The Media Continuum

The following is something of a departure from the main theme of this blog – but please humour me.

The native peoples of Australia have an incredibly sophisticated means of imparting vital information; they sing it.  By following the topography captured in these ‘songlines’ a traveller can navigate his way across a continent.

Verse and song were, for millennia, the primary media for recording history, belief and thought.  Cultures, like Imperial Rome, that used the written word were able to obliterate almost all trace of the oral cultures they conquered, like such as the Celts.  Others, including the Jews, maintained their identity in the face of conquest and dispersal through their sacred and secular writings.

The next revolution to follow the development of writing was that brought about by printing, invented by Johannes Gutenberg, circa 1440.  That played its part in sparking the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment.

From the late 19th Century innovation gathered pace with the arrival of the telegraph, photography, electric lighting, audio recording, the telephone, film, radio and television.

Now innovation in media has reached such a pace that when pundits refer to the internet as a new medium they provoke amusement.  It’s now twenty years old, an age in current terms given that new forms appear almost every month.

Indeed it’s reached a point where it’s almost redundant to talk about different media as separate phenomena, for while islands of pure TV, book publishing, music etc. still exist every point in between has been filled, or is in the process of being filled.

Indeed what we have now is a media continuum and if I might I will humbly offer my impressions of how it might develop.

Just as some things inevitably change other things stay the same.  At the heart of almost all traditional media and forms of entertainment is that most ancient of skills; storytelling.  It doesn’t matter whether the storyteller is an elder holding his village in rapt attention around a midnight fire, a Homer, a Shakespeare or a Spielberg.  A great story, told with unwavering commitment will win an audience of any age and in any age.

The changes that are already underway are, as ever, in the way that the content is delivered – both in terms of form and platform.

Content delivery is ultimately all the user experience.  I break down that user experience into three elements; immersion, interactivity and navigation.  The way I have arrived at these elements are slightly arbitrary and others may want to use different terms or even bring different aspects of the user experience into the mix, however let us not tarry.

Looking back in time one can see immersion developing in areas like theatre.  The audience and the actors were cheek by jowl in Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre.  The audience was drawn into and became immersed in what was happening on stage.  It engaged not just their eyes and ears, but jostled amidst a crowd addressed by Anthony or Henry V, their sense of touch, smell and even taste so that they could truly imagine they were in Rome’s Forum or at the walls of Harfleur.   And, in as much as the audience doubtless ‘joined in’, so in a primitive way it was interactive too.

Cinema took immersion to a mass audience but surrendered interactivity, offering a largely passive experience (screenings of the Rocky Horror Show notwithstanding).  Newspapers offered navigation, laying out their stories in a manner that made it easy for readers to find news from abroad or about business or the latest from the world of entertainment.  Newspapers also offered interactivity, to a very limited degree, though their letters pages.

Television offered limited immersion (small screens being less immersive than large ones) and then through the channel changer a measure of navigation.  More recently it has experimented with primitive interactivity through buttons on remote controls that allow viewers to vote or pick answers in quiz shows and improved navigation through video on demand.

But the advent of video games and the internet have opened up new realms of possibility for traditional media to enhance their interactivity, immersion and navigation.

The movie industry, with its vast budgets, was amongst the first to realise the power of computer graphics and quick to spot that it was possible not just to turn films into games but games into films (albeit with patchy success to date).  Now, in some cases, the video game release stemming from a film out-grosses the movie.   So as the relationship between the two grows films and games are increasingly commissioned together as part of the same entertainment venture.

Even five years ago television was a separate medium.  Yes it intersected with film, theatre and news, though film was never quite the same on TV as at the cinema.  But now with the arrival of huge flat screen TVs and surround sound systems the line between the cinema and the watch-at-home experience is being blurred just as is the line between video, netvision and TV as a result of on-demand programming.  At the same time TV news is drawing on the resources of Google and Microsoft Earth, newspapers are bringing readers the latest via the web and are making widespread use of audio and video.  Bear in mind that just twenty years ago journalists were working with typewriters and carbon paper with metal spikes on their desks.  It seems a world away now but it’s barely a generation.

Already TV shows like Gossip Girl have forged a new trail in cross-media programming for the generation born after Windows, teens who can barely remember a world without Google.  GG was broadcast over the net before it hit TV, and fused drama with the blogsphere, deluging fans with endless chatter about characters and cast and merged real and fictional life almost seamlessly.

Search and mapping are converging with mobile phone technology as computers become a truly personal item, a process that is surly only going to accelerate with the approaching advent of flexible screens and holographic displays.

Say social networking and you’ll probably answer Facebook, perhaps MySpace, Bebo or even Orkut.  Well let’s try another answer; World of Warcraft.  WoW may be pigeon holed as the mother of all MMORPGs but on a very important level it is a 3D world supporting a massive web of social networks.  WoW wouldn’t work if players couldn’t form relationships and players wouldn’t be so drawn into the WoW universe if it wasn’t for the social element of the game.

Then there’s the new free to use 3D portal to London NearLondon, a project in which I am involved.  The graphics are amazing, as is the fidelity with which central London is reproduced.  However the truly compelling aspect of the application is likely to be the fact that you can use it with your Facebook friends, adding a human dimension to the technology.

So that’s where we are now, in a world where entertainment, media, research tools and social organisation are still distinct and retain much of their historic legacy, but where the boundaries between them are weakening as they start to bleed into one another.

But spin that forward five or ten years and we’ll in all likelihood be somewhere else entirely; the Media Continuum.

