Interactive Futures – Written by Gary Hayes 2003 presented at XML 2004

The interactive world is going through a renaissance, a major cultural shift ‘ we are coming out of infancy. The vocabulary, the visual style and the channels of communication are being developed and we have a long and winding but definable road ahead. The current Internet and early interactive TV ‘experiments’ are still a confused pot pourri of ideas, trials and aspirations. Sure some things have worked but most have questionable success where the fact that it has been used or commented on positively does not mean it is part of, what will be seen as in a few decades time, a continuity of interactive development.

We, the interactive service and content providers, are in the second phase of development, the first being ‘great the technology is just about holding up’ we are now in a ‘ok lets see what seems to be working and do more of that’; ‘working by trial and error’ while still occasionally tripping over the wires. Basically interactive services are not mature yet. Having moved from early kiosk games to cd ROMs to games consoles to richer web to interactive TV through to second generation games consoles the journey has just begun.

This article though is not going to look to a future some ten years away and crystal ball gazing neither is the writer suggesting he knows what even a two year future may look like (the industry has suffered for too long by too many people saying they do). It will simply put some perspective on where we are editorially (with occasional respectful glances to ‘enabling’ technology) and suggest, using a simple method of projecting forward from what people are using in greater and greater numbers now mapped into a far richer technical environment – a high bandwidth, broadband, bells and whistles, over-‘inter’active future.

So some key questions to contemplate before moving forward are:

  • Will technology and commercial forces always be the drivers of the services audiences get?
  • How will ‘we’ evolve and what will drive this evolution?
  • What will really drive consumer appetite for new types of interactive services?
  • How and will the audience become sophisticated interactive users?
  • Where is the current state of interactivity on the roadmap?
  • How immersive does it have to be?
  • So where are we today, really

Let’s briefly consider where inter-active services are at the moment in mid 2004. On the TV interactive producers are delivering via the broadcast digital television pipes of Satellite, Cable and Terrestrial millions of households. The interactive captive audience are receiving services that can be classified as either 24/7 text services or Enhanced TV. Some of the 24/7 services manifest as:

  1. Digital Text (Teletext for the digital age)
  2. Info bars / iPG’s (a pop-up now, next, more info, news headlines, tv listings)
  3. New Loops (rolling video highlights of news, weather, sport and specials).

The Enhanced services are attached to linear audio and visual anchors, known as content provider programmes and provide a mixture of

  1. Play along (e.g.: IQ Quizzes)
  2. See alternative streams (such as multi-stream tennis or motor racing)
  3. Dynamic information (such as football or baseball)
  4. Vote, submit your opinion (news debates, entertainment show votes etc)
  5. Simple set top box (retro console games)
  6. Combinations of all of the above

The complexities of four or more interactive major platforms (satellite, cable etc) each with different play-out infrastructure and application environments, is far too complex a topic for this paper. It has meant though that flexible and speedy development of interactive services has been curtailed and as such the learning from each interactive application from an audience perspective is painfully slow. There are tools of course such as cross platform authoring environments that will gradually improve the production cycle but for the moment we are mostly in a constrained and templated hand engineered world.

These initial services for the iTV audience have proved enormously successful though with users approaching 6 million in the UK for some services because they do fulfil the basic requirements of today’s, early interactive TV audiences such as:.

‘I want more information. I want it immediately. I want to see more of the programme and have more choice than I used to. I want to play along in real time with the quiz. I want my opinion to be taken into account, now. I want a bit of mindless fun.’

But of course the UK has had the added advantage of having the often quoted figure of a regular audience of 19 million per week using good, 25 year, old analogue ‘teletext’ services ‘ we in the UK have a march on many other parts of the world. Yet in today’s research, enhanced TV is far from being recognised as a core benefit of the DTV experience, the key benefits being perceived as more choice of channels and better quality. In a content provider survey the question ‘Thinking about all the interactive and text services which are aware of but do not use, why have you never used them?’

