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Tuesday
Jan162018

The Year in "Now Media" - 2018 edition

Finnish media producer and commentator Simon Staffans provides a lovely service at the end of each year by interviewing a range of thinkers via email regarding their thoughts on what he now calls 'now' media, with a review of the past year and predictions for 2018.

He formats those responses along with a selection of his own posts from the year for a nice and varied read about our industry. The entire property can be viewed on his website. Here is my contribution.


Simon Staffans, the emoji


What have you seen in the world of media in 2017 that has made the biggest impression on you? What do you feel it signifies?

In 2017 I’ve focused even more intensely on early stage companies and the world of startup accelerators. I continue to advise at IDEABOOST, a Toronto-based accelerator focused exclusively on media/tech startups. This year I visited seven accelerators in four Chinese cities in May, and am developing a first-ever media/tech accelerator in Los Angeles in partnership with Startupbootcamp, the largest innovation network in Europe, where I have also visited several programs. 

Accelerators provide a unique window into innovation, in that we analyze the potential of founders, the technologies and products they see coming in the future, rather than mature products that took years to reach scale. That said, in order to help these fledgling companies find their place in a very complex media landscape, we must constantly assess developments within today’s markets and audiences. 

More than ever, the media business is a story of platforms dominated by GAFA (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon). Their Internet-enabled delivery systems and devices have spawned thousands of products and have enabled new business models that are displacing traditional media.

Meanwhile, the tech world is obsessed with the next big platforms that can deliver growth and disruption on the scale of the Internet – machine learning/AI, cryptocurrency/blockchain, autonomy/robotics, and mixed reality (including AR and VR).

Among these, only MR/AR/VR would seem to be a “media” business, but in truth, all of these underlying technology layers will have dramatic impact on humankind, requiring new formats and metaphors that deliver stories, images, content and context – e.g., media -- to serve as gateways for entirely new applications and experiences.

In 2017 we’re beginning to see signposts of these new media forms.

The House of VR is a Toronto-based consumption venue for VR, AR and related content. Their viewing environments feature blue screen capture so that a user can be composited within the environment s/he is exploring, and then displayed on a screen that others can watch. This shared viewing model helps create an easier way to participate in this new medium and will spread. Earlier this year I got a demo of a multi-user distribution network for VR content at Two Bit Circus, a cool LA-based location-focused company started by Nolan Bushnell. Other VR venues like The Void and IMAX VR are growing.

Content discovery is the goal of another Canadian company, this one from Vancouver called Northway Games  , They demo’d the alpha version of a VR Museum app that featured some 80 independent VR projects, a very interesting type of aggregation channel that curates 3D VR content inside a navigable VR space that looks like a museum. I spent an hour tooling around inside the museum and saw only a fraction of the content. He has the idea of wanting to create a coop payment system that provides economic support for indie VR producers, which I of course found interesting.

I keep coming back to your contribution from some years ago, where you stated you’ve not encountered any “new media” content that would have been able to move you to tears, the way a brilliant movie for instance can. With the advent of the new wave of VR, plus a number of other projects in other fields, have you found anything like that yet? If not, why do you think that is?

“I’ll believe in ________ media when it makes me cry,” I think that was my snarky one-liner. This is a preposterously high bar for media that is less than three years old, when novels have been around for 400 years, cinema more than 100, and TV more than 50. Traditional narratives satisfy because of dramatic compression that enables Identification with characters journey over time. Interactivity disrupts this dynamic, in large part because the user/player gains direct agency within the story world. No longer is there an omniscient storyteller shaping the story for maximum dramatic and emotional effect. Instead, the viewer/user/viewser controls the flow of the story, and with VR, even where s/he looks.

Emotional involvement in VR to date seems to be sought by placing the user inside environments that evoke feelings – Chris Milk’s famous “empathy machine” theory. An interesting one this year was Autism Simulator, which allows the user to understand what it might be like to have symptoms of that disease, like earlier VR experiences that turned the user blind or put them into a prison.

Sustained engagement with characters is another challenge for all interactive media, one that is being addressed by creators who are delivering stories in multiple episodes. Director Doug Limon, working with Julina Tatlock’s 30 Ninja’s has released Invisible, an interesting multi-platform story with original 360 video/VR episodes. Steven Soderbergh’s Mosaic was released first as a series of branching video episodes on iOS and Android before January’s HBO miniseries as a linear series – both feature an A-list cast including Sharon Stone Garrett Hedlund, Frederick Weller, Beau Bridges, and Paul Reubens.

I also was fascinated by the potential of voice-command interactive audio stories, given the white-hot growth of audio interfaces like Alexa, Siri, and Google Assistant. While not yet there, you can check out this early experiment from developer Ryan Pfister. With podcasts so popular, interactive Alexa stories cannot be far behind.

