The Sweet Spot

I.

Consider the lowly VCR. Once the king of the consumer electronics roost, the Japanese giant Matsushita has stopped manufacturing them in favor of DVD players. Unless they’re combined with a DVD player, most people have stopped buying them. I haven’t bought one in Australia, despite the fact that I need one for work, because I am regularly given video briefs for review, inventions to be presented on THE NEW INVENTORS. But somehow I can’t bring myself to spend the $100 on a VCR. Is that because I’m cheap? Hardly. It’s because I think VCRs suck – and I’m sure most of you would agree. They’re low-resolution, finicky, and nearly impossible to program. Yet, despite all these obvious drawbacks, VCRs changed the world.

In the time before the VCR, the television set was nothing more than a radio-wave tuner connected to an analog monitor. The television could only show programs as they were broadcast. Nothing else. Suddenly, the VCR enabled people to record broadcasts for later playback, or play pre-recorded cassettes. The VCR introduced the concept of “time-shifting” (though that term didn’t emerge until quite recently), and freed the audience from the hegemony of the broadcaster. This was such a catastrophic change that court battles were fought over it: the United States Supreme Court, ruling in the Sony “Betamax” decision, allowed that the VCR could be sold legally, even though time-shifting a television program constituted a violation of copyright – and still does, here in Australia. (The legal status of time-shifting in the United States is vague.)

While time-shifting moved power away from the broadcasters and into the audience, it also created a huge market for pre-recorded entertainment. Theatrical release provided one hundred percent of studio revenues in 1954. By 2004, that figure was down to 15%. It seems that audience choice is good economics; when you empower audience viewing habits, you dramatically increase the overall market.

By the late-1980s, as the studios saw incredible revenues flow in from pre-recorded videocassettes, they got together to promote a format which would have all of the advantages of the VCR, with none of its disadvantages. This format would provide a near-cinema-quality experience, but would be a read-only format. Consumers would be given greater choice, but only from a pre-produced collection of offerings. DVD, like the VCR before it, has become another biggest success story in consumer electronics. At least 75% of all households in Australia have at least one DVD player, and they’re now standard equipment on nearly all personal computers. The studios earn more – often far more – from DVD sales than from the theatrical release of their motion pictures. The DVD has driven the VCR out of the living room, just as the CD player obsolesced the turntable, fifteen years ago.

II.

Nothing comes for free. The qualities that made the VCR, and the vinyl album before it, so annoying (noise, scratches, and just entropy in general) are the same qualities which made it a “safe” medium, so far as copyright protection was concerned. When the music industry transitioned from waves to bits, they unknowingly unleashed the engine of their own destruction. Waves are difficult to copy faithfully; every copy introduces noise and distortion. Bits can be copied perfectly every single time. Bits can be compressed and distributed at the speed of light. When digital music met the Web, back in 1993, the Internet Underground Music Archive, a small site running out of the University of California, Santa Cruz, everything changed. Suddenly, anyone could publish music, or download music, to anyone, anywhere. The combination of digital music plus the World Wide Web produced a resonance of sorts, a “sweet spot” which initiated a transformation that continues to this day, with over 42 million iPods and countless other digital music devices. Within this transformation there are countless secondary sweet spots – such as the iPod itself, and Apple’s iTunes Music Store – moments where technology and design meet in glorious union, producing prodigious amounts of heat and light. Like a spark to petrol, when design meets capability, the results can be explosive.

Like the music industry before them, the studios are confronting the cost of their transition from waves to bits. A DVD provides four times the picture quality of a VHS recording, together with 5.1 surround sound. It performs this magic by encoding a very high-bandwidth video signal into a relatively low-bandwidth data stream. This was high magic back in 1991, when the MPEG-2 standard was developed. Now it’s old tech. You can now squeeze a two hour movie into one-tenth the space, with no loss in quality. And that has changed everything about how we use video.

