Form Vs. Function (Size Vs. What You Do With It)

The annual pilgrimage to Consumer Electronics Show at the start of the year always amounts to an exercise in sensory overload, but one which -- if carefully managed -- can yield something other than a dull ache behind the eyes (generally caused by the heady combination of bright flashing lights, too many digital screens, recycled air and maybe a few martinis).

 Assuming you avoid the near-suicidal temptation to try and see it all (an essential lesson normally learned in the first year of attendance) and you take advantage of the stream of info buzzing around the event about what's worth seeing, you can come out with a pretty good sense of the main takeaways, and you can catch up on the rest through the press.  Not only that, you'll probably retain your sanity in the bargain -- no mean achievement once you've spent a few days with around 140,000 of your dearest friends in a confined space jostling for position like lab rats at feeding time.

 Having returned from the fray, if I had to use just one word to describe the images in my mind of my experience at CES each year, it would be "screens." Wherever one looks, there are screens of every size -- from one inch to (this year) 150-inch - every resolution and on just about every type of gadget, tool or device you can think of.  One could be forgiven for thinking that the whole show - indeed the whole industry - is about screens.



 While progress in screen size and resolution is in itself all well and good, for the most part these are certainly not game-changing advances.  The annual competition to showcase the world's largest HD screen seems to be more an excuse for pumping up corporate testosterone levels than it is about anything that will impact the market in the next twelve months.  And while resolution continues to become more impressive, it is doubtful that it will significantly affect people's viewing patterns -- although as programming and advertising content produced to lower standards starts to stand out as being in the minority, lower resolution may suffer from looking cheap by comparison with the new norm.

But if screen size isn't important (once we get to a certain point), then what we do with our screens most certainly is.

After all, the time has long passed when we regard an electronic screen as something to be merely viewed -- the Internet taught us that.  And as TV has introduced us to the program guide, VOD, DVRs, etc., our relationship with it has come to be more demanding.  The oft-heard mantra of what you want, when and where you want it, is not only technically possible (mostly), but it also reflects the real and latent desires of many consumers of video content today.  The only thing lagging behind is arguably the fully formed business model that will sustain both technology and consumer appetite in this nightmarishly complex scenario (Diane Mermigas wrote eloquently this week on the challenges media companies face realigning their businesses to respond to these changes).

At CES this year we saw ample evidence that manufacturers have set their sights on leveraging this growing desire to control and interact with the content on our screens.  From a wide range of potentially game-changing offerings, one of those that particularly struck me for its disruptive potential in the nearer term was the Internet-ready TV.  Though not new in concept or reality to many of us who ponder such things, it was interesting to see the number -- and quality -- of these TVs displayed on the show floor.

If today we wonder about the impact of multi-tasking between TV and laptop PC, just think what can take place around a device that seamlessly enables switching between the two on the same high-quality screen.

For a start, ad avoidance takes on another dimension, as presumably it will be just as easy for me to switch channels as it will be to switch to my Facebook page and play with an application or write on a friend's wall.  Maybe I'll just go online and play a game while I wait for the ads to return.

Having said that, if we take a more positive look at the scenario, such access to the Web could provide a number of opportunities directly related to broadcast content.  Think how much easier it would be to draw viewers into online activity related to favorite shows if all they had to do was click an icon on the TV screen, rather than using a separate device that might not be in the same room.  We could see the online extension of program brands become that much more valuable, as both sponsorships and advertisers would end up with far better metrics from their campaigns than they currently receive.  These are all thing the iTV community has been championing for years, and maybe we'll see some of them come to life in more households as these devices find a market.

Of course there are some underlying issues relating to distribution, etc.  Some see the Internet-ready TV as an ultimate end-around for the networks to avoid the MSOs, but somebody still has to provide the Internet access -- and nobody is about to give up on carriage fees with a surefire means of replacing or bettering them.

There was one other, kind of related, factor that impressed me at CES this year: the announcement by Brian Roberts of Comcast that the company is launching Tru2way as what amounts to an open standard for the development of interactive applications for cable that will -- seemingly -- be capable of deployment across any system.  Application developers have long bemoaned the lack of consistent standard within the cable industry and the apparent pace at which the cable industry has moved to address this.  If this announcement really does herald a more open environment, it could be really good news for everyone.  Is this development a reaction to the entry of the telcos to the TV space with all their promise of interactivity, I wonder?

Whatever the case, generations are now growing up with the TV as their least sophisticated interface in terms of interactivity, but with an appetite and expectation for the control and convenience that interactivity gives them.  And this year's CES showed that they are going to get what they are looking for.  Maybe not this year; maybe not even next.  But certainly within the foreseeable future.

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