Expect movies to be filmed in virtual worlds that are then thrown open to the public.

Expect television dramas to happen live on the web in ways that allow viewers to be part of the story.  Fans will be able to track the real world movements of their favourite characters/actors (acting may thus become a 24/7 blurring of reality and fiction) or perhaps their decoys leading to flash-mobbing on a grand scale.

Expect social networking to be integrated into 3D at a far deeper level – 3D dating, webcams fusing with avatars for both business and pleasure, mapping and search to merge with virtual worlds and of course retail.

In this context games, as we know them, are losing their shape.  A vast swathe of media will instead be drawn into the sphere crated by the games industry.  CNN’s (rather pointless) use of holographic realisations of their reporters on the nigh of the US Presidential election will only be the beginning as networks borrow assets from virtual worlds and games companies and send virtual reporters careering through digital environments through concern about safety, cost, speed or plain, damned laziness.

Search and research will go 3D.  One only has to look at NearLondon™ (as mentioned above), the virtual world recreation of London to understand one sort of emerging 3D environment.  An almost perfect mirror of the real thing, produced by laser scanning the city and modelling from the data,  you’ll eventually be able to explore London or any other similar city, and find it just as it is on the ground.  You can already window browse visit virtual shops, but soon you’ll be able to watch movie trailers in virtual cinemas, go to live virtual concerts where performers are filmed from a dozen or more different angles with the data streamed into the 3D environment.  You can socialise and enjoy the city with friends and soon you’ll be linked to you via audio or video.  You’ll be able to take virtual bus and train rides, before you make the real journey.  You’ll be able to go around clicking the blue plaques that mark historic sites to find more background.

Or perhaps look at Earthsim™ – a 4D solar system browser where you can explore through time and space, where dragging Earth’s timeline back hundreds of millions of years opens a door to a 3D world of dinosaurs, or perhaps go back just 2000 years for a virtual world like RedBedlam’s Roma Victor™ set in Roman Britain (what did the Romans ever do for us eh?), back one hundred and fifty for a 3D documentary about Charles Dickens or the American Civil War, to the present for a news channel or the future for a science show.

Which leads me to a further key point – as browsers go 3D content won’t come from a single source but from multiple, hundreds, thousands of sources.  Browsers like Earthsim and Near™ will become 3D channel platforms, portals to 3D content where users can flick between channels just as they do between channels of their TV.  All this will be made possible by a 3D standard just as the web relies on HTML and flash to interlink the totality of its content and without which it wouldn’t be a web at all.

As my colleague Servan Keondjian has argued the real battle that the games industry has the edge in will be to define the user experience.  The games and web industries are driving the development of the technologies that will through better navigation, more complete immersion and multilayered interactivity, shape the way users access the content of the future.

This will be about the control device.  It will also be about interface.

The games industry has the potential to be the gatekeeper of this new age.  It won’t think of itself as being purely in the business of games development any more but as media innovators.

But there is a wider question over what form the media continuum will take on a corporate, and thus decision making level.  Will games companies swallow traditional media or vice versa?  Will partnerships work better than takeovers?

We’ve seen some difficult marriages before.  One only need to look at News International’s take over of My Space to see what can happen when a traditional media company moves into an area it yet doesn’t fully understand, both socially and technologically.

It’s easy for tech people to say that they understand how the toys work better than traditional media people.  But the key skill that the games industry is still developing is the one that other media have long mastered; content.

Content is king and content comes back to storytelling.  Hitherto games have been driven less by storytelling than by technology.  The tech is amazing but it remains the delivery system.

In the new world of the media continuum there will no doubt be a battle for control.  I would argue that the companies that will succeed best are those that master technology but realise that the technology is to a great extent about delivery.  The real skill will be to use it to give new impetus to some of our most ancient arts.

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4 Responses to “The Media Continuum”

  1. Do I take it that the above is in some sense a continuation of comments on ‘Who governs best’ etc in August

    If as I had hoped this is a forum for discussion it would seem that names of contributors would facilitate this? Unless perhaps the blog is intended as a vehicle for a series of anonymouos lecrures

    Michael Stevens

  2. A further responce

    Do I take this article to be a sort of guide for future media operators or an indication of how society will absorb and act on information provided in this manner?

    Michael Stevens

  3. headstrongclub Says:

    Michael,

    this article is more of a stand alone piece. I wrote it earlier this year when my old friend and colleague Servan Keondjian and I coined the phrase ‘the media continuum’ to describe the evolving media scene and the breaking down of barriers between individual media.

    Servan and I had intended to collaborate on an article but ended up writing separate pieces. His was very much focused on what technological innovation lead by the games industry means for the way we access media. That article can be found here: http://www.gamesindustry.biz/articles/the-media-continuum . Servan comes from a deep tech background. He and his partner Doug Rabson wrote the software that became Direct3D – Microsoft’s 3D standard.

    I come at the issue from a journalistic and media background, so we have different takes on the subject, but in many ways they are complementary.

    It’s not really a continuation of ‘He governs best’ but given that the media, or sections of it, have a key role in providing an additional check and balance on power then it’s not entirely unrelated.

    As for my identity I had filled in a profile section with a few words about myself, but perhaps this isn’t generally visible, so I’ve updated the ‘Headstrong Club’ page so that no one thinks I’m lurking in the shadows.

    best wishes

    Jonathan

    • Jonathan.

      Thanks for the explanation of your Blog.

      I made tthe mistake of thiking it was the organ of the Headstrong Club which meets for discussion at the Royal Oak..

      No damage done Michael

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