Imagining Television’s Futures: An Interview with Intel’s Brian David Johnson (Part One)

Shortly after I arrived at USC, Brian David Johnson from Intel came to the office to interview me for a book he was developing on the future of screens and entertainment. I was giddy from having taught the first session of my Transmedia Entertainment class, and we had a great exchange about the relations between consumers and technology and how it might impact our future relations to television and other entertainment media.

The interview was included in Johnson’s book, Screen Future: The Future of Entertainment Computing and the Devices We Love, which was released last year. Johnson’s book combines interviews with key thinkers about media’s future from both academia and industry with his own reflections on recent technological developments being developed at labs and what their long term implications may be.

After years of teaching at MIT, I am often skeptical of work on media which starts from a technologist’s perspective since they rarely factor in the social and cultural dimensions of media. Johnson is a notable exception — a deep thinker who groks the interface between technology and culture, who may work for industry but also understands the consumer perspective on why we love television and what we want to get out of watching our favorite series. So, I recommend his book to anyone who wants to expand their thinking and learn about the visions of screen futures which are driving technological development at Intel and a range of other companies.

Johnson was nice enough to sign on to let me reverse the microphone, so to speak, and do an interview for this blog. Over the next few installments, Johnson will share some of his current thinking. Here, he talks about television in relation to such trends as ubiquitous computing and social media, and shares some of the factors which drove him to produce this book.

Here’s Johnson’s official bio which should give you a clearer sense of where he is coming from:

The future is Brian David Johnson’s business. As a futurist at Intel Corporation, his charter is to develop an actionable vision for computing in 2020. His work is called “future casting”–using ethnographic field studies, technology research, trend data, and even science fiction to provide Intel with a pragmatic vision of consumers and computing. Along with reinventing TV, Johnson has been pioneering development in artificial intelligence, robotics, and using science fiction as a design tool. He speaks and writes extensively about future technologies in articles and scientific papers as well as science fiction short stories and novels (Science Fiction Prototyping: Designing the Future with Science Fiction, Screen Future: The Future of Entertainment Computing and the Devices we Love, Fake Plastic Love, and Nebulous Mechanisms: The Dr. Simon Egerton Stories). He has directed two feature films and is an illustrator and commissioned painter.

You begin the book with Isaac Asimov’s warning that predicting the future is a “hopeless, thankless task.” Given this, what do you hope to accomplish with this book?

I love that quote! I have tremendous respect for Asimov not only as a science fiction writer and a thinker but also as a person who brought science and conversations about science into the mainstream. When I was writing Screen Future I actually had two books always within reach. The first was Richard Feynman’s The Character of Physical Law – his collection of lectures and the second was a collection of Asimov essays The Planet that Wasn’t. Asimov was such a good writer, easy to understand and quite funny – that people had no problem reading about the intricacies of planetary motion or the theoretical planet of Vulcan. Both Feynman and Asimov were passionate communicators and conversationalists. Feynman was known as the great explainer, while Asimov was the great popularize of science.

Getting people to have conversations about science is certainly important. But I think getting people to have conversations about the future is even more critical. The future is not a fixed point in time that we are all hurdling towards. The future is not set. The future is made every day by the actions of people. The of the most significant ways that we can all affect the future is to have conversations about it. We need to ask ourselves: What kind of future do we want to live in? What kind of future do we NOT want to live in? Having these conversations, when they are based on sound science can have a real affect on where we are going. Science fiction can do this – I believe science fiction gives us the language so that we can have this conversation about the future. But nonfiction can do the same thing. Both Feynman and Asimov knew this. The ultimate goal of Screen Future and the future casting work I do is to have conversations about the future.

Ultimately what I want to accomplish with the book is twofold:

First we are in an incredibly interesting time when it comes to technology and storytelling. For quite a while now we’re been talking about telling stories, meaningful stories across multiple mediums, platforms and technologies. I don’t have to tell you this Henry – you’ve done some of the best writing in this area. But I think something changed in 2010 and I really recognized it when I was walking around the floor of the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas in 2011. Wondering the floor of that massive show, looking at all these different connected devices and screens it became really obvious to me that we had passed a kind of technological tipping point. What I mean by that is that for years most of the reasons why we’ve not really been able to take this screen future mainstream or distributed widely was because of technological limitations – the processors were to slow, there wasn’t descent broadband connections, heck there really wasn’t a robust Internet – things like that. But ultimately that’s all changed.

