Form Factors and Future Habits a la NAB

LAS VEGAS: Introducing a new camera at a Las Vegas tradeshow is de rigeur. So are revelations about new digital distribution schemes. Depending on which Strip cocktail parties you attend, you'll probably hear plenty about storage and rights management and maybe sports production techniques.

Of course, you should look at your badge to see if you're at the Consumer Electronics Show, NATPE, a telephone industry convention, a sports marketing conclave or any of the many other events that bring video visionaries and production functionaries to Las Vegas in an endless progression.

Significantly, cameras, digital transmission alternatives and storage options are becoming universal issues, as the look of media is overhauled, and not just in television as we knew it.

Although these intertwined and overlapping issues seem like a paean to "convergence," they are actually a warning against inertia, a very comfortable force of nature. Recent tectonic shifts in the video production and distribution worlds are creating a landscape in which every element in the value chain is fair game for change. It may be hard to shake habits of how to produce video or expectations about how to watch it. Nonetheless, the assault from so many directions is forcing us to give up "old ways" and archaic shapes.

In the process, the emerging tools are enabling a radically different range of creative behavior.

First, an analogy: At CES, there were cameras with see-through casings--a reminder that picture-making no longer needs a lightproof box when it doesn't hold light sensitive film. Point-and-shoot cameras have assumed new form factors--enabled as they become embedded in mobile phones and other devices, which themselves are no longer bound by the forces of product design inertia. Digital video cameras, not to mention Webcams and an array of personal video products, are being shaped to meet lifestyle and ergonomic demands beyond their image-capture capabilities.

Admittedly, the shape and construction materials for consumer cameras are hardly equivalent to the values needed in a professional video camera. Yet the underlying reality persists. As form follows function and devices assume new designs, the programming they capture and the audiences they reach are morphing, too.

For example, how do "next-generation" viewers watch television? Most of us recognize that viewing is not strictly a living room or den or bedroom experience. Despite the raging promotions for flat-panel, big-screen televisions, viewers are opting for a wide array of alternatives.

Too many video professionals still wince "impossible" whenever they confront the prospect of watching a TV show on a 2- or 3-inch screen, or even a 5-inch portable media player. Yet Generation Y (teens and 20-somethings) is fully embracing that option. Hence, it was no surprise that the NATPE and CTIA conventions dwelt extensively on cross-platform performance.

Another vision of small-screen evolution pops up in the Mobile ESPN phone service, which debuted via commercials during the Super Bowl. In the TV ads, fans were shown walking through an immersive sports world, all the time riveted to the screen of a mobile handset. As a mobile virtual network operator, ESPN, and its parent Walt Disney Co., are not only changing the look and distribution of video content; they are also rearranging the business relationship between viewers and content suppliers.

The growing distribution of mini-DVDs for playback on Sony PlayStation further attests to the appeal of alternative viewing platforms. Three times as many movie titles are available for the PSP as games.


In its current promotional campaign, the National Cable and Telecommunications Association features a futuristic display floating in air, much like the "touch sensitive" non-monitor displays that responded to the wave of a hand in the 2002 Spielberg movie "Minority Report." Right now, such screen-less viewing options may be the realm of visionary science fiction, but actual implementations are in the works for military and defense applications.

What enables the holographic-like images to float in the air, and how viewers will respond to such abstractions, can be evaluated elsewhere. For now, these concepts force us to consider that future viewing is not necessarily tied to the conventional forms and structures.

Evolving industrial design repeats the experience of a century ago. The first horseless carriages looked like their horse-drawn predecessors because that's what manufacturers were tooled to produce. Eventually, streamlining and comfort demands dictated new styling to accommodate an internal combustion engine shape and passenger cabin.

Television and the dozens of industries in its accompanying armada are all involved in today's co-dependent migration. In particular, digital distribution is facing significant overhauls as Internet Protocol infiltrates all segments of the value chain.

Vint Cerf, the so-called "father of the Internet," singles out as invalid the complaints about jittery delivery and partial-screen images on today's pioneering IPTV systems. He contends, for example, that as 1 Gbps transmission reaches the edges of a network, speed simply doesn't matter. Sixty minutes of high-definition TV content could be delivered in 16 seconds, said Cerf, now a Google vice president and "Chief Internet Evangelist. Such video would be stored in high-capacity storage, copyright rules permitting.

By Cerf's measure, IPTV is not a replacement for streaming audio or video. It is a both an entirely new structure and an alternative to existing video transmission--actually data delivery--systems.

Such visions, of course, are built on collaboration and convergence of multiple media and telecommunications sectors. These are ideas you hear from different perspectives, depending on which professional conferences and tradeshows you attend.


At such events, there is substantial speculation about the "second age of television," sometimes characterized as "TV 2.0." Attention generally goes to today's evolution (actually an ongoing process since the late 1990s) of the original television infrastructure.

Actually, the current transitional phase may be coming to an end before some people realized it happened. Technical and programming changes foreshadow the industry's next era, which might be called TV 3.0 or maybe TV 3.1 and eventually TV 4.0. At engineering and lifestyle events, there are already glimpses of what video display and transmission systems will shape the next TV period.

Forget about a DVR built into set-top box. Who needs it when the DTV monitor itself has a built-in hard drive to do that job? By the time the screen-less displays are rampant, other storage systems may emerge, or the Internet cloud will be able to handle limitless video-on-demand.

What about new fusions of mobile and video technologies? Could those Mobile ESPN phones generate some Spielbergian screen-less displays? Could the hard drive in the phone (or the nascent communicating iPod) feed other personal viewing devices?

Clearly, the ways in which we watch TV affect the methods to produce programs. Dick Wolf, the Ÿber-producer of "Law and Order," has begun looking at podcasting and digital downloads in connection with a new series he is developing called "Power."

As a video stylist, Wolf expects that production techniques will have to change to fit the new viewing styles. In a recent interview with Variety magazine, Wolf pondered whether, for example, the intimate viewing formats will require more close-ups, and he wondered if he'd shoot differently for the "HBO version versus the network version." His evaluation echoes that of other producers and directors, who have been re-orienting their creative outlook as digital cinema, home video and other options forced them to confront the next wave of media.

Wolf's viewpoint also underscores the complicated realities of TV 3.0 and beyond. Despite old habits and production inertia, the market is heading elsewhere. We just don't know where. Yet.

Las Vegas remains the perfect venue for confronting the future form of TV in all its manifestations. Aside from the dreams seen along the Strip, this place is surrounded by endless sand--the raw material of fiber-optic lines as well as a terrific medium for drawing lines and building castles.

Out of this sandy terrain, at the NAB convention or other industries' events, will emerge the shape of video things to come.

Gary Arlen

Gary Arlen, a contributor to Broadcasting & Cable, NextTV and TV Tech, is known for his visionary insights into the convergence of media + telecom + content + technology. His perspectives on public/tech policy, marketing and audience measurement have added to the value of his research and analyses of emerging interactive and broadband services. Gary was founder/editor/publisher of Interactivity Report, TeleServices Report and other influential newsletters; he was the long-time “curmudgeon” columnist for Multichannel News as well as a regular contributor to AdMap, Washington Technology and Telecommunications Reports; Gary writes regularly about trends and media/marketing for the Consumer Technology Association's i3 magazine plus several blogs.