Being There

While I admit to not being here for about a year—apologies, but I’ve been having fun doing cool stuff—I tend to enjoy knowing precisely where I am at any given moment.

For example, about two weeks ago, I visited Bohemian National Hall on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. It’s an impressive old building, one of the few surviving ethnic community halls that provided comfort and culture to ethnic communities on the island. BNH has become the New York home of the Digital Hollywood conferences. This time, the focus was Virtual Reality, and its kin, Artificial Reality.

NYT VRThe New York Times now employs a Virtual Reality Editorial Team. They have completed about five projects, each involving high technology and a cardboard box. For the uninitiated, the cardboard box is used to house a smart phone, which, in turn, displays oddly distorted images that can be seen through a pair of inexpensive stereoscopic lenses. To hear the soundtrack, ear plugs are required.

VR is not 3DTV, but it shares some characteristics with that dubious invention. You are a camera with perhaps sixteen lenses. As you turn your head, the stitched-together video imagery simulates reality: you can turn from side to side, up to down, all around, and gain a sense of what’s all around you. (One of the new VR production companies showed off a home-brewed VR camera setup: 16 GoPro cameras set in a circle the size of a frisbee, with several more pointing up and down, all recording in synchronization, collectively requiring an enormous amount of video storage.)

VR provides is a wonderful sense of immersion, and a not-so-good sense of disorientation.

When there is something to explore, immersion is a spectacular invention. For example, diving in deep water and seeing all sorts of aquatic life. Or, walking in a forest. Or being in just the right place at the right time at a sporting event or political convention—you know, being there.

But where, exactly, is “there?” And precisely when should do you want to be there? I never thought about it much before, but the television or film or stage director makes that decision for you—“look here now!” And after that, “look here.” With VR, you can explore whatever you want to explore, but you are likely to miss out on what someone else believes to be important. There is freedom in that, but there is also tremendous boredom—that’s the point of employing a director, a guide, a writer, a performer—to compress the experience so that it is memorable, informative, and perhaps, entertaining.

Tidbits from the NY Times panel: “VR film is not a shared experience—each audience member brings his or her own perspective”…”the filmmaker must let go of quick cuts, depth of field, and cannot control what the viewer may see”…”how do we tell a story that may be experienced in different ways by different people?”…”there is far less distortion imposed by the storyteller”…”much of what would normally be left out is actually seen and heard in VR.”

In some ways, letting the viewer roam around and reach his or her own conclusions is both the opposite of journalism and, perhaps, its future. In an ideal sense, journalism brings the viewer to the place, but that never really happens. Is it useful to place the viewer in the observational role of a journalism, or does the journalist provide some essential editorial purpose that helps the viewer through the experience in an effective, efficient, compelling way?

Is all of this a new visual language and the first step toward a new way of using media, or a solution in search of a problem?

After a very solid day of listening to panelists whose expertise in VR is without equal, I left with a powerful response to that question: “who knows?”

Jenny Lynn Hogg, who is studying these and related phenomena, might know. “Imagine if the Vietnam War Memorial could speak.” Take a picture of any name on the wall, and your smart phone app will retrieve a life story in text, images, video and other media. Is this VR, AR, or something else? Probably not VR, not in the sense of the upcoming Oculus Rift VR headset, but probably AR, or Augmented Reality. What’s that? In essence, turning just about everything we see into a kind of QR Code that links real world objects with digital editorial content. Quicker, more efficient, and more of a burst of information that a typical web link might provide, AR is often linked to VR because, in theory, they ought to be great friends. As you’re passing through a VR environment, AR bits of information appear in front of your eyes.

Although AR was less of a buzz than VR, I think I could fall in love with AR—provided that I could control the messages coming into my field of view, I really like the idea of pointing my smart phone at something, or someone, and getting more information about it, or him or her.

VR, not so much, at least not yet. I’m not enthralled with wearing the headgear—even if it reduces itself from the size of a quart of milk to the design of Google Glass—but that’s not the issue. VR is disorienting, a problem now being deeply researched because the whole concept requires that your perceptive systems work differently. I certainly believe VR is worthy of experimentation to determine VR’s role in storytelling, journalism, gaming, training, medical education, filmmaking, but mostly, to discover what it’s like to be there without being there. We’ll get there (which there? oh, sorry, a different there) by playing with the new thing, trying it out, screwing up, finding surprising successes, and spending a ton of investment money that may, in the end, lead to a completely unexpected result.

Through it all, sitting in that beautiful building, I couldn’t help but wonder what its original inhabitants would have made of our discussion—people who were already gone by the time we invented digital, Hollywood, radio, television, the movies, the internet, videogames and, now, virtual reality. Wouldn’t it be fun to bring them back, to recreate their world, to allow me to walk down Third Avenue in 1900 and just explore? Yup. Fun. And in today’s terms, phenomenally expensive. Tomorrow, maybe, not so much.

 

 

 

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Digital Hollywood (in NYC)

Summit300x250Digital Hollywood is an ongoing series of media industry conferences held, mostly, in Los Angeles, New York, and Las Vegas. Generally, the conferences focus on media, advertising, programming, consumer behavior, financing of new media, technical platforms and marketing. I have spoken at several of these conferences. This week, in Manhattan, I attended the 2013 Media Summit (their tenth anniversary, by the way). I listened to perhaps a dozen panels populated by industry insiders. And learned.

