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

What aspects of television can not change and have television remain the same medium?

That’s a tough one because TV, like any good system or organism, has survived for so long because it adapts. This is one of the reasons I’m so fascinated by the history of TV. TV as a collection of technical innovations, business models, story structures, cultural indicators and motivators is in a constant state of change. I could give you the long list most of us take for granted: Black and white to color. Sponsored shows to the 30 sec spot. The big three broadcasters to cable and satellite. TiVo! The complex web of broadcasters and affiliates. The birth and refining and reimaging of the half hour sit com. The sit com or more pointedly the American sit com is really strange and deeply interesting…but I’m gushing

When I think about what would not change so that TV remains TV. I could defer to USC’s own Jeffrey Cole from The Center for the Digital Future. He says TV is easy. TV is video. For most people they know TV when they see it and it’s simply video.

Now some might think of this a being a little too broad but I like it because it puts the burden of the recognition of TV on the people who are consuming it. Which fits really. I also love it because it defines TV as an audio visual medium. Which keeps it broad and allows us to include not just broadcast TV or even Internet delivered TV but any video or games or even applications that is intermingled with video.

You argue that a fundamental change occurred when the computer changed television into data. How so? How is this shift experienced by the everyday television consumer?

I should start off by saying that this fundamental shift to TV from digital to data has not happened yet on a broad scale. It’s certainly coming. Some folks I’ve talked to peg 2015 as a possible date from this but I’m thinking now for mass consumption it might be a bit longer. At the moment the average consumer isn’t experiencing the world that I described…yet.

But behind the scenes it’s certainly happening and happening right now. At Intel I’ve seen some really smart work in this area three years ago. I write about it in my book that we have been doing work in the fields of video analytics and computer vision. In a way you can think of it as computers warning TV. How do computers watch TV? What computers what TV what do they see and how do they see it?

In one of our labs in China we did some interesting work with computers watching soccer or football depending upon where you are from. The team created a system that would track the different players, identify them and even track the ball movement. The whole system would go crazy when one of the teams made a goal. It was great.

What was generated from this was a massive amount of data. Essentially TV, the football match, was turned from something that was a digital transmission to data. The tracking of the different objects in the frame and also the links that identified the players created a running data feed. This turned TV from digital to data and once you do that then we can do some really interesting things with. All this data allowed us to search the videos in ways we’d never been able to do before. We could also then pull that data apart and put it back together in some interesting ways. That shift from digital to data was key.

Now the real question is what do we do with that data? That’s the question that I’m not sure we know what to do with yet. It’s similar to the data mining and massive data set questions that are being discussed now. Practical examples might be the Net Flix prize (which I write about in the book). One way to look at this future of TV and entertainment is those who have the best algorithm to search this data wins. Fascinating!

But we aren’t there yet. Although there is some really interesting work going on in universities and companies all over world we haven’t got this technology to the point where we could take it to scale and roll the capability to the general public. But this isn’t really I think what you are asking.

We aren’t there yet. But we will be soon. It’s not a failure of technology at the moment but a failure if imagination. What I mean by this is that I really believe we don’t know what’s possible when TV and entertainment become truly data based. What do we do with that data? How do we organize it? How do we search it? Who owns it? Who owns that data about us using that data?

These are the issues that are just coming up as the algorithms and technology get to the point that they become a viable business option. Once this goes to scale and consumers really begin to see it like you asked I think it’s going to be really interesting.

Some are arguing that television is moving from an appointment-based medium to an engagement-based one. What roles will new technologies play in supporting and sustaining our engagement with television?

Oh this is an easy one. You are throwing me a softball here Henry. Technology, the very technology we have been discussing has brought about the transformation of entertainment from a broadcast model or an appointment based TV experience to a more personated and engaged TV experience. Technology did this. No question. In the early days of the DVR is way ReplayTV and Tivo. Heck even to a very limited extent the VCR.

(Side note: The original goal of the VCR was really trying the bring engagement TV into the lives of consumers. The original slogan for the Sony Betamax was: “You don’t have to miss Kojack because you’re watching Colombo.” But as we all know the VCR is a tale of unintended consequences. Although the VCR was originally designed to allow you to personalize your TV experience it really didn’t do this. Very few people were recording live TV. Where the VCR shined was allowing consumer to bring home movies and turn their living rooms into a movie theater. In fact what was actually time shifting wasn’t TV but the cinema. And it literally changed the underlying financial model of movies and Hollywood forever.

But this wasn’t TV. It took the digitization of the TV signal to turn appointment TV to engagement TV. Little upstart companies like Tivo and ReplayTV slowly but surely changed how we acted and interacted with TV.

Of course it wasn’t just being able to record TV that brought this change. It was also being able to manage the TV shows you liked (aka the season pass in TiVo) and also find new shows and even get recommendations. Although admittedly the initial accuracy of these recommendations was so questionable that it led to a sitcom spoof.

But even this was a perfect indicator that the world of TV had changed. Never before would the big broadcasters assume you were homosexual and change their broadcasting to meet you new preconceived likes and dislikes. That sitcom was a perfect mainstream digital marker that the world of TV had changed forever.

Enter the Internet. Hokey smokes. Think about all the various ways the Internet and it’s accompanying apps and services have literally changed the face of the world. The delay in applying this to the world of TV and entertainment hasn’t been technological. As we talked about earlier, the pressure from the technological changes have forced changes in other areas of business, unions, contract and distribution.

Now as I finish up here let me say that appointment TV is not going anywhere. Regardless of how technology transforms TV to an intensely personal experience, appointment TV will not go away. We will always have World Cup and the Olympics and American Idol.

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.

Comments

  1. Screen Future is a must-read for anyone trying to make sense of the rapidly changing world of television and screen media. Johnson's vantage point at the intersection of technology and design gives him a unique perspective on this change. He thoughtfully blends business and pure technology with insights from such luminaries as Henry Jenkins and David Poltrack, making for both interesting reading and a meaningful story. Johnson analyzes what TV has become, helps us see where it is going and takes a hard look at the components of media that are transparent to the consumer without forgetting the ultimate goal of entertainment: to entertain

  2. Hokey smokes. Think about all the various ways the Internet and it's accompanying apps and services have literally changed the face of the world.

  3. “Now as I finish up here let me say that appointment TV is not going anywhere.” Very well said.

  4. I never knew that “You don't have to miss Kojack because you're watching Colombo.” used to be said. Thanks for this.