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

This is the final installment of my interiew with Brian David Johnson. Sorry for the delay in posting. I had some difficulty with email access during Comic-Con.

You talk in the book about “ubiquitous television.” Many readers will not know this concept, so can you explain what it means and how it represents a significant shift from our current relationship to content?

Ubiquitous TV is built off the idea of ubiquitous computing. This was a concept pioneered by Mark Weiser while he was at Xerox PARC. Weiser saw computing existing in three stages: Stage one was the old mainframe computer. These were the computer the size of an entire room. The second stage of computing was the personal computer. This is the Mac or PC that we all know and love.

Now we should point out that the shift from stage one to stage two was massive. This shift defines the world of computing as we know it today. There was a time when it was fantasy to think of a computer that could fit in your pocket. But of course we all know that happened. And Weiser made a leap to the next stage of computing.

For Weiser stage three was where computing disappeared and literally could be found everywhere. It would be invisible. It would be ubiquitous. This has been a long standing area of study in the academic and corporate research worlds. In my book I took this approach and showed how it was actually beginning to happen in the world of entertainment. I also expanded it to how consumers and people would experience TV in their lives.

The idea of ubiquitous TV means that people would live with TV throughout their day and across all the digital devices or “screens” in their lives. What I always found lovely about the idea of ubiquitous TV was that it shifted the focus of the definition and experience away from the devices and to the lives of consumers. No longer would you go to your TV just to get TV. You wouldn’t go to your PC to access the Internet and phones wouldn’t just be for phone calls. The idea of ubiquitous TV really is the foundation of my idea of Screen Future.

For consumers it’s not about the TV or the PC or the smart phone or any other devices. When our social scientists talk to consumers they hear that for real people it’s just about the screens and the entertainment and social communication that these screens give us. That is truly a ubiquitous experience. It’s not about one device to rule them all but about whatever device we have handy at the time. In this world of ubiquitous TV it is less about the device and more about how that device does, what we want it to do and how it gives us the experience we want.

When I think about ubiquitous TV now for me it is a real life actualization of Weiser’s theoretical ideas. The world of ubiquitous TV is happening and gives us a real world glimpse and application of what we can expect to see In the future.

One could argue that there is a core tension between the idea of media as “personalized” and the idea of media as “socialized,” something we consume through networks (whether old school broadcast or new school digital/social). This is not a new tension, but it seems hard for advocates for new models of television to keep both aspects in their heads at the same time. How do these two pulls impact the design of the next generation of television-related technologies?

You couldn’t be more right. It has been hard for people to keep both of these concepts in their heads at the same time. But for me I approach it differently. For me I think about what consumers and people are telling us. Because ultimately it’s about what they want and people have no problem managing these two ideas at the same time. The reason why it’s easy for them is because they want it both ways.

As we start to think about how to design for both the personalized state as well as the socialized state, I think we need to remember that for consumers both of these states are still TV. In the business of entertainment and even in the business of thinking and writing about entertainment, we like to create categories and systems for understanding what’s happening in the modern media landscape. This certainly is important as we need to have these discussions but even as we discuss and debate we have to remember that for consumers they don’t think this way. They are not thinking about the business or cultural implications of media. People are simply enjoying it as a part of their lives.

I realize this might sound a little over simplified but I’ve noticed over the past few years that many people I’ve been talking to forget this simple difference.

So as we start to think about designing for consumers we must remember that there is no line between personalized or socialized. It’s about access and communication. I’ve written a few times that the goal of my kind of futurism is to ultimately become mundane.

People often quote Arthur C. Clarke’s third law. “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” But I’d like to humbly add Johnson’s Addendum to Clarke. It would say that yes – Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic – But come next Tuesday evening that magic will be mundane.

For us to design in this landscape we need to understand how people move through their days interacting with people and entertainment. If we remember that people want it both ways. They want to interact and socialize sometimes AND they want to just sit back and be passive sometimes PLUS they want to switch between these modalities freely then I think we are starting to approach a proper design sense.

BUT this is just a start! What I’m most interested in is not their either or approach that we are taking. We always seem to be talking about New TV and Old TV. That’s fine. As I said above we have to remember that people want both and that’s a good thing. But what I’m really interested in is the landscape I’m between these two experiences. The uncharted territory around these TV experiences. I’m worried we are still encumbered by our past prejudices and experiences. This is why I typically tell my students that they are the future of TV– not me. I may be working out how people will be interacting with TV and computational platforms and screens and even you Henry will be writing about what’s happening and COULD happen but they are the ones who will actually build these experiences. They are the ones who need to be unencumbered by the past. We always need to appreciate what consumers what and respect the TV entertainment experiences but there are so many places to innovate and invent.

Much early writing on digital media implied that the era of mass media would be displaced by an era of niche media, yet there remains an ongoing engagement with our shared experience of broadcast media which has allowed television to weather the storm. What factors have allowed television to withstand competition from the net and the web?

I love the old ideas of where TV was going to go. People always said that it would all be personal; that mainstream broadcast media would shrivel and die. No longer would large corporation dictate to the people what they should watch. It would be a wild and wooly collection of intensely personal niche channels that would change and adapt to the needs and desires of people.

Well yeah that’s cool but it didn’t happen exactly like that. It turns out people love mainstream broadcast TV. People all over the world love watching American Idol or Pop Idol or Indian Idol… And there’s nothing wrong with this. Consumers love personalization and they also love watching Idol live. This is not hard for them to understand.

Look we have to be clear here. Our research shows that the majority of people all over the world still watch the majority of their TV on an actual TV in real time, in broadcast from traditional broadcast, cable or satellite. TV…traditional TV is still very important to people. But that doesn’t mean it can’t change. Obviously what has happened over the last few years with the delivery of entertainment via the internet to multiple connected computational screens clearly illustrates that people’s imaginations can get captured with new entertainment experiences. But that’s TV. It can be both things and it’s an experience that is strong enough and robust enough to be up to the task.

Part of the frustration of print publishing about emerging media practices is that the book is always out of date before it reaches the reader. What recent developments do you wish you had been able to discuss in the book?

Ah yes! At the end of Screen Future I wrote that I figured that by the time people read the book there would be a whole host of issues and technologies that were outdated.

But in Screen Future I really wanted to spend more time writing and talking to people in the gaming industry. I have always been a gamer. Pong and I were born in the same year. I grew up with a joystick in my hands. My generation is a generation of gamers and the affect that this has had on how we think about entertainment is massive.

I got to do a little writing in this in one of my columns. I spoke with a round table of gamers and game developers at the PAX convention in Seattle and that was really informative. Ultimately I think we need to rethink how we define gaming and that this could have a massive affect not only on the gaming industry but perhaps the entire media landscape.

I’ve joked that I could write an entire book on social TV. I feel in the book I barely scratched the surface. I really think the social activity is the future of TV and entertainment. Now really this is a bit of a copout because social experience has always been in the bedrock of TV but I do think there is so much more we can do.

What happens when TV and entertainment becomes the platform not only for being social for our friends and family? What happens when TV becomes the platform by which we are social with our government and with our culture and with education?

I’m thinking I should really explore this with you Henry. It’s an amazing area and one that I think we need to keep our eye on. The future is going to be really amazing here.

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