As far as mainstream VR that’s driving the market, it’s all about VR games, which makes sense as VR is in what McLuhan called the “rear-view mirror” stage when it mimics what has come before. Alas, I’m not a gamer – I’ve never owned a game console, and I find mobile games irritating. So when it comes to the most popular or acclaimed VR titles, which are invariably games, I’m not your go-to guy, sorry. The current crop of VR hits seems to me as a non-expert to be navigable versions of console and PC games.

To underline the rear-view mirror aspect, Hollywood studios do invest in VR when the result supports their top-line theatrical releases – last year it was Fox’s The Martian; this year, it’s Pixar’s Coco VR; next year it will be the VR companion to Spielberg’s Ready Player One, logical as the story takes place inside a VR world. And don’t forget Star Wars, which has spawned Battlefront 2 VR. The Oculus and Viveport stores include quite a few movie-related VR games derived from movies, including Star Trek and The Exorcist. Paramount announced that they were porting content into a branded version of BigScreen — also addressing the challenge of consuming content. In the Paramount model, we’re talking about linear content like movies and TV displayed in a rectangle inside of VR. Not so innovative, but interesting bridge technology. 

Many observers believe the ‘killer app’ for VR will be social – hanging out or doing things in navigable places with other people. Second Life’s Philip Rosedale has launched the beta of a social VR world and marketplace called High Fidelity. LA-based Mindshow allows group engagement inside rendered worlds. AltSpace was another social VR platform that died this year after a couple of years of growth, only to be purchased by Microsoft.

Masterpiece VR is a 3-D modeling tool that allows multiple Oculus or Vive users in different places to collaborate in building 3-D models – kind of a Tiltbrush on steroids. In addition, up to 20 users can watch the creation in real-time on the web. This kind of creative theatre of the world is an interesting model, not only for education, but also for the production of objects that will exist, not only within rendered VR worlds, but also for films and games.

You’ve been in the movie business a long time - are we now looking at the end of an era for Hollywood, and what will that signify for the rest of the movie biz?

The drumbeat of Hollywood’s demise continues: Movie tickets are down, network TV viewership is down, DVD sales are tanking, and cable/satellite subscriptions are down. And yet, today there is more great content being produced and consumed than ever before, available to consumers in more ways on more devices than ever. Netflix alone plans to spend $8 billion on original programming in 2018. Netflix plans to release as many as 80 feature films next year, more than all the major studios combined. And that doesn’t count Amazon, Hulu, Apple, and others getting into the original content game.

In Hollywood, finally, a studio is facing the competition, with Disney acquiring most of Fox, as well as a digital platform provider BAMTech, in order to compete with three differentiated streaming services – sports (built around ESPN and Fox); family (built around Marvel, Lucas, Pixar and Disney output); and adult (an expanded Hulu, with content from ABC and Fox brands, plus originals). What will emerge is a reconfigured competitive environment that will provide consumers with a different set of bundles (channels) to buy from a broader range of providers, notwithstanding the impact of the end of net neutrality, which is too early to predict.

This is all relevant to the movie business, because the content industry represents a continuum of providers and distributors. I think movies in theatres will continue to be with us for a long, long time, but it will be configured differently, and will continue to shrink in size and cultural impact. Already, Hollywood has limited its output to sequels and comic books, with a few gross-out comedies in between – all content aimed at young consumers, mostly male, who want to get out of the house. (Older moviegoers like me are pretty happy with surround sound, big screens and peak TV.) 

What Hollywood really should worry about is the cratering of this fanboy market. When VR does become a mass market, will there be any reason to leave Oasis (the VR world where Ready Player One takes place)? How long does the fanboy obsession with spandex movies last? And what about the Minecraft generation, today’s pre-teens who do not have the same attachment to ‘going to the movies’ that their older siblings may still have? This is what keeps Hollywood up at night, not that it seems to impact their product.

Finally, the US is about to slip, becoming the #2 movie market to China. Kept at the edge of this lucrative market by new government restrictions, American studios may lose the content wars to the Chinese as well as distribution. In the land of WeChat, Facebook and Google are shut out, as well.

What are your major predictions for 2018? What will make and shape the coming year in media? 

 

  • Augmented Reality will overtake VR as the hot media platform
  • Government clampdown on fake news and the platforms that carry it will be global
  • Quickening rollout of 5G mobile networks will enable many new applications, including driverless cars that will offer an entirely new theatre for media content
  • Blockchain-enabled content markets will emerge, helping small producers crowdsource projects more efficiently than existing apps
  • Out-of-home VR venues will go mainstream, driven by the Chinese experience, building discovery and driving content investments
  • More countries will follow Estonia in building their own secure platforms for civic engagement, and businesses will shift to these platforms for a variety of applications.

 

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