Shattering the Screen

ShatteringScreensOn April 23, 1896, at Koster and Bial’s Music Hall on West 34th Street in Manhattan, an enthusiastic audience witnessed an event that marked the beginning of a long evolution — one that is only picking up speed today, and with surprising ramifications. Unusually for Koster’s, the stage was occupied that evening not by any performers, but by a blank white screen measuring 20 feet by 12 feet, paired with a small booth covered with blue velvet that stood in the middle of the balcony.

While the patrons enjoyed the refreshments that Koster and Bial pushed both there and at their beer garden a few blocks south (alcohol having better margins than ticket sales, after all), “an unusually bright light fell upon the screen,” as The New York Times wrote the next day. As they watched, the audience was treated to the image of “two precious blonde young persons of the variety stage … doing the umbrella dance with commendable celerity.” The audience roared its enthusiasm — and with that, the first public exhibition of a motion picture, the screen as conduit for visual entertainment entered the American public’s consciousness for the first time. 

That was more than a century ago. Screens have changed a great deal since then. But they’ve changed not nearly so much as they’re about to now, and not in the next 100 years, but in the next 10, or maybe even the next one or two.

It took nearly 50 years for movie screens to give way to television screens on anything approaching a widespread basis. What was the experience of a community was now something more intimate, an activity one took part in with family or perhaps a few friends. Nearly 50 years after that, smartphones made screens into a portable experience, changing the nature of our interactions with them again. Having our own personal viewport to the rest of the world altered how we interacted with information and each other as well.

But although we’ve seen the birth of movie screens, television screens, IMAX screens, flat screens, hi-def screens, touchscreens and more, we’re now on the brink of a revolution, in both the technology and use of screens, that will change how entertainers and marketers do business for many decades to come. Not only will the revolution be televised, but it may be worn like a piece of clothing, rolled up into the size and shape of a small pen or simply appear as if by magic in front of your eyes.

What are the implications of this new age of attention? There are many. Entertainers and marketers both will need to be agile enough to live comfortably in any of those form factors and more.

Planners are already starting to take into account the fact that screens no longer occupy a fixed time and place in the lives of Americans and the rest of the world — but soon enough (it is beginning already), a screen will not only be a utility you can take with you anywhere you go, but will become something that meets you on the go, whether you’ve taken it with you or not, as public screens proliferate and come to know more about who is watching them and when. The challenge will be to understand what kind of message is right for what kind of screen at what time and for what consumer. Because what’s happening is a fragmentino of media consumption unprecedented in the history of media — nothing less than a shattering of the screen as we know it, into a myriad of modes and devices that in the end represent more of an opportunity than a challenge, at least to those who know how to view them.

Taller, Thinner, Brighter, Better

The Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this January prompted talk of “the end of trade shows” and the irony of waiting in long, nearly stationary lines to check out the latest mobile gadget. But it also provided a glimpse of the new reach of screens that are set to hit the market in the next few years: bigger, smaller, thinner, lighter, brighter, more flexible and even transparent screens all put in an appearance.

While screens measuring up to 84 inches were on display, the next sweet spot for home entertainment looks like it will be the super-thin 55-inch OLED screen, versions of which were on offer from both Samsung and LG Electronics. Sony also showed off a 55-inch screen, composed of 6 million LEDs in place of plasma pixels. OLEDs, or Organic Light Emitting Diodes, produce sharper pictures in deeper colors than the current generation of screens, but are generally too pricey for consumers. At an estimated $8,000 for the 55-inch screens, which should hit the market this year, that hasn’t changed much yet. But it soon will. As it does, consumer expectations for the quality of content that’s streaming to their homes will rise. As the march toward ever-higher quality images continues, consumer expectations will continue to rise. To keep up, production quality of both programming and marketing will need to stay ahead of the curve.

Samsung’s 55-inch screen is also now thinner than ever: try half an inch. While that’s convenient for hanging on your living-room wall, it has more interesting implications for another technology the company will soon be bringing to market: the see-through TV. Samsung’s LCD is as transparent as your living-room window — or the window in your office, which is where it’s more likely to be installed at first, according to Samsung product manager Scott Cohen.

The Transparent Smart Window is just that: transparent. LCD images appear on a pane that also admits the view beyond. The Smart Window is also a touchscreen, bringing images of the Tom Cruise paranoia trip Minority Report to life very effectively. While Samsung envisions the Smart Window hanging in the office of an inventory manager overlooking a warehouse floor, transparent screens have many more interesting uses than that, including desktop monitors that let people on either side of the screen flip images back and forth; apartment windows that display weather reports or overlay traffic conditions on your view of the city; automobile windshields that give visual driving directions and traffic alerts; and even bathroom mirrors that display news or shows while you’re brushing your teeth in the morning.

