Originally published on IDesignYourEyes on 1/15/2010.
This is a moment of unparalleled change in the media world, part of a process of barely-controlled destruction and reconstruction that began over a decade ago. Business models and revenue streams are collapsing, and media creators are turning to the latest technologies to create new opportunities and new businesses. At this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, technology firms touted a slate of new 3D TVs as a solution to video piracy, and a way to lure fickle consumers back away from free Internet content. But are such promises tenable?
It all started in the music industry, when Napster, the original digital music sharing service, was launched in June of 1999. With music freed from the baryonic prison of vinyl, polyester tape and polycarbonate plastic, consumers could copy, edit, sample, decode and redistribute it and other copyrighted content at will.
Rights holders had always controlled their intangible product by controlling the tangible media – records, cassette tapes and CDs, as well as radio frequencies, for music; television channels and chunky videotapes for video; multiple 40-pound reels of motion picture film for movies; floppy disks and CDs for software; plus dead-tree books and photographs. Suddenly, their control of intellectual property was just gone, vaporized in a mist of ones and zeroes. On one side, many music executives saw digital media as a tremendous new opportunity for both creative expression and for business. Zoic’s Jeff Suhy, a former record company executive, was quoted in the May 2000 Village Voice: “I love that the world is quite obviously changing before our eyes and no one really knows how it’s going to play out!”
Suddenly, control of intellectual property was gone, vaporized in a mist of ones and zeroes.
On the other hand, some rights holders saw any perceived change to their traditional revenue stream as a threat to be destroyed at all costs. They dug in their heels and fought the future – engendering numerous disasters, from Circuit City’s Digital Video Express, which sold consumers DVD movies that “expired” after two days, to the RIAA’s litigious pogrom against file-sharing college kids and soccer moms. And money spent to develop various copy-protection and DRM schemes was almost always wasted, as consumers found ways to defeat protection, or avoided protected products altogether.
But some in the business world saw opportunities, not enemies. When Steve Jobs first laid eyes on the Xerox Alto in the late 1970s, with its GUI user interface and mouse controller, he saw the future of computing. Decades later, Jobs understood that the original Napster, driven out of business by the record companies, was the template for media distribution in the new millennium. With Apple’s iTunes software and online store, Jobs went from computer mogul to media mogul, taking advantage of record companies’ desperation to gain control of digital music, and appointing to himself the power to single-handedly set prices for online entertainment. But iTunes by itself would not have been enough to compete with free MP3s – it was the convenience, portability, style, incredible ease of use, sound quality and price point of the iPod that gave Apple control first of the personal music player market, and then of legitimate online music and video distribution.
Now the media industry has reached another watershed moment of change, as file-sharing endangers the revenue models of film and television creators, as well as publishers and journalists. But media moguls have absorbed the lessons of the music industry’s tribulations in the last decade, and there is a new humility in the face of change — a willingness, even an eagerness, to adapt to the new digital world, rather than to deny it. In the last few years, movie and television creators have moved their product online, to free video sites like Hulu, which will soon experiment with for-pay models; and are offering high-definition, appointment-free content on demand to home televisions through cable companies and Netflix.
There is a new humility in the face of change — an eagerness to adapt to the new digital world.
In 2010, how else are media producers taking control of the future of their own industry? What are they doing to reimagine their businesses, and insure that the media world of 2020 is profitable and stable?
Some of the answers were on display at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Publishers are betting that consumers will gladly pay to read their content on a new breed of flat, portable, easy-to-read e-book products. Just as the iPod saved music, publishers hope that Amazon’s Kindle and Barnes & Noble’s Nook will save literature and journalism, at least until true e-paper is developed.
The greatest buzz at CES was elicited by a whole crop of new HDTVs with 3D capabilities. The motion picture industry and the movie theater chains are increasingly turning to 3D and IMAX as ways to lure audiences into theaters, and the current success of James Cameron’s Avatar demonstrates that even in a serious global recession, moviegoers are willing to pay extra for a high-tech movie experience they can’t get at home.