  •  57% say they are not interested/not bothered
  • 17% say they don’t have time
  • 9% say another house member uses instead
  • No other major barriers identified
  • Small minorities say don’t know how (7%) or are too engaged in TV programmes ( 6%)

‘If we don’t give them a good reason to interact, they won’t’

We are trying to deliver compelling interactive services inside an environment initially designed to handle electronic programme guides (OpenTV on Dsat for example) and this is not easy from editorial or technical perspectives. This doesn’t mean that these first generation interactive TV experiences are necessarily irrelevant or un-engaging but the viewers have not yet had the benefits and experiences communicated to them effectively. One of the key goals as we move forward is to more simply describe the types of services and experiences the viewer will get. Often they are taken directly to interactive TV services from a single red key press from a range of broadcasters with no idea of what will happen or what is in the service. I don’t know about you but unless I have an inkling of what’s round the next corner I tend not to take it.

The other large component of interactive content providers that cannot go without mention of course is their often massive content narrowband sites that provides all of the needs of the more mature internet audience with greater emphasis on community and personalisation (themes that will return later in this paper of course). But this paper cannot go too deep into the analysis and evolution of the current Internet, rather borrow key lessons learnt already from it.
Some of these lessons that are being passed, as we speak, into the iDTV environment are:

  • passive to interactive ‘ from reading lots of html text pages to being able to actually change the ‘web environment’ in real time
  • filtering ‘ from blind surfing to finding what you want from a million choices immediately
  • Interface grammar ‘ from a thousand confused screen layouts and navigation metaphors to a family of common interface and navigation

Both the web and iDTV environments though still have a long way to go.
But we should move away from device/platform centric definitions of the interactive experience and seriously consider the physical areas and ways that people currently interact:
The ‘screens’ in people’s homes define the uses:

  1. The shared screen ‘ lounge or kitchen display systems. The big shared experience (film, sporting event or console game) but one can also dip in and out for quick, communal info (news, interactive weather, what’s on in cinema, simple two minute games) if required.
  2. The private fixed screen ‘ often fixed and located in a private space. Highly personalised for efficient access to complex services and seen as the area to keep and ‘store/archive personal content’ ‘ some of this could be fed to shared screens when required for more ‘public’ display
  3. The mobile screen or tablet [e.g.: a laptop, flat connected tablet, pda, cell or mobile screen). For sharing content by moving it out of the private physical space to the public space and for continuing the interactive journey which on the physical journey. Also for receiving private information IN a shared environment such as 1.

All of these three categories can have significant elements of connection with others ‘ but one can see the difference in privacy required between them. The mobile becomes a secretive repository of transient ‘bursts’ of information between individuals while the shared screen is about linking virtual people into shared games or chatting to each other ‘about’ the experience or even with the celebrity themselves. Successful new media services recognise the core values attached to different screens

The active human
We need to be looking also at a very high level at the active human. When a human becomes ‘active’ all things in the physical environment they inhabit become part of their experience. Lets choose a simple activity, walking down the road. This minor activity utilises all the senses, smells of shops, sounds of cars, the feel of the pavement under your feet, using experience and 360 vision to guide you to your destination, using intellect to negotiate traffic lights and perhaps causing cars to stop. This later item means you are changing or interacting with your environment and when you meet a close friend on the street you begin using emotion’ the real ‘inter’ part. This is an activity we all do every day.

Compare this rather banal activity with so called interactive services. You sit in front of a screen and use fingers to move graphical objects, text or images, around a two dimensional or simulated three-dimensional space ‘ a screen that often occupies only a few degrees of your vision. This is in fact an experience in itself you have decided to do ‘ ‘I am operating my TV’, ‘I am playing along with the show or game’ but you are in a false (glamorised as virtual) environment, looking at a flat space that at the highest level will try to simulate a real or future world (X-box ‘Halo’ for example) or at the lowest level simply deliver some useful information or alternative view of an event, multi streams sports programme for example. Of course there are some ‘services’ that will begin to engage your intellect such as eTV quizzes or curiosity reality shows or web chat rooms or greed (gambling services) ‘ but again you are neither having real resonance with the environment or ‘really’ communicating with this world; to use the earlier example you are negotiating two dimensional traffic lights not stopping cars or meeting and emotionally connecting with friends.

