Husking Media In Middletown, Ball State To Unveil Revelations Today

by , Sep 26, 2005, 7:01 AM
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MUNCIE, IN -- Most mornings Dave Ferguson wakes hours before daylight and eats "first breakfast," the meal that starts the Midwestern farmer's day, before he begins tending livestock, mending fences, and toiling in the fields. Then he cleans up, puts on his city duds, consumes a second breakfast, and drives through the cornfields and soybean patches of rural Indiana to Muncie, where his thoughts shift from agricultural farms to server farms. Ferguson is director of one of the nation's most enterprising, but probably least-known, media labs--the Center for Media Design at Ball State University (BSU).

You wouldn't know it to look at the campus--which, with the exception of new building construction, looks like any other university in middle America: Green lawns stretch up to limestone buildings and undergrads pedal around campus on bicycles. But behind the bucolic exterior are some of the most leading-edge media technologies and advanced thinking on the current and future state of media.

In fact, digital data packets fly invisibly back and forth across the campus' miles-wide radius in what is believed to be the first Wi-Fi network of its kind. It's powerful enough to deliver 50 megabytes per second of wireless bandwidth to every home in Muncie--a town with a population of about 67,000, and an area covering 24 square miles. But with the exception of the university's students and faculty, and a small number of homes participating in the school's research projects, the locals aren't accessing it. And that's just the way Ferguson wants it.

"The rest of the community is still very pure," he boasts. By "pure," Ferguson means the people of Muncie are not the kind of early adopters to digital media likely to be found in big cities, especially on the media-centric coasts.

One of the things Ferguson's team does is observe how technology and design affect the way people use media. If you want to see how these factors affect the lives of average Americans, Ferguson says, you have to go where average Americans live. Not to digital media meccas like New York, Los Angeles, or Boston, but to a place that might be called Middletown. Actually, Middletown is what BSU researchers call Muncie, as well as a nearly century-long series of studies on how media have affected people living in the community.

It was an update to the so-called Middletown Media Studies two years ago that raised eyebrows in Madison Avenue media circles. First conducted in 1929, the studies are unique because they use real people to directly observe how consumers use media. There is none of the bias associated with measurement methodologies like meters, diaries, mail, and telephone surveys--which tend to exaggerate some media usage behaviors, while failing to detect others altogether.

What the most recent studies found is that people consume much more of every medium, in more combinations, than any of the ad industry's best research has ever detected. An eye-opener for many in the ad business, the study also sparked criticism that as powerful as its direct observation was, the study's sample--100 people--wasn't enough to meet Madison Avenue's statistical standards.

The Center for Media Design is fixing that. Researchers went back into the field this summer to conduct an even more ambitious version of the study, increasing the sample four-fold, and drawing nearly half of it from nearby Indianapolis. Instead of taking notes on clipboards and legal pads, the field researchers were equipped with handheld computers. The results will be revealed today in New York at Media Magazine's Forecast 2006 Conference, and Mike Bloxham, director of testing and assessment at the center, promises there will be some surprises, especially when it comes to findings on the simultaneous use of media.

Bloxham is an unlikely character to be running the research. A gregarious Brit who was a leading interactive TV developer in the U.K. before uprooting his family from cosmopolitan London to small-town Muncie, Bloxham is more accustomed to dealing in the crass world of media commerce than the theoretical world of ivory towers. But that's exactly what makes him effective at BSU. Unlike its Ivy League counterparts, BSU is a state school that emphasizes an applied approach to media science. In fact, practical education pervades almost every program at the university. Students in the entrepreneur program at the business school receive their final grades from actual investors and venture capitalists. "If they don't like the business plan, the student fails," says BSU President Jo Ann Gora. "That's the way it is in the real world. It's all about risk. It's better that they learn that here."

With its premium on real-world commerce, BSU helps students incubate businesses while they're still in school. These ventures include a book publishing company and a new digital media application that Ferguson believes could revolutionize the field of architecture, as well as manufacturing-based industries.

BSU's Gora is also championing the Center as a hub for attracting media and entertainment industries to the state. In fact, one of the university's students, Jaron Henrie-McCrea, recently won the 32nd Annual Student Academy Awards, besting university film dynasties like New York University and UCLA. The ironic part is that BSU doesn't have a film school.

The undergrad produced his film with the support of the Center, as well as other university programs. This collaboration is typical of the way everything gets done on campus. If the Center is working on a media study that requires some ethnographic research, it has the College of Sciences and Humanities enlist psychology, sociology, or anthropology majors and faculty to the project.

The Center was created four years ago via a grant from Eli Lilly and Co., the Indianapolis-based pharmaceutical giant. Lilly hopes the Center will develop digital media technologies that will influence the field of eHealth. In fact, a new state-of-the-art lab is under construction and will house a doctor's office, where faculty and students can test digital media applications for healthcare, including the potential to digitally monitor ailments and their treatment.

