Thursday, June 3, 2010

Talking with the founder of Digibles (CyberAction/CyberCards)

The first time I saw the "CyberAction Presents: The Year the Records Fell" computer CD in a discount bin somewhere between 1999 and 2000, I became an instant fan.  I installed the software and sat mesmerized by these "digital trading cards" displayed on my computer screen.  And, I could interact with them!  I could virtually flip the card, watch video highlights, check out stats and information that wouldn't otherwise fit on a traditional card, and combine my two favorite hobbies: card-collecting and computers.  I was in heaven!  And then, my computer met dial-up.  And then, the U.S. met Al Qaeda on 9/11.  Before I could grab every single card ever made in this great, new format, they were gone.

Fast forward to 2009.  While cleaning out my computer room at the house, I came across that same CD.  I loaded it up and found it was not quite usable in today's operating environment.  I poked around enough and found a way to at least get the images out of the program, but that lacked the interactivity that made CyberAction cards so cool to begin with.  I began a quest to find someone, anyone, connected with the company to see if I could bend their ear for a bit.  While various obstacles threw themselves into my path, I managed to contact one of the original creators of this wondrous collectible concept.

The other day, I had the opportunity to speak with Deborah Seidman, one of the founding members of CyberCards (later CyberAction and finally Digibles). The conversation wound its way down memory lane for both of us (her as a company executive and me as an avid fan of the concept). 

For those who aren't familiar with the Digibles (or CyberAction/CyberCards) brand, I wrote an article about my experience and what I could discover through various search engines and other sources. That article appears (HERE) on "Things Done to Cards."  Essentially, the idea was to take collecting into the digital age - fully-electronic collectibles presented in an easy-to-use interface.  Deborah and I agreed on one thing at the outset: "They were way before their time," as she put it.

How did it all begin?  She told me that a friend of hers came to her with an idea about digital collectibles. They talked for a bit and soon she was building the backend.  The original concept began in 1995-96 and in 1997, they had developed the CyberCards program. 

"Originally, we started with Marvel and cartoons. We had Xena and Star Trek. then we moved into soccer, wrestling and baseball," she said.  "We had several tie-ins - Clairol and Skippy," she added.  I had not realized they started with the Sci-Fi collector and then branched out into sports.  I had seen reference to the Skippy collectibles on web sites of the time - Derek Jeter, if I remember correctly. (For the record, I did a quick search for "Skippy CyberAction" and sure enough, my memory was spot-on!)  "We were the first to come out the card-sized discs. And then, everyone was making them. But, we were the first," she told me.

I asked her about the name changes with the company.  She said they changed their name to reflect brand positioning, but also to separate themselves from online credit card processing sites, which were using the same terminology: Cyber Cards.  There was a push to make the company more marketable and to come up with a name that reflected what they were and what they did.  I got the impression from her response that "Digibles" was not her favorite choice.

Before I asked the following question, I had a pretty strong feeling that I knew the answer from my own experiences with the MLB, MLBPA, etc.  I asked anyway:  "What was the most difficult part of working with Digibles?" 

Her answer: "Licensing."  She stopped for a moment and we talked a little bit about that aspect and she added, "It is difficult and expensive.  Legally it's very hard to deal with. We also spent a lot of time and money trying to reach the retail market with the product. If we could do it over again, I think we would have avoided that."  Another problem? "Time was an issue - we had to get approvals and create materials."

So what worked?

She told me, "Tie-ins were a good business model. I think we would have done better if we had stuck to those." CyberAction had run a promotion with Clairol and the boy-band "98 Degrees."  In addition to Skippy, they also had a "Big-League Challenge" tie-in with ChexMix and a "6th Day" tie-in with General Motors.  She also said, "We spent loads on retail."  I had the distinct feeling that retail was not a direction she had wanted to go, or at least the fruition of the retail endeavor was not the manifestation she had envisioned.
I asked her what she thought led to the the fall of Digibles:

"Everything changed around 9/11. Our buy-ins were opting out. We had the global bursting of the dot-com bubble." She said, "We were in talks with a couple of companies - one was a marketing group and the other was a collectible company."  Other factors played in as well.  She sounded as if she were rolling her eyes as she said, "Just as we were about to release our wrestling product, WCW sold and changed everything."  They had product ready to go, but with the time involved in changing everything, this must have been heart-breaking.  Reminding me of those television commercials where the store owner wishes she could stop dealing with the books and get back to her passion for opening a store in the first place, Deborah's voice trailed off into distant memories as she said, "Sometimes, the people responsible for finances were making decisions that changed the focus," she paused as if to find the right words or as if remembering past events, and added, "Then we'd be going in a different direction."

We had a brief discussion about the technical problems with the interface today: I ran into this myself, as explained in the TDTC article. On the Mac side, when Apple shifted to Intel chips and changed the software, it broke the ability to run the Digibles Viewer.  I think the issue is mainly one of how Flash, Shockwave and Quicktime all behave these days.  That is not an expert analysis by any stretch, just my opinion from my experience with the software on a late-model PC.
We talked a bit more about collecting in general (she is not a sports collector, leaning toward the sci-fi side of collecting).  I thanked Deborah for her time.  When we had begun our conversation, she said, "You know, this was more than ten years ago!"  Stop and think about that. TEN YEARS AGO, a company existed that was already creating, distributing and marketing fully digital collectible trading cards.  Despite the "3D cards" Topps came out with and the "digibles" they have available on Facebook, and despite the UD PowerDeck cards that came out around the time Digibles was shutting down, nothing has ever been made quite like the CyberAction/Digibles collectible.

As we wrapped things up, she said, "Digital collectibles represent a unique point in collecting history. You should write a Wikipedia article about it."

After a quick, very empty search, I decided I just might do that.

Tidbits and other related information:

In January, 2010, Topps released "Wacky digibles" virtual trading cards on Facebook.  (News release)

As for the Star Trek cards, I found a site with a very detailed explanation of them: HERE!

The Hercules and Xena CD can be found at Amazon: HERE! (Note: This will probably require a Windows98-based machine or older Mac to interact with the cards).

Deborah and her husband currently own a web-based driver education program called "WelcomeDriver" that is sold to and customized for various states around the country:

You can find samples of Digibles cards on the AmethystVisions Web site portfolio.  AmethystVisions worked with Digibles (then CyberAction) for four years: Portfolio/Samples