Of course I am not suggesting that true interactive services have to be fully immersive, or fool the participant into thinking where they are and what they do is ‘real’ and any actions in the environment their in actually changes the world they are in. But this is where the world of high-end console games has created a not insubstantial gap compared with narrowband web and iTV services. Do we have the leap of faith to say that the ‘endgame’ of console games (which may be 3d immersive environments, where many other real participants are connected in real time as players or viewers) will eventually be the way we in which we communicate and share and receive our entertainment and information? Will these future virtual worlds be the grand or great grandchildren of our current ‘clunky’ digital text services and poorly animate iTV games?

Lets stop there for the moment though at the unanswerable question of ‘will all interactive services evolve into this ‘immersive’ reality or will there always be a need for example even the lowest part of the interactive food chain where the user presses a button and gets some textual information or changes the audio or video stream? Historically, what has been invented in this field rarely goes away completely.

Direction or disorientation?
I have deliberately kept technological advances out of the paper for now as they can cloud the issues with their, current, complexity, lack of openness and fragmentation. Add to this a vast array of commercial forces and we are on a road to nowhere illuminating, fast. Technology as a future enabler is critical to consider though and there are sure bets:

  • The delivery pipes through which content and services reach the audience will get fatter and faster
  • The networks on which audiences share and connect with each other will get fatter and faster
  • The amount of storage on which the audience captures and stores content will increase indefinitely
  • The quality, resolution, size and speed of displays with increase indefinitely
  • The speed of cpu’s will increase indefinitely
  • The individuality and ID of users on those networks will become more and more granular over time
  • Standards will prevail by natural selection ‘ whether widely adopted proprietary or commonsense open standards.

This onward and never ending march of technology will enable many user centric requirements, many of which we are seeing the beginnings of. Before looking at the key requirements of consumers in the future or the key devices that may dominate lets see what’s happening now on the content provider’s most future looking ‘playground’ (read: learning trial) Broadband to TV. The services the content providers are delivering now on this platform give us a real opportunity in understanding how viewers will use content in a world that provides high quality video (read: broadcast TV quality) and other rich media:

  • Scheduled services
  • On demand services (static and dynamic)
  • Depth of the internet
  • High bandwidth two way communication
  • Personalised services
  • All using open standards ‘ html/java/mpeg etc:

The content provider is able to deliver to this ‘lucky’ audience high valuable services that are/contain.

  1. Local – There is a high degree of local focus. Using multi skilled broadcast journalists viewers can get immediate local video news, at the equivalent of local radio in the past. This is the most popular service ‘ finding out what is going on around them, when they want. The content provider often uses it national popular services to direct viewers to the very local options.
  2. Personal help ‘ Using programmes such as Eastenders that have ‘social themes’ viewers are guided to local charities or support groups if they feel they need them ‘ some in real time after or during the programmes. The video nation archive also provides a wealth of personal experience sharing.
  3. Education ‘ It is often the most underprivileged and disenfranchised groups that have the most need for self-improvement. Bite-sized TV on demand, guided learning journeys and as much depth and re-direction into the internet as required. Working closely with the local education authorities and directed from premium and niche content provider programming viewers can be tempted into relevant local university courses for example.
  4. Reality ‘ not withstanding the current raft of reality shows, this is the ability to track your environment in real time. Not for mere voyeurism ‘TV Cams’ provide insiders views of local radio and the physical environment around them. Of course abuse of this facility and privacy issues soon come into question, but it is an extremely popular element of the range of services.

On such a rich platform there are still many other traditional services present including multi-streamed sports, play along quizzes, dip in-and-out information and of course scheduled TV. In the utility category we have email, messaging, chat, etc but lets keep looking forward. What might be the future for this ‘nirvana’ platform.

We can extend the local of course to it nth degree, where local becomes completely personal and content and news is of total interest to you all the time. We can extend personal help to real time, high bandwidth connected counselling for example. We can extend education in a similar way to real time learning, distance ‘real time’ learning that could be integrated around scheduled events and a vast array of on-demand, dynamically updated content. Reality of course becomes a range of life tools through which the complexities of normal living can be managed in a centralised way.

But there are three other key directions this and other rich media, highly connected environments can move:

  1. Sharing – People want and need to share content with others. Whether it is their own or copyrighted material, it is for technology to provide a ‘business’ solution. But whatever a user considers of value they will want to both keep and share with peers. The current peer-to-peer distribution of audio, video and games will be tiny in comparison with the controlled distribution in the future.
  2. Community ‘ I suppose all of the above can form an element of community. But this is pure written or verbal communication through the system. Where shared community ideals and individual comment can be interwoven with the social fabric of government and local interest groups.
  3. Personalisation ‘ People will need help in selecting from the vast array of scheduled and on demand content. Search engines get some way there, manual preference setting gets further but the real end game is opt-in ‘recommend for me’ agents, working on behalf of the user. They do not want to be ‘told’ what is good for them, they do not want content forced on them, they want to be seen to decide this themselves. Filtering a selection of content is better than giving targeted items’ Targeted selections work, targeted single items do not.

Prophecy or actuality
As mentioned at the start of this paper, we are in a constant state of transition ‘ moving from legacy to next generation, from relatively disconnected to highly connected (devices and people) and from passive to active. Technology will no longer be the driving force but an enabler, meeting the demands of the audience’ what will drive this change? What are people’s real motivations and where will the battles be?

Education vs. mindless entertainment, community good vs. individual greed, shared group experience vs. solitary pursuit? These are also unanswerable of course but using our seven-year experience of the internet, our four year experience of iDTV and a couple of years of broadband we can predict:

  1. Communities ‘ will require better ways to exchange and move the ‘conversation’ from shared to private to mobile environments. Better, more stable and ubiquitous networks.
  2. Gaming ‘ richer, more connected and better integrated with the world of Film and TV
  3. Connected devices ‘ users will not be happy with non-interoperable single devices. We will need to create more and more standards to increase interoperability enabling meaningful journeys across devices.
  4. Personal hubs ‘ users will want to store and distribute personal content
  5. Home hubs ‘ they want to have home entertainment and family archives etc:
  6. Next generation home network devices ‘ will we reach the both convergent and divergent networked Home and Community. Only then will providers like the content provider be able to offer functionalities such as:
  • Data and vision and audio to separate devices in the shared space such as segmented cross linked video streams
  • Personalised content from one home ‘server’ to personal devices such as home network games
  • Content aimed at Inter and extra communities – virtual communities
  • Multiple and combination av streams targeted to different parts of the home
  • Synchronicity on discrete connected devices from the shared to private to mobile screen
  • Creative applications ‘ vision/audio editing, mixing of personal and content provider content that could be moderated in scheduled channels by the content provider
  • Targeted promotions to individuals on discrete devices

So how will our audiences be interacting in the future. The devices are simply conduits through which experiences are delivered ‘ this has always been the case. Defining the experience is of the utmost importance. The experiences will need to be clearly defined by the creators of those services otherwise the vast interactive audience will lose the plot. The interactive human of a very near future will hopefully though begin to realise the power and potential in how the ‘tools’ that manufacturers, service providers and content makers are delivering in greater and greater numbers, can be connected to provide them with life tools, entertainment and information, lots of information. We can be sure that greater bandwidth, storage, processing power and most importantly mass acceptance of ‘interactivity’ will lead to a consumers requiring a more fluid, interoperable and humanistic experience. Whatever we do, if we don’t demonstrate a clear benefit, people won’t use it.

Something is dawning of course, something tangible, very large numbers of consumers are participating in the ‘great experiment’. We can find clues as to where this grand user trial may be heading by considering such useful things as a billion blogs, websites, enhanced TV, EPG’s, PDR’s, mobile video phones/gaming devices and of course always-on, broadband anywhere ‘ the goal for the future though is in the how producers of interactive content use combinations of all of these and many more things creating a whole for consumers; user journeys across a sea of devices and services, standardised tools that will be used together, rather than in isolation to create a continuous ‘human’ experience.

Posted Gary Hayes ©2005