Angles Of View
Hubert Wilke was the founder of The Wilke Organization, the first audiovisual consulting firm. For more than 30 years he has been directly involved with the design and creation of the world’s most sophisticated audiovisual systems. Seven years ago Mr. Wilke came out of retirement to become Senior Principal at the firm of Shen, Milsom & Wilke, Inc., consultants in acoustics, audiovisual and telecommunications systems. Mr. Wilke can be reached at HWilke@SMWinc.com. He is interviewed here on the subject of
Audiovisual - From Where He's Been to Where We're GoingDa-Lite: Given that you had no precursors in the audiovisual community, how did you come to found your consulting firm?
Wilke: Initially I was involved in broadcasting. I wanted to be a sports writer and was a sports editor on my high school paper. I was never much of a student and never went to college. But I had an orchestra in high school (Sid Caesar played saxophone) which got sponsored on the radio by Standard Vacuum (later to become Mobil Oil). That exposure to radio got me away from my interest in sportswriting to an interest in sports casting.
Then I won a contest picking football winners which paid me $100 (a fortune in those days) and which got me interviewed on WOR coast-to-coast by Stan Lomax, who was broadcasting games for the Giants. In that interview I ended up asking him more questions than he asked me and he subsequently invited me to sit in during his broadcasts, which I did, and that led to a job as a radio announcer.
Da-Lite: An auspicious beginning, to be sure; but weren't you still a long ways off from AV consulting?
Wilke: Well, the next sequence after broadcasting was about six years in the ad agency business where I was a radio and TV director. But the real lead-in to AV was when I left the advertizing industry and went with TelePrompTer.
Now, you may think that TelePrompTer just made prompting devices, but in the mid 50's Irving B. Kahn (then head of that company) moved strongly into what he called "Group Communication." And, as part of that vision, TelePrompTer designed and built what as far as I know was the first remotely controlled, multi-image, rear projection system in the world.
Da-Lite: Who was the client?
Wilke: The U.S. Government for the Army’s facility in Huntsville, Alabama and it was in reaction to the Russians’ successful launching of the Sputnik satellite.
TelePrompTer sold the system to the military who recognized that they needed a device to make persuasive presentations to visiting Congressmen so that they could get our missile effort off the ground.
Da-Lite: What was the system made up of?
Wilke: It had five images: one large, 3¼ by 4 slide or film image in the center flanked by two, smaller, over-and-under pairs of slides at each side. There was a tremendous amount of information to be conveyed but, (remember, this was a long time ago) there was no random access device available.
So my good friend and colleague, Ray Wadsworth, designed and built one for TelePrompTer which could search and select among five hundred slides. As I remember, it cost about $7,500 and was five drums high.
Da-Lite: Was Huntsville the only system of this type that you installed?
Wilke: No. We next did a room in the Pentagon which was an Air Force Command-and-Control center and it was never to be used unless we were attacked. It was several flights below ground and had all the slide and film technology that Huntsville used plus one of the earlier projection TVs with a direct line to the Sutland weather base in Maryland. Fortunately the room was never used.
Two subsequent rooms in Washington we did and which were used belonged to the General of the Army and to the Admiral of the Navy.
The challenge then became to take this technology developed for the military and see how it would fit in and be helpful to education and industry. As I remember, American Airlines was the first corporate customer and the University of Wisconsin was the site of the first classroom application. Believe it or not, the two departments first to embrace the system as an integral part of their teaching were English and Russian History!
Da-Lite: Ultimately, however, you left TelePrompTer. How did that happen?
Wilke: By the mid-1960's, TelePrompTer had made a significant commitment to producing closed-circuit TV events which resulted in the divestiture of the department for which I had been working. And at the first takeover meeting with the new owners I understood immediately that they were not interested in developing AV systems, they only wanted to sell pieces of equipment.
It was during the ride home from that meeting that I first had the germ of the idea to start an independent consulting function. So in 1965, in a one-room office facing an air shaft in New York City I began the Wilke Organization.
Da-Lite: Were you the only employee?
Wilke: Yes. My first client was the J. Walter Thompson ad agency and I think my fee was all of $250. My fourth client, however, was Lyndon Baines Johnson, the President of the United States.
