Stories with substance

'Edutainment' (noun): the fusion of technology with content.

oceanarium 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
oceanarium 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Ori Yardeni's creative think tank in the Ramat Hahayal section of Tel Aviv looks like a place where imaginative storytelling meets cutting-edge technology. The deep blue walls of his office are lined with 3-D green holograms and frames with blinking red lights. Lively cartoons and animated figures decorate the glass shelves in one corner, and a projector on the ceiling shows video clips from his latest creations. "Imagination is more important than knowledge," reads a quote from Albert Einstein, and this principle, according to Yardeni, is what makes his work innovative. "Most attractions today suffer from a tendency to implement technology, like rotating seats and 3-D films, without paying any attention to the content." To further illustrate the point, he refers to a joke in the industry that EPCOT no longer stands for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. Rather, these days it's more like Every Person Comes Out Tired. "These attractions shake and move you, but their content is rubbish, so your brain is not involved," he says. The son of two educators, Yardeni's mother pushed him to study literature, while his father insisted that he learn a vocation. The combination of literature and electronics that he chose gave him the foundation he needed to create his companies, which combine creativity, technology and business. "I have a PhD in the university of life," he says with a wide smile, "but I never got a university degree." He met his wife, Irit, at Army Radio and Yardeni says their wedding in 1975 was the start of his career. At the ceremony, he put together a slide show that was narrated and had an engaging soundtrack. People loved it so much that he decided to start doing it for companies. Eventually, it led to his career producing short films and commercials, and later, large-scale interactive movies and conceptual attractions. In the StOriteller studio, intentionally misspelled to include his first name, content is king. By telling stories in the most effective way possible, Yardeni believes that people are more likely to understand the underlying principles behind a vast array of educational fields - from natural science and human culture to road safety and anti-drug campaigns. If the information is presented in a fun, engaging way, it's more likely to sink in. For this fusion of the latest technological advances with exciting content, he coined the term "edutainment." "My work is my hobby," he says, settling into one of the plush leather chairs adjacent to his desk. "And I can say without hesitation that we are the leaders in creating multisensory experiences worldwide today." Indeed, his resume is impressive. He's taken home the THEA Award for the movie-ride experience in Epcot Center, Producer of the Year Award (ICIA), the Golden Camera Award at the Chicago film festival for his "Amazing World" attraction, the WTM Award for the best themed attraction in London's World Tourist Market Exhibition, Infocom's 2005 ARCHI-TECH award for his innovative integration of AV technology in architectural designs and a host of others. The three companies he owns - the Orpan Group, Orpan Ltd. and the Cinema-Park Network - have tens of millions of dollars invested in at least 20 locations around the globe. But what eventually developed into multimillion dollar global ventures started here and remains a family-run business that Yardeni manages with his wife and 27-year-old daughter, Noa. Despite the tragic loss of his son Lior, who died last year at 29 after being hospitalized with a mysterious illness, the business continues to flourish. A candle-light vigil illuminates pictures of Lior, whom Yardeni credits with the inspiration for his first large project. On a trip to the Eretz Israel Museum's planetarium when Lior was 11, Yardeni noticed that the dark room, air conditioning and comfortable seats put his son to sleep. But he wasn't the only one. Many others were sleeping too. After the show, Yardeni approached director Rehavam "Gandhi" Ze'evi (the right-wing politician who was later assassinated) and told him that the kids were falling asleep. When Ze'evi asked Yardeni what he thought they should do about it, he replied that they should take out the seats, build a rotating stage that goes up and down, and project a movie that creates the feeling of interplanetary travel. With an investment of about $2 million, Yardeni took the best material from NASA and National Geographic and completed his ambitious project in the early '90s. Since then, he's built another planetarium in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and created dozens of other innovative projects in other countries, including the oceanariums in Eilat, Baltimore and Malaysia, time elevators in Jerusalem, Disney World and across from the Taj Mahal. In a recent venture that started four years ago at Cinema City (with similar projects now being installed in the US, Greece, Poland, Sweden, Mexico, India and South Korea), Yardeni decided to take advantage of empty movie theaters in the morning hours to promote exciting, educational films that engage audiences and measure success through audience feedback using wireless remotes. "Last year, CNN ran a piece about my innovation, and it focused on the fact that I was the first to use smell in a cinema, but this displeased me because this is not my real innovation," says Yardeni. "My innovation is not about using 3-D or moving your chair or spraying you with water, it's about changing your mind and teaching you something about the world." He acknowledges that it's an ambitious project to change the world, so to clarify his goals, he tells a story. A writer was once sitting on the beach and every morning a man would arrive to throw back a few of the thousands of starfish which were trapped beyond the tide drying out. After a few days, the writer finally asked the man why he bothered to throw back a few starfish when so many others would die anyway. "What difference are you making?" the writer asked. The man thought for a moment and then replied, "I'm making a difference to the ones I throw back." This, Yardeni says, is how he feels about his projects. If just one person learns something that changes his life, he's satisfied.