MACROMEDIA AND MICRO-MEDIA
Web users and producers, especially in the commercial sector, have focused much attention on 'broadband' media, a term widely used to describe the ability to access 'television quality' video over the Internet. But what will happen when this goal is met and the current TV look is recreated on the Web? What becomes the next frontier in the evolution of media? Below I explore one scenario: that media will move from 'broadband' to macro-media.
Media technologies seem typically to move in one direction: toward 'more'. More resolution, better colour, better visual fidelity, more bandwidth, more immersion. Do digital media technologies simply mimic this pattern? After examining macro-media, I look at another important trajectory in media development: minimalist media or micro-media.
When I read that the new RealSystem 8 (RS8) from Real Networks can finally deliver streams at full 'video quality,' I immediately rushed to their Website and downloaded the new app. The sample clips posted on RealNetworks did look amazingly sharp and smooth, at least in comparison to what was available on the Internet until now. However, I could not systematically test the company's claims that the new system offers video at 'VHS quality' - because no site was offering video encoded at a high enough rate. The RealNetworks site had just a single sample clip encoded at 1 Mbps. 400 Kbps was all I could find elsewhere.
Given that just five years ago we were amazed to get postage-stamp Quick Time clips, the new Real Networks technology is indeed a remarkable achievement. But the situation is laden with irony: the Internet was never designed to deliver this type of video stream and yet, for more than fifty years, we have had a system that is capable of delivering a 'VHS quality' stream. Even more remarkable, this system is wireless. And, in contrast to today's streaming video, it never experienced 'network time-out', 'rebuffering' and other artefacts of the Internet environment. The video stream never stalled; the image never skipped frames. This system is broadcast television.
I don't want to undermine the accomplishments of Real Networks and other companies working hard to deliver video over the Web. However, in our excitement over the ability to duplicate television-quality video on a non-television medium, we may be forgetting something very important: what is new and exciting about the Web is that it is not television.
Although it can deliver a 'perfect' video stream, television technology can only handle a dozen of channels at a time. In contrast, a Web user has access to an unlimited number of video streams. One recent estimate puts the current number of