Drinks by the River Thames
Landing at Heathrow Airport, still a bit groggy from the flight, I caught the Heathrow Express to Paddington station and my hotel. Entering London this way it's easy to forget that this sprawling city is really a river town. The River Thames winds through central London past all the sites you heard about as a kid. Big Ben towers iconically over the city, Tower Bridge looks more like a military fort than a bridge, and the Houses of Parliament always appear immensely impressive to my American eye. The only site that really stuck out was the London Eye. It sparkled in the sun, sticking out not because of its size but because it looked just a little too new for the city, a little too frivolous.
From my hotel the black taxi raced along the Thames to the Millbank Cinema and Media Centre. My book was launching that day and I had to get there early to chat with some press. Before dashing into the posh glass-and-stone lobby, I paused and looked out across the Thames. The air was hot and dry and the late afternoon sunlight glittered on the surface of the water. Like I said, I always forget London is a river town and how beautiful it is.
The event went by in a flash. Tom Dunmore, the editor-in-chief of Stuff magazine kicked it off, then handed it to me. I gave my quick overview of the book, then introduced Anthony Rose the chief technology officer of Project Canvas. This was the first time I'd met Anthony, and we had a good conversation in the lobby before the event.
Before stepping into his current position on Project Canvas, Anthony was the driving force behind the BBC's iPlayer. In 2009 Wired magazine dubbed him "The Man Who Saved the BBC." Now the iPlayer for me is a high water mark in the evolution of TV. The concept is wonderfully simple. The iPlayer is an Internet TV and radio service that gives you access to the BBC's content. It's been wildly popular, bringing down broadband networks more than once because so many people wanted to watch TV on their computer. Before the iPlayer people always questioned if consumers really wanted to watch TV on other devices.
"Now no one really questions that anymore," I told Anthony. "iPlayer has become a kind of shorthand that proved that consumers wanted TV via the Internet. Recently, if anyone does for some reason question it, I just say 'iPlayer' and they nod and we move on with the conversation. Thank you, Anthony Rose." I really did thank him.
He smiled and nodded. He was a really nice guy and whip smart about the future of TV. Anthony was there to talk about his next adventure, Project Canvas--one that seems poised to be even more influential than iPlayer. I won't get into it here, but have a look at the overview if you haven't seen it: http://www.projectcanvas.info/
When Anthony finished up, it was Sir Martin Sorrell's turn at the podium. I think it's pretty safe to say that Sir Martin is a legend. Sure, he's the chief executive officer of the WPP Group, the world's largest communications services group, but when be spoke you saw it was much more than just that. As Sir Martin went through a series of statistics and projections for the future of TV, the audience of press and analysts sat quiet, listening, and writing furiously. Sir Martin commanded the room with his mix of relaxed charm and authority.
The event finished up with some questions from Tom and from Chris Curtis, associate editor of Broadcast Magazine, and then a few questions from the audience. Most all of the questions were focused on the business realities of this future we were discussing. Everyone was keen to understand what impact all these new devices would have on traditional TV. Everyone had accepted that the Internet and TV had begun to merge in some interesting ways, but today it's still unclear the effect it will have on advertisers, broadcasters and ultimately the consumer.
This is one of the main themes in Screen Future. I had a particularly interesting conversation with Tawny Schlieski about the effect of the Internet on TV. Tawny spends most of her time thinking about TV. As one of our leading researchers at Intel, she spends her days following global TV trends and tracking consumers' evolving relationship with TV.
The Internet and TV: A Digital Frankenstein
In 2004, digital video invaded the Internet.
Initially, delivering video over the Internet was an expensive proposition and the experience of watching large files was generally unsatisfactory. Storage and transmission costs for the large files meant that relatively few files existed, and those that did were generally removed quickly. Less than one third of US households at the time had high speed broadband and that meant most viewers were waiting for long periods of time for video to download. Like other technological innovations, the possibility of meaningful streaming content on the Internet was not immediately matched by the reality. Still, adoption rates climbed. Broadband connections grew, and professional producers began to deliver their content over the Internet as well.
In 2005, YouTube was launched. In 2009 estimates placed the number of viewers who watch YouTube at roughly the equivalent of a Super Bowl audience, every day of the year. Interesting yes, but YouTube is dominated by noncommercial user-generated content, so although marketers dream of electric ads to reach that audience, from a professional TV perspective, YouTube is part of a parallel universe. YouTube introduced consumers to the idea of video on the Internet but Hulu delivered TV.
In 2010, two-thirds of Americans under the age of 24 regularly watched their TV shows on the computer, and 70 percent of Americans with a broadband connection have watched video on the Internet (CEA/Nielsen). In August of 2009, the Hulu audience surpassed Time Warner audience (the second largest cable company in the United States).
When 70 percent of US Internet users watch online video, and Hulu garners 38 million viewers a month, the idea of watching video delivered by the Internet is no longer a novelty or a target for early adopters. Overwhelmingly, the preferred screen for viewing professional content remains the television. The migration to PC viewing is driven by opportunities that are not available on the preferred TV screen: missed episodes, trying out new shows recommended by your friends, or watching content you can't get on your TV (CEA and Nielsen).
This isn't to say users won't continue to use the PC and other devices to watch entertainment. There are times and places where the PC is a better solution, notably, say, the lunch hour, as evidenced by the fact that 65 percent of users who stream video online stream video between the hours of 8 and 5 on weekdays (Nielsen).
"Consumer uptake of Internet on TV has also passed the fulcrum," Tawny Schlieski [a researcher at Intel] said as we wrapped up our chat [about the effect of the Internet on TV]. "The simple functionality of a deep video-on-demand library that enables consumers to find and watch the TV they are interested in is a Pandora's box that cannot be closed. The lure of the big TV is strong. Today, even though getting Internet content to the TV is often complex and clunky, nearly a quarter of streaming video users have done it. Consumers have seen the future, and they are hungry for it."
The content of TV is no longer constrained to the TV screen in the home. Viewing of that entertainment content across multiple screens has changed consumers' expectations for how television content should be delivered. Consumers now feel that they should be able to watch their content when and where they want. They assume that content recorded on the DVR in the living room should not be trapped there. Video streams from Internet content sites like Hulu or ABC.com should not be chained to the small screen attached to a keyboard. Consumers now have the expectation that it's their content and it should go with them wherever they go.
Excerpt from Screen Future
Chapter 6: Personal TV
So much happened during the book launch in London that we couldn't fit it into a single column. Also on the trip I had a really in-depth conversation about the state of the tools that we all have to actually design and build elegant consumer experiences for all of these future screens. I'll tell you it's not pretty. We'll still be in London for the next Jet Set column: My Dinner with Dale.
The future is Brian David Johnson's business. As a Consumer Experience Architect he develops future products for Intel Corporation, a global microprocessor manufacturer.
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 (Fake Plastic Love, Nebulous Mechanisms: The Dr. Simon Egerton Stories and the forthcoming This Is Planet Earth). He has directed two feature films and is an illustrator and commissioned painter.