Commentary

The Next Online Video Network

Anyone involved in the media business today is well aware that video has arrived on the Internet. It's here in the forms of forced and selected pre-roll, as part of downloadable applications, and as elements of live in-stream participatory activities.

Another growing element of the merging-converging digital present is peer-to-peer file-sharing, which allows collaboration among Internet users. Music surely is today's killer app, but as the success of YouTube indicates, video is certain to be the big player as multimedia meets user-control.

All this begs the question, what's next?

Historical Perspective First, let's take a step back to the the early '90s. Think interactive theater, as in the off-Broadway "Tony & Tina's Wedding" experience, which ran for seven years. "Guests" attended a mock Italian wedding which began in a church, and continued through dinner and dancing while interacting with members of the wedding party (cast).

The interactive theater genre also included the "Mystery of Edwin Drood," where audience members mixed with the actors during intermission and unofficially chose the ending of the play. A number of these shows were and still are being produced.

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In an early attempt to bring interactive movies into being, Sony New Technologies backed the Interfilm audience-controlled movie experience. The company produced three 20-minute shorts that ran on a single bill. A New York movie theater had seats equipped with a pistol-grip three-button voting device. At several points in each laser-disc-delivered film, patrons selected the plot branch they wanted to follow. After running a few weeks, the genre was assessed as an entertainment format for teens. The cost of the hardware and limited market halted further development.

Several attempts have also been made to create an interactive networked multi-site entertainment venue. In the mid-'90s Santa Monica's Electronic Café International was part of an ad hoc collection of virtual shared-space establishments that linked low-bandwidth (ISDN) artistic performances. The Sound Factory night-club chain also experimented with transcontinental music performances between its New York and Los Angeles venues.

Although none of these ventures found commercial success, interactive interfaces, video compression, surround audio, screening and network technology has progressed substantially.

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One element that hasn't yet entered the commercial marketplace is the research and developmental achievements being conducted in the computer science departments of the world's universities. Under the heading of Internet2, a small army of academic technology wizards are mixing their potions of data compression and winding webs of high speed IP connections, to deliver wide-screen, real-time virtual experiences.

One predictor of things to come is the multi-site music classes and concerts that connect musicians in remote cities, allowing them to play together, with sessions broadcast to other locations. This multi-site virtual collaboration occurs via high compression video coded chips that limit audio delay to only a few milliseconds, which is indiscernible to the human ear.

So far these events have garnered technical support and funding only from the likes of Cisco, Marconi, IBM, and other marketers with very closely aligned business interests. This class of entertainment hasn't yet matured enough to catch the imagination of a broader sponsor base. Adding to this mix, however, is the birth of new-age digital cinema, encouraged by the reemergence of 3-D as a way for Hollywood to sustain box office revenues. Currently there are several hundred theaters equipped with high definition projection in the U.S. In the next several years the number of screens may grow to as many as a thousand, split among Imax and the recent entry into the market Real D. The new format allows theaters to show a much broader range of programming. Concerts and sports programming have been the bulk of the shows to date. In a similar vein, Regal Cinemas offers the Lobby Entertainment Network, which beams commercial spots on 42-inch monitors to patrons waiting in the concession lines.

So if these various display formats, participation scenarios and emerging technologies were to cross-breed and percolate into a new place-based medium, what might it look like?

Research firm In Media Communications has conducted an exploratory study into the technical developments and business processes that are required to create an immersive, interactive entertainment environment. The company estimates R&D costs of $15 million are required to develop the prototype interfaces and customized patron stations that would deliver an unencumbered conversation and game play experience. The firm also has preliminary designs for a custom switching system that supports not only extended socializing activities, but also supports synthetic thespians, (virtual characterizations) and a new type of interactive, environmental amusement.

Given advertisers' search to develop the next generation of engagement media experiences, can it be long before a MySpace type of live, peer-to-peer immersive experience comes to a lyceum near you?

All this begs the question: Is there an advertising holding company out there with the vision and the guts to promote a forward-thinking engagement project of this magnitude among its client roster?

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