Screens Are More Mobile Than Ever

Examples like these start to get at the kind of ubiquitous presence that screens will soon begin to have in almost everyone’s lives. But screens are also about to take on new roles outside the home or office. While we’re not yet at the point at which screens can recognize and identify a sidewalk stroller by reading his or her retinal image, we’re getting close — close enough to bring new meaning to the phrase, “For your eyes only.”

One technology just now hitting the market is lightweight video-enabled eyeglasses from companies like Vuzix, whose line of “mobile video eyewear” was also on display at CES. The Vuzix glasses incorporate high-definition display technology into the lenses and earpieces of a pair of shades that aren’t much more bulky than your Oakleys. Chill out with a private movie on your flight, play a game while you’re “looking” at the spreadsheet on your desktop screen, or, with Vuzix’s Industrial Augmented Reality technology, have access to a virtual world of information overlaid on the real world around you. Perhaps most amazing about the Vuzix glasses: They’re available now, can display movies stored on your iPad or iPhone and list for retail price points as low as $169.99.

Eyeglass screens and augmented-reality applications promise a new world of mobile media — including the potential to pinpoint audiences of one, and reach them wherever they are, whether at home, at work or on the go. Bring augmented reality into the mix and yet more possibilities arise: Media, entertainment and marketing messages will be integrated into the world around the viewer in a seamless fashion, so that consuming media becomes as much a part of walking down the street as reading street signs or billboards.

Moving the mobile screen from a handset to the valuable real estate right in front of your eyes means purveyors of local information will need to step up their game. The GPS unit in your smartphone means video eyewear will be aware of its location. While it won’t quite be Minority Report, expect to see ads and information targeted on a more localized basis as the technology evolves.

Street signs and billboards will be changing as well. Small screens in public spaces are set to proliferate. Rather than static advertisements, however, expect these displays to interact with those who stop to consult them, delivering information about their surroundings and potentially acting as hubs of social interaction. As this happens, expect public screens to act more like private ones — with the added advantage of delivering localized information, advertising and the incentives that will be key to get passersby to stop and take a second look.

The Second Screen Takes on More Weight

All the talk of augmented reality is well and good, but the fact remains that AR technology still requires us to look at one screen in order to enhance our main view of the world. Until the experience is smoother, it’s unlikely we’ll see widespread adoption.

In some cases, however, enhancing a first screen with a second one is just the ticket. Television is a case in point. The future of TV is social, but it won’t all happen on the same screen your program appears on. Social TV apps already let viewers connect to people watching the same program, and provide chat, games and other functions in a parallel, interactive stream. Rather than getting in the way of your viewing or requiring a bulky desktop screen, these interactions will very likely live on your iPad or other tablet, and be delivered via an app like TV Dinner, which is produced and distributed by the guest editors of this issue. (See page 70 for more.)

Social television means that marketers and content producers will be subject to new rules of influence and interaction: Recommendations and ratings will take on new life and new power, but this also means that the strategies that work will be amplified that much more effectively. New rules of the road will be drawn more from the playbook of the Web and social media than from traditional media’s broadcast model.

The mere mode of our interactions with the most common of screens is due to change as well. On display at a number of booths at CES were televisions that are controlled either by voice or by hand and arm gestures that are monitored by a built-in camera — not that this will solve the problem of an intuitive remote control system. Some of Samsung’s “smart TVs” know who you are as well: The camera is also used for facial recognition, switching the set’s preferences and presets depending on who’s watching at the time.

Samsung and others are also pushing the TV set as not only the center of home entertainment, but the heart of the home’s command center as well. LG Electronics is already selling sets that come with Web communications service Skype pre-installed, and a number of sets can now display uploaded photos and videos.

For those who just want to reach the eyeballs that will still be glued to the screens of the future, the road ahead is anything but simple. What’s happening is that the picture is losing focus: The TV set is no longer the center of a viewer’s undivided attention, and even computer and mobile phone screens will be challenged in the years ahead. It’s difficult to make viewers ooh and ahh the way Koster and Bial’s patrons did over that 1896 umbrella dance — although technologies like screenless retinal displays could definitely result in raised eyebrows. But although the road ahead may be more fragmented than before, it will also be filled with opportunity. Web-based content has thrived by embracing the niche and the vertical. Now, the increasingly rapid evolution of screen technology may start pushing more traditional media producers to do the same.

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