The first folks to realize this were a group of engineers who’d broken away from Silicon Graphics after working on Time-Warner’s Full Service Network, better known as “The Orlando Project.” This test bed (in Orlando, Florida) wired 1500 homes to very high-speed cable modems, and each home connected to the service through their own $60,000 Silicon Graphics workstation. The goal of The Orlando Project was to develop the future of video delivery – in other words, the system which would replace the analog cable systems which had by then fully penetrated the US market. Years ahead in interface design, The Orlando Project fully employed the 3D capabilities of the SGI workstation to create something known as “The Carousel,” which allowed home users to select from about 500 different offerings. (At the time, this was an order of magnitude more than any competitive offering.) The design of The Carousel – spearheaded by Dale Herigstad, who would go on to design the interface for Microsoft’s Media Center, and its Xbox 360 – attempted to guide the user through a bewildering set of video selections in a straightforward manner. While consumers liked The Carousel, Time-Warner cancelled the project to focus on other, less costly digital cable ventures. The engineers at Silicon Graphics, intrigued by what they’d started, soon left to form their own company.

In 1999 the Full Service Network bore unexpected fruit. TiVO, the company founded by those refugees from SGI, introduced its first “personal video recorder.” The idea of recording video to a hard drive for later playback was not new; electronic program guides had been used by cable companies for years. Yet, when these two technologies were integrated around an exceptionally well-designed user interface, another resonance struck, and a sweet spot appeared, one which is utterly transforming the way we think of video. People who could never hope to program a VCR have bought TiVOs in droves, recording all their favorite programs, and watching, on average, 60% more television than individuals who don’t have TiVOs. However, TiVO makes it exceptionally easy to fast-forward through commercial breaks, which is a plus for the audience, but a big concern to the broadcaster. By 2009, there’ll be at least a 30% drop-off in eyeballs watching TV advertisements, all because of TiVO and its many imitators. But the “TiVO effect” is far more profound. TiVO has disconnected any relationship between the network and the audience. The audience is watching a personalized stream of programming, one which bears no fundamental relationship to its source.

I discovered this TiVO effect when one of my friends – who has owned a TiVO for five years – recommended that I watch Making the Band: INXS. I asked him what network it was on. He thought for a long moment, and then said, “I have no idea.” After such along period of time with TiVO, the idea of broadcaster and programming have disassociated; it’s all just programs, on his TiVO. TiVO has become the broadcaster.

III.

This transformation in audience behavior wrought by TiVO points up an essential relationship between design and technology: where they meet in harmony, they produce a new medium. TiVO is the medium, and “the medium is the message.” TiVO has fundamentally changed the relationship between audience and programming; now that TiVOs are broadband-connected, they don’t even need television receivers. TiVOs could download programming directly from the Internet, or take recorded programs, and transmit them to anywhere on the Internet. The latest of TiVO’s competitors, the Slingbox, does this perfectly. I can connect a Slingbox at home in Surry Hills and watch any programming it has recorded, anywhere in the world. Not only have I disconnected the programming from the broadcaster, I’ve cut the cord to my television set. Now my television is anywhere I might be.

Still, TiVO and Slingbox have clung to the idea that there is a content source – that is, the television broadcaster – and an audience hungry for that content. That’s no longer true. With the recent advent of the Video iPod, the iTunes Video Store, Google Video, YouTube, and the ever growing influence of peer-to-peer file-sharing networks, the balance of content is shifting away from the broadcasters to the “peer-productions” of the audience.

This is the revolution that’s waiting to happen. Right now there is no easy way for your average television viewer to find and view the enormous range of content that’s out on the Internet. File-sharing networks are either illegal, dangerous or too difficult for the average audience member to master. Google Video and YouTube must be viewed on a computer. None of the pieces fit together. Yet. And although the Video iPod can be plugged into a television set, very few people do it. It’s still too clumsy.

There is a resonance here, something that’s just on the cusp of happening. Someone (and it could well be Apple) will find a way to tie the television into the Internet meaningfully, formally breaking the bond between the television-as-radio-receiver and television-as-output-device. When that happens, the meaning of television channels and broadcasters will begin to fade into significance. We’ll still watch broadcasts of live events – such as news or sport – but otherwise our televisions will be portals into the ever-increasing supply of peer-produced programming. All we need to do is locate the sweet spot, the harmonious meeting point between design and technology.

It’s widely believed that technology is not informed by design disciplines. Nothing could be further from the truth. Without design, technology remains locked into a culture of expertise. Design-led technologies – such as TiVO and the iPod – transform our expectations and our behavior. Technology alone can not do that. It hasn’t the capability. We need to adjust our thinking. Design is not the handmaiden of technology. It’s the other way around. Design must be in the driver’s seat. Without the resonance which brings mind and hand together meaningfully, all we’ll ever have is unrealized potential. When design drives technology, when we assert that human needs trump raw capability, we create the artifacts which change the world.

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