OreoI learned about the relationship between Oreo cookies and social networking. As ridiculous conversations go, this is sublime. The argument in favor of social networking for cookies goes back to the old arguments about the ultimate value of brand awareness, which remains exceedingly difficult to measure. Still, the hipster panel insisted that there is a new of thinking required here (suspend disbelief). The terminology has revolved, but the arguments echo dot.com marketing strategies circa 1999. Still, the idea of an entire brand team approving Tweets in real time at, say, the Super Bowl, is an image worth remembering. Why? Because marketing teams are no so complicated, and for large brands, so scattered among specialist agencies and specialized departments within larger agencies, with so many complicated political games, consensus has become difficult to achieve. In the brand marketing universe, there is great importance placed on 21st century marketing, doing incredibly cool stuff, and keeping/gaining clients through innovation. Ask the average person whether any of this affected their decision to buy a pack of Oreos, or to eat an Oreo, and it’s unlikely that they would make a connection between the cookie and any of these campaigns.

At another session, I learned about the industry’s high hopes for the new MPEG-DASH format.

The term KPI (Key Performance Indicators) was probably most-often-uttered. In a consumer marketing environment whose changes are both difficult to measure (too much data, too many variables), agencies and corporate marketers are trying to figure out which indicators actually matter. CPM (Cost per Thousand, a long-standing audience measure that is common currency among agencies and media) is losing favor. One might measure brand impact, but there is little agreement about how this can or should be done with any degree of standardization. Nielsen is not well respected; there was consensus that this method of sampling was silly. If I correctly recall, a comparison was drawn as follows: instead of using supermarket cash register data to measure the store’s activity, the Nielsen approach is more similar to asking one in twelve individual shoppers what they purchased.

Verizon Media Server. For more, click on the pic to go to The Verge.

Verizon Media Server. For more, click on the pic to go to The Verge.

I found conversations about large tech companies and their platform strategies to be especially interesting. Verizon’s panelist complained about their high costs of set top boxes, and told attendees about a new Verizon Media Server that would serve all sorts of client devices throughout the house. If I understand this strategy correctly, Verizon wants to charge a monthly fee for Internet and program services, for the connection between home and outside network, and for a single box in each subscriber household. Microsoft claims that half of XBox use is non-videogame, so it is now thinking in terms of program service subscriptions (not unlike Verizon), and producing its own programming (like Netflx and Amazon). Much smaller Boxee is thinking in terms of a cloud-based DVR not only for television programs, but for all types of audio-video media.

One fascinating idea: will consumers control their own data? For example, when I use E-ZPass, or when you browse Amazon or search Google, or watch a VOD or DVR file, where does this data go, where is it stored, and what permission is required for access? Maybe I want all of my data stored by, say, the American Red Cross, which may, in some wildly imaginative future, repackage and resell the donated data in accordance with personal donor’s wishes?

Another: the role of intellectual propery attorneys who must, due to the nature of their profession, remain in a 20th century approach that transforms copyrights into cash, and blocks unauthorized access or use with vigorous enforcement. I mentioned the phrase Creative Commons as part of a question, and only one person in the room of one hundred seemed to understand what was meant by the forward-thinking term. Still, the attorney panel was brilliant in their discussion of negotiation strategies:

  • Start with a phone conversation, do not rely upon emails. Establish a personal relationship based upon humor, warmth, personal connections.
  • Today, there are so many people, projects, companies – slow down, think about partners, need to educate the other side, develop an understanding of everybody’s strengths.
  • Take ego out of the equation.
  • Do not hold grudges, and do not allow yourself to assume anything resembling a victim mentality.
  • Do not make it personal.
  • In television and Internet video, the buyer’s creative team establishes deliverables based upon their own set of standards, but these people do not negotiate the deals. Instead, this work is done by a business affairs team that is closely aligned with the finance department. Be careful about allowing business affairs or finance to control the conversation. If they push too hard–as they often do because they are paid to control their company’s interests–then the creative team will not get the project they ordered, and the producer will, inevitably, be blamed. if the conversation shifts into an unacceptable zine, do not hesitate to suggest that the business affairs staff bring in the creative staff to reset expectations, and, perhaps better yet, off to do so yourself. often, the business affairs response to this awkward request will be: “no, we will deal with this internally,” and then, well, every situation is different.
  • Be very careful about “this is a deal breaker” or drawing a line in the sand.
  • No two deals are ever the same, even if the same people are involved.
  • Moving to yet another panel, I liked the term “Selective Consumption.” Roughly, it seems to mean a a presorted, highly personalized, behavior-based list of currently aailable media assets that miraculously (digitally, enabled by artificial intelligence and algorithms) anticipates each individual consumer need of the nanosecond.

Other interesting ideas and notes:

  • When designing a multi platform, transmedia approach, it’s easy to develop a visual identity on your own platforms but quite difficult to manage this level of control over third party platforms (because each has its own unique technical and design standards and its own strategic agenda).
  • The industry has made something of a mess in the consumer household where multiple boxes, screen interfaces, access codes, remote controls, and a lack of standardization now results in considerable frustration and “we’re not responsible, go talk to those people over there” interoperability problems. Not much progress in this area; in fact, things will probably get a lot worse before the industry gets ahead of the problem.
  • An interesting discussion about “who is the voice of the brand?” Is it the Chief Marketing Officer, the senior agency account person, or the twenty something with her hand on the Twitter keyboard? Plans are made months in advance and approve queues are common practice, but real time communication via social networks seems to subvert these plans. Lots of damage can be done, and so quickly! Then again, there is the urgency of timely messages about (or by) Oreo cookies.
  • About 30 percent of Verizon FiOS use is non-TV. People are shifting, rapidly, to tablets and away from TV for their PRIMARY video viewing experience. That seems significant.
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