an “Ultimate Spider-Man” Infinite Comic one-shot released in 2012), #12-#19 by Cullen Bunn and #20-#24 by Tim Seeley. Marvel said that all four writers collaborated on building the story, which will be illustrated through storyboards by JL Mast and Geoffrey Beulieu, with finished art by Luciano Vecchio and Soutchey Leimetry.

“Kids are used to videos, and the way stories are told on not just mobile device, but in digital and web in general, just take on a very different look and feel,” Vincent said. “We think this is the more comfortable format, it's an exciting format — they're very dynamic, and almost have an element of animation to them.”

No release date has been set by Marvel for the “Ultimate Spider-Man” Infinite Comics, but the publisher plans on translating the story into 13 additional languages. Like the Global Comics app released last month, it's another sign of Marvel using digital comics to attempt to further their worldwide reach.

“What we hear from around the world is that people are clamoring for localized content,” Vincent said. “We take that very seriously. Not only do I think it's a good opportunity for Marvel, it seems like we have great stories that resonate around the world, and we're really proud of that. That's why in my mind it makes sense to start, especially with kids, with a character like Spider-Man, as opposed to a Captain America — which hopefully also has worldwide reach, but obviously is a little bit different.”