Da-Lite: And how did that transpire?
Wilke: I got a call late one Friday afternoon from someone I had met in Washington when we’d been putting in the TelePrompTer systems. The President, I was told, has decided that he wishes to address the full 89th Congress and to thank its members for all the legislation that had been passed in service to the Great Society. In addition to the speech the Johnson team wanted to dramatize all these new acts with visuals. Would I come down to help?
So I went down for what was supposed to be just a Saturday morning meeting and didn’t get home for two weeks. It was the most exhilarating, exciting, and frustrating time I ever spent.
Da-Lite: Was that the job which really put you on the map?
Wilke: Well, it certainly helped. Thereafter, I hired Ray Wadsworth and we went from there. Domestically, we did work for virtually every major ad agency . Exxon was our first Fortune 500 client and IBM was our entré into the international market. Our first project for them was a training center just outside of Brussels and this caused us to open an office in that city and other foreign offices followed.
I guess our biggest project was the Sears Tower. Because it was to be programmed back then (in 1970) for the year 2000, we fought for two things. The first was that a separate communications shaft be installed, a quarter mile high and throughout the entire building, dedicated exclusively to computer, electronic and television cables. The second battle was for a higher ceiling on one floor where we were going to have the TV studio, the recording studio, and a major meeting room.
Da-Lite: And did you win?
Wilke: Yes. We had a newsletter in those days and I was tempted to publish the headline Sears Gives Wilke the Shaft” but resisted. As for the higher ceiling, you can look today at the 27th floor and see for yourself.
Da-Lite: What sort of AV system were you able to design in those days?
Wilke: It was dual or three images. It was for boardrooms, for major, major conference rooms, and management information rooms which were always rear projected and auditoriums which were, by in large, front projected.
So we’d consider room dimensions and environment, support facilities, seating configurations, and sightlines, etc. Then we’d design for slides, 16mm film and TV, and, even when we specified a rear projection screen, we always called for a front screen as well.
Wilke: Because we had to make provision for the overhead projector. Remember, our clients were people who depended on the flip chart and the overhead. Many of them had never even used slides. I used to fight to get major corporations to install at least the capability of two images in their boardrooms. That was back then,” of course.
Da-Lite: Nevertheless, it’s obvious that you prevailed and, along the way, the world caught up with you and random access slide projectors and dissolves became widely manufactured and the community began to take real advantage of your core concepts. Did these new technologies make it easier?
Wilke: The challenge is never the technology. The challenge is the people problem - getting clients fully to utilize and understand the technologies we give them. Changing peoples’ habits is much tougher than changing technologies.
Da-Lite: Do you in fact judge presentation technologies to have changed much?
Wilke: Until about two years ago, no. Yes, video replaced 16mm film, but people still use slides and they still use overhead transparencies and they still look at dual image screens. The really big change that has occurred is that AV has gone from being an optical medium (something it’s been since the lantern slide) to an electronic medium. You see, I think that the combination of computers, projection TV and telecommunications is going to skyrocket. It’s going to move much more quickly than the transition from film to video and with a lot less resistance.
Da-Lite: Why less resistance?
Wilke: Because we now have clients that have been acclimated to computers. That’s the key to it. There is a generation now assuming management responsibilities in educational and corporate America which is computer literate.
This is why the past has been difficult. The client was not familiar with the technology we brought him. And he was always caught by the time element, the need to preprogram everything way in advance. That time lag, that turnaround time held back using slides. Whereas the overhead was always accepted not, mind you, because it was wonderful to look at, but because you could change it right up to the very last minute.
Da-Lite: But you think those days are over, right?
Wilke: If they’re not over already, they’re about to be. The clients understand computers. They don’t need to be trained how to use them; they already know. And if the computer is what is creating the software for the presentation, those data can be updated right up to the last second before the board meeting begins.
Da-Lite: Does having a client population considerably more sophisticated about the core technologies change the role of the AV consultant?
Wilke: No, not really. Other than having to be more technically proficient, there is still the need to guide the architect and client, make base building provisions to accommodate the new technology, and design and specify the most appropriate AV/telecom systems for the clients’ intended use.
That is our objective today just as it was in 1965.