The new 3D TVs, including the Panasonic TC-PVT25 series that won the Best of CES award this year, promise to provide an in-home 3D experience for only a few hundred dollars more than ordinary HDTVs. In addition, satellite television provider DirectTV announced at CES that it has teamed with Panasonic to create three HD 3D channels, to launch this spring. Working with media partners including NBC Universal and Fox Sports, DirectTV will offer a pay-per-view channel, an on-demand channel, and a free sampler channel, all in 24-hour 3D and compatible with the current generation of sets.
Like the original HD offerings in the mid-1990s, which focused on sports events and video from space missions, the new 3D channels will offer existing 3D movies, 3D upgrades of traditional 2D movies, and sports. Unlike with HDTV however, there is no indication the government will legislate widespread adoption of 3D TV. And there are issues.
3D will likely establish its foothold in the living room is not with sports or movies, but with video games.
The greatest usability issue is the need for viewers to wear glasses. While there are experimental technologies that work without glasses, today if you want to experience high-quality 3D television images you need to wear pricey shutter glasses. Unlike the polarized glasses patrons wear at theaters, shutter glasses respond to signals from the TV, directing alternating frames to alternating eyes. The glasses are expensive – only Panasonic is promising to provide a pair with your TV purchase, and additional pairs will run around $50. At least one manufacturer is already offering lighter, more fashionable, more expensive replacement glasses.
And wearing special glasses while watching TV at home is not conducive to the average person’s lifestyle. As Microsoft exec Aaron Greenberg told GameSpy at CES, “when I play games or watch TV, I’ve got my phone, I’ve got all kinds of things going on… I get up, I get down, I’m looking outside at the weather… I’m not in a dark theater, wearing glasses, staring at a screen.” You cannot walk around comfortably wearing modern shutter glasses, and just happen to be wearing them when you want to watch TV. Until 3D TVs don’t require glasses, consumers are going to have trouble integrating 3D television watching into their lives.
The new 3D TVs also suffer from varying levels of picture clarity and a pronounced flicker, although these issues are expected to disappear as the technology improves. More importantly, 3D media demand changes in how movies and television and produced. Right now, only computer animated films are expressly produced with the needs of 3D in mind, producing stunningly realistic depth-of-field and fine gradations of perceived depth. Film and video produced according to the traditional rules of 2D creates flat, paper-thin figures moving in a 3D environment that can appear shallow or truncated. Sports coverage, intended to be a killer app for 3D TV, particularly suffers from these issues, and 3D broadcasts of sporting events may require drastic changes to the technology used on the field.
Filmmakers are still learning how to deal with changing depth of focus. In the real world, the viewer chooses unconsciously where to focus their eyes; but in a 3D production this decision is made for the viewer. A plane of focus that appears to constantly shift can give audiences headaches and eye strain. A largely different language of cinema is being developed, to produce content in which 3D is a core component rather than a faddish trinket.
And finally, CNN Tech reports that between four and 10 percent of consumers suffer from something called “stereo blindness,” a sometimes treatable condition that makes it impossible to experience 3D movies or television. This is hardly a deal-killer, but one wonders how the spread of stereo music technology would have been affected if 10% of listeners had not been able to appreciate the difference.
Honestly, how 3D will likely establish its foothold in the living room is not with sports or movies, but with video games. Video gamers are already accustomed to buying expensive high-tech peripherals. They are used to content designed for one person, one screen. And when designed properly, 3D does not just add visual excitement to a game, but actually affects and enhances the gameplay itself.
So will 3D television lure viewers away from legitimate free Internet video, and from illegally pirated video files? It is too soon to tell. But there is a key difference to this strategy, as compared to some of the previously unsuccessful responses to piracy and the Internet. As with Steve Jobs and the iPod, 3D TV producers are offering consumers something new and exciting that, once the issues are worked out, will enhance their news and entertainment experiences. Rather than treating customers like the enemy, they are approaching customers as customers. And iTunes proves that people are more than willing to pay for their media, as long as they can experience a clear benefit.
More info: “Keeping Up With the Napsters” on Village Voice; “Why I can’t watch 3D TV” on CNN Tech; “DirectTV to launch the first 3D HDTV Channel” on Device; “Microsoft Exec Not Sold on 3D Home Gaming” on GameSpy; “3D TV? Too Soon Now, but One Day You Will Want It” on Singularity Hub; “I’m Sold On 3D TVs…And I Kind of Hate Myself For It” on Gizmodo.