For a guy from the world of media commerce, Bloxham is prone to his own blue-sky visions of media technology. He foresees a time when military personnel are equipped with hand-held Sony PSP-like devices that can monitor all their vital functions and relay them back to field commanders via temporary wireless grids. He also spouts visionary non-sequiturs about concepts that aren't fully baked, but make you think. For example, things like "nano-coms," a sub-molecular communications technology Bloxham believes may some day make everything capable of communicating with everything else.

While it's the visionary stuff that gets Bloxham and his colleagues excited, it's the application of the concepts that is their passion. To implement such blue-sky concepts, the Center needs a fairly close alliance with the commercial world.

Bloxham says there are three kinds of relationships between academic media researchers and the media industry. One is best exemplified by the MIT Media Lab, where companies simply underwrite scholarly initiatives in the hopes that they might shed light on something that will eventually have commercial application. In the second, companies provide seed capital to academics that conduct research that can be leveraged commercially. The third type is what Bloxham describes as a "collaborative relationship," in which academics and corporations work side-by-side, developing the plans for media studies, collaborating on the process, and jointly interpreting the results. He asserts this is a much more holistic approach that leads to better results for both sides: Commercial applications for industry and practical learning for academia.

Because he speaks both dialects, Bloxham has become BSU's de facto emissary to Madison Avenue and big media. He's gotten cozy with some of the biggest media companies, including Microsoft and Time Warner, but has yet to strike any substantive relationships with big agencies.

However, Bloxham has assembled a team of "research fellows," executives from the media industry who consult with the Center and work directly with faculty and students on media studies. To date, the Center has enlisted Jim Spaeth, former president of the Advertising Research Foundation; Bill Moult, former president of the Marketing Science Institute, who is now Spaeth's partner at Sequent Partners; John Canning, Technical Evangelist, Microsoft Windows eHome Division; and Dale Herigstad, creative director and co-founder of digital media design agency Schematic, who has created what is believed to be the first interactive TV news design program at the university.

The research fellows do two things. They provide practical knowledge for students, faculty, and administrators. They also provide a pipeline into big media companies that may ultimately fund or assist important media research projects. Microsoft, for example, is making BSU an official field lab for its new Windows Media Center.

BSU has already initiated a program dubbed Digital Middletown. While the concept remains somewhat amorphous, part of it involves equipping homes that have little or no digital media connections with Wi-Fi, broadband connections, and other digital technologies to see how they impact the lives of "average" Americans.

One unique aspect of the Center is that it has the opportunity to study the effects of media over longer periods of time than is usually the case with commercial media research. Ball State has already enlisted undergrads to participate in a massive longitudinal study that will follow them over 20 or 30 years, to see how they adapt to media over their lives.

In one study, BSU journalism professor Michael Hanley took cell phones away from a group of undergrads to see how the loss affected their behavior--especially their use of other media.

The notion of a living laboratory is pervasive at BSU. For example, the Teacher's College runs experiments with elementary, middle, and high school students. In one study, Bloxham's team gave a group of teens new Sony PSPs and observed how long it took them to open the boxes and turn them on, and then, how long it took them to get involved in multi-player games and even game creation. The study was important, says Bloxham, because a key element of the Center's mandate is media design, or how the design and usability of media affects people's behavior.

One of the most interesting diagnostic tools developed at the Center for understanding the design of media is a new "eye-tracking" system that literally tracks the micro-second by micro-second movement of viewers' eyes to see what they're actually looking at any time they face a screen. "The big breakthrough was getting it to work at the 10-foot distance," says Bloxham, who spearheaded the project by working with the school's engineering college. While Madison Avenue has dabbled with eye-tracking technology for years, refining it to a range of 10 feet is important, Bloxham says, because that's typically the distance people sit from their TV sets.

The eye-tracking technology has huge implications for understanding the design and usability of any medium viewed on a screen, particularly as Madison Avenue embraces "engagement" as its new return on investment mantra. Because it can pinpoint where people fixate on a screen, the system can determine what people are really looking at versus what they say they were watching during recall studies. In fact, Bloxham says the technology is likely to be complemented by recall research, and possibly by "biometrics" that can gauge when someone reacts physiologically to what their eyes gaze at on a screen. With such a tool, Bloxham says media designers can begin to explain all sorts of media usage phenomena. As Schematic's Herigstad says, "The eye doesn't lie."

For all the gizmos and gadgets, the Center for Media Design is really about human beings and how they connect with media. It was probably inevitable that it would evolve at BSU, which has a legacy with media that goes well beyond the Middletown Studies. After all, BSU has already incubated some of the industry's best talent, including TV host David Letterman and "Garfield" cartoonist Jim Davis. Both are proud alums.

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