Commentary

Life Imitating Art, Augmenting Life

Since this is the time of year when columnists tend to wax about the future, let me share some of my most recent thinking about where the digital out-of-home media business is headed -- both near-term, as well as long.

To do that, let me start off by quoting someone from the future: "Space, the final frontier." Okay, so it's actually a fictitious character from the future, and you probably don't have to be a Trekkie to know that line comes from "Star Trek" Captain James T. Kirk's log, but there's a reason why I'm invoking it now.

That's because, in many ways, space has actually been Madison Avenue's final frontier. And by that, I don't mean media-buying's conventional concepts of "time and space" -- TV time and print advertising space. I mean the notion of the physical spaces that people are in when they see an advertising message and/or when those messages influence them to do something about a product or a brand.

The way much of media has been planned historically focused more on the medium and the message, and less about the environment they were being consumed in. That's begun to shift, of course, as Madison Avenue obtains the tools and resources to think out of the box, and to begin thinking about what's surrounding it. There's been some good ethnographic research based on observations of how people actually use media in their personal physical environments -- things like Ball State University's "observational method," which was the basis of the Nielsen-funded Council for Research Excellence's video mapping study, which I suggest you all check out if you haven't done so already.

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But part of what's got me thinking about the future implications of physical space also has to do with Ball State. I recently got to attend some events on the university's Muncie, Ind. campus, including an annual meeting of the International Digital Media Arts Association that was hosted there. While much of the discussions taking place had to do with the way media are evolving on the TV and computer screens, some of the most interesting conversations involved the hand-held screens -- and specifically, how they can be used to "augment" how people relate to their physical environments, including ones where there are public screens.

But I'm convinced that, in the future, both consumers and marketers will rely less on the fixed physical screens they encounter, and more on the "best available screen" for most relevant content to be consumed on at that moment. And that, increasingly, will be one that the consumer is carrying himself.

Now I'm not going to predict whether that screen is an iPhone, a Droid, or whatever next generation hand-held devices comes along to make us think of them all as forgotten Apple Newtons (remember those?).

For all I know, the next new screens won't even be screens. They may be our eyes and ears inter-relating directly with digital content. People are already doing that with Bluetooth earpieces and digital eyeglasses. What happens when those technologies are micro-sized so they're as transparent as contact lenses?

What happens when the sight, sound and motion we've grown accustomed to augmenting on detached digital screens become something we use to augment the reality of our physical world?

Well, if you ask me, it quite literally changes everything. How so? For one thing, a person theoretically could program the technology to see or hear anything they want when out-and-about. Or for that matter, they could program it not to see or hear things that were actually there. Think of the possibilities.

Needless to say, some of those possibilities will likely include marketing messages. And just like in the "real" world of media, some of those marketing messages will be ones consumers may want to see, while others are ones they will want to avoid. So if you watched the privacy debates and legislation surrounding telemarketing, email, and all sorts of online and social media with interest, wait until we dive into the privacy issues raised by questionable marketing practices surrounding augmented reality.

I, for one, am convinced that anything that can happen with media, actually will. It's predestined. If you don't believe me, just consider that many of the digital media applications that people are using today were first thought up by science-fiction writers.

Okay, so William Gibson didn't exactly invent the Internet, but he gave it a cultural reference point when he came up with the concept of "cyberspace." The same thing with Neal Stephenson's influence on social networks, virtual reality and massive multiplayer game-playing. These science-fiction writers conceived things that we are now living.

But my favorite, and most recent life-imitating-art example, is the one that Dale Herigstad revealed at the recent iDMAa conference at Ball State. Herigstad, who is chief creative officer of Schematic, an interactive agency owned by WPP Group, was the consultant on Steven Spielberg's adaptation of Philip K. Dick's "Minority Report." He's the guy who conceived of the "gesture-based" interface that Tom Cruise's character uses to interact with the screens in the film. Well, during a keynote at the iDMAa conference, Herigstad revealed that Schematic has actually developed such an interface and plans to roll it out to the TV industry within the next year.

Other sci-fi technologies are now a reality in the digital out-of-home media business: motion-sensitive projectable holograms, you name it.

So if you accept the notion that anything that's possible will ultimately become a reality, even if it's an augmented one, then maybe it's time for the advertising and media industries to start thinking about the possibility of good and bad marketing practices. Maybe it's time for someone, say the Out-of-Home Video Advertising Bureau, or the American Association of Advertising Agencies, or the Association of National Advertisers, to start thinking about drafting some guidelines for augmented reality.

Or maybe that may seem a little too much like science-fiction. What do you think?

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