We’ve really reached that tipping point where we have the processing power, battery life, storage, connectivity and human interfaces (small form factors, touch screens, etc) to be able to delivery people the entertainment and communication experience they want. And businesses have the ability to bring out not just one device – it’s not just Apple or Sony or Samsung – it’s a entire robust and sometimes zany collection of device manufactures that are bringing all kind of wonderful devices and screens and form factors to market. It’s not a technological problem anymore getting across these experiences.

I think where we are now is smack in the middle of a new set of challenges which are very different in nature but just as important. Right now I think we are seeing the gathering of a business tipping point and an experience tipping point. Now forgive me for overusing the tipping point metaphor here but I think it applies. Right now we’re watching some really interesting developments around the business of entertainment and computing. People a really beginning to explore what it means for their businesses to deliver these experiences. It has repercussions all over the world, in union negotiations, government regulations, mergers, long term strategic plans…anything that is touched by entertainment and computing industries. And what’ most exciting is that we a right in the middle of it – it’s happening right now.

I wanted to explore this in Screen Future. There’s a lot of culture, history, technology and economics in the book to give us some background on this – but when the book gets really good is when we start having discussions about where things might go, how businesses might change and what are the underlying factors to this change. Since the book has been out and I’ve been on the book tour I’ve had some really interesting and well informed discussions and sometimes arguments about the business of storytelling and the business of delivery those stories to people using technology.

The second goal for writing Screen Future is a little more broad. As you know I travel around the world talking to people about the future and I’m always struck with how passionate, interested and engaged people are when they talk about their visions for the future. I wanted the book to be a place to gather together a wide range of research and opinions and offer up a vision for where we might be going. My process of future casting really isn’t about prediction at all. Asimov was right THAT is a thankless task. Future casting is a little more pragmatic – I use things like social and computer science, global trends and conversations with experts and visionaries to construct a grounded vision for where we are headed. Then we use this vision to talk about what’s good and bad about that vision – like I said before. But ultimately we’re using this future casting to develop visions that we can build. In the book I wanted to capture the future casting process with all of its disparate inputs and show what a vision for 2015 might look like. Then use it as a way to have conversations with people about the future that they wanted and the future they were worried about

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You describe yourself as a “Consumer Experience Architect.” What does this entail? What kinds of expertise and insight shape your models of the consumer experience? What factors are shifting the consumer experience of television? Are the changes being driven by shifts in technology, in business practice, or in social and cultural expectations?

I’m going to give the answer that I give to my engineering colleagues. But I have to warn you that they hate this answer. So I kind of like giving it to them. The answer to your question is….yes. The answer is yes. All of the above. The changes in consumers experience with TV are due to all of the factors you mentioned. Let’s look at each one and see if we don’t uncover some more.

Let’s start with “shifts in technology”. Because I work in an engineering company this is the easiest to tackle. I’ve watched the evolution of TV technology first hand for more than twenty years now. In the early 1990s I worked on interactive TV deployments in Europe and Scandinavia. Now to give you an idea of the types of things I worked on I should tell you about one of our most successful projects. It was a huge success and we thought it really showed the way forward for “interactive TV”. But thinking about it today in 2011 the sad truth is that it really illustrates the technical limitations of TV before recent improvements.

The project was done for British Airways. They were looking to sell vacation packages to Spain at the time. A big problem for them was lead generation, actually finding the right people who would be interested in the vacation package. Now the vacations they were selling weren’t super expensive but they also weren’t budget vacations either. They were right in the middle. So what BA wanted to do was use an interactive TV application to find the right people to market to.

To do this they produced a really slick commercial. I think it was about 5 minutes long. At the end of the advertisement the viewer was prompted to press a button on their remote control to request a glossy brochure for more information.

We launched the test in Cardiff Whales and it was a huge success as a pilot. We thought we were geniuses. The back end was pretty complicated. To actually make the thing work you had to send the request via the back channel on the set top box. It then had to interface with the head end, pull the subscribers address and information then send that information to the fulfillment center so that they could mail out the glossy brochure of beautiful beaches and smiling people. For BA it was great because they were gathering prequalified leads for their vacation packages, only sending the costly brochure to people who were interested. For many this type of lead generation is the holy grail of advertising. You actually get your potential customers to ask you for advertising materials.

Like I said it was a success and we thought we were geniuses ushering in the future of interactivity on TV. How pathetic is that? Press a button and get a brochure…that was the staggering brilliance of interactive design. A button that sends you a piece of paper mail!

Now I’m not trying to trivialize how difficult it was to pull off this project. It was actually kind of hard but I think it really illustrates the technical and infrastructure limitations of TV systems in the past.

Flash forward 20 years and look how far we have come technically. We all know the Internet really changed everything from a media and storytelling standpoint. But behind the scenes and inside the TV a lot of little and large changes have really turned the TV itself into a computational device. Two decades ago the TV technically look pretty close to the old RCA sets that used to bring I Love Lucy into American living rooms. Today TVs look more like computers and smart phones.

I guess that’s really the big shift and one of the main points of my book. Today technically speaking TVs and PCs and smart phones and any connected device is just that; a screen that can connect to the Internet and give people the entertainment and communications they want. It’s just a screen not a specific device. When you look at it this way the conversation is less about the TV or PC or whatever and more about the form factor, the size of the screen and they way it fits into your life; the way all the different screens you own fit into your life

That’s a huge shift! I’m a TV guy and recasting the TV and entertainment experience like this is worlds away from where we were 20 years ago. Much of this shift has been started and brought about by the technological advances to both TVs and PCs; which really I just think about as computational devices across the board.

This isn’t a completely linear story by any means but for the moment let’s pretend it is. So, after all they technological advances, the introduction and popularization of the Internet, the reduction in the cost of computational power to consumers and the expansion of meaningful broadband networks then it really got interesting. Well let me restate that…what got interesting is what people did with all of these changes. (Here’s a tiny aside: I wrote all of my notes for our conversation on my smart phone as I flew from London or LA or Mumbai – even how we compose and were has evolved!)

Few people have chronicled and explored these cultural shifts more fully than you Henry – so I’m not going to bore you with my poor summary of your work of which I am a huge fan. But let’s just say people got involved in their entrainment. They got involved in making it, finding it, talking about it and did it on their schedule and to better fit their preferences not the preferences of the companies and corporation that were producing, distributing and advertising with this content

Now the entertainment industry isn’t stupid. We often forget that these large companies are made up of many passionate intelligent people who mainly want to make the best stories possible on whatever medium they choose.

So around 2007 the media and technology industry really began to change and intermingle. A lot of writers cite the 2007 consumer electronics show (CES) in Las Vegas as the turning point where all industries realized the fact that the future of TV and the future of entertainment was digital or a mix of traditional delivery mingled with the Internet. This was massive realization for these large global companies.

This really brought about and is continuing to bring about the business practice changes you asked about. And it’s really these changes that we are witnessing and will continue to watch for the next few years. This is something I really came upon while working on my book. From a technological stand point we are there. When it comes to having technical capabilities to deliver the entertainment experience the majority of people want we have the engineering done. We might even be a little ahead. This of course will change but for today most of the technical hurdles have been solved.

We are now witnessing the business changes as they adapt to these technological advancements as they mix with expanded consumer expectations and habits. I find this fascinating! All you need to do is pick up The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Variety and even Entertainment Weekly and underneath many of the articles you will see the influences of these changes.

And the changes will come. They have to come. People want them. Now I’m not saying TV is going away or even that big budget entertainment is going away. That’s not going to happen either. The main reason for that is that people love it. People don’t want it to go away. They will still pay for it. But their habits and expectation for where they get it, how they get it and how they can participate with it are changing. The entertainment industry will adapt to this just as it has done the past. As I see it this is an exciting time full with a lot of juicy stories and incredible opportunity.

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