The Circle Of Screens

“Are you messing with my 'Lion King' movie?” my daughter messages me through Facebook. She is about 20 miles away but is getting updates on my movie-watching via the wall postings. Apparently I “checked in” at Pride Rock and the Elephant Graveyard.

Parents of a certain age know both locations well, because "Lion King" is pretty much branded into our memories from scores of re-viewings in the 1990s. Almost two decades later, in the age of apps, social networks, connected TVs and Blu-ray disc players, your kids can tell when you have hit their media stash.

And it can prove costly.  When I explain to her how the iPad app works in synch with the BD disc to great effect, the pre-Christmas push begins. “Cool. Now I really want an iPad. I can help you test these things.” Yeah, well, good luck with that one. She still hasn’t gotten the iPhone she has been campaigning for vigorously these past years.

I already gushed shamelessly over Disney’s first stab at second screening an app with the Blu-ray release of "Bambi" earlier this year.

The experience has gotten even better this time out with the Diamond Edition of "Lion King." The guys in the Disney skunk works are thinking very hard about how two screens work together in intelligent harmony.

The most notable enhancement in the new app is the synchronization mechanism itself. The "Lion King" app gives you the option to keep the app connected to the film either by audio cues -- or, even better, through BD-Live connectivity.

The sync method in "Bambi" was a dodgy affair that forced you to manually catch up with the film if you fell behind because of perusing app material. Here, the BD-Live connection actually ties the iPad and disc so that you can pause the film from the app itself. You can even syc app and film in either direction so you can pull the film back to where you are in the app. The "Lion King" Second Screen app develops the subtle syncopation of the two screens that I noted in the "Bambi" release.

The real challenge for the second-screen programmer is balancing enhancement against intrusiveness. The second-screen experience can easily become cumbersome if users feel as if they are juggling or having to manage the second screen somehow. Some TV-sync experiences suffer this problem. Twitter feeds and ancillary material come at the viewer/user in such a torrent the user starts spinning plates. It is important to have mechanisms in place that allow for easy review of the second-screen stream during periods whe the first screen doesn’t command as much attention.

Disney classic animation has the distinct advantage of having been memorized by many viewers. Most users of this tandem experience already know the film well enough and can bounce between the two screens easily. Still, the stream of parallel programming is modulated so that new material appears at intervals, usually complements like storyboards and preliminary sketches, background art, etc. The experience is punctuated at times with larger interactive pods like a flipbook of a sequence using the original line art, larger galleries and some puzzle games. There are even mini-documentaries laid into the experience, such as longer footage of wildlife expert Jim Fowler bringing lions into the Disney offices for the artists to render. Here is where the synchronized control really comes in handy. 

And of course there is the social layer, also much more advanced in this version than in the "Bambi" disc. I can check in to the major locations in the film and share to the social network images from the film and even links to deeper Disney material for others to explore.

What Disney is pioneering here is the second screen evolving beyond the parallel experiences both Web and mobile apps have been playing with for years. With a network TV, disc player and mobile app, we are now looking at fascinating possibilities for weaving real control and communications across the platforms.

The implications for other second-screen models could be enormous. The possibility of inserting user-generated content into the media experience that is then shared perhaps across other viewers, is delicious. This sort of interactivity becomes all the more important as more TV experiences are not live but time-shifted.

Someday it will feel quaint to recall those times when we swapped YouTube clips of Jon Stewart’s comic rant last night from the desktop. Soon enough we should be able to tap our smartphone while watching the show (live or on DVR) to tag and share the moment we are watching across the social network and directly onto our friends’ TVs.

Of course, as I am discovering already, sharing what you are doing across mobile and TV devices can also just instigate more whining.

“I hate this phone!” my daughter blurts about her DROID, now pretty much whenever she sees me use my iPhone.  “I don’t think it texts properly. Are you sure you get all the messages I am sending you?

“You mean the ones about how much you hate your phone? Yeah, I think I am getting them. You’re not getting an iPhone.”

“I could test a lot of this stuff for you. Give you more material for your columns.”

“You’re not getting an iPhone. When does your contract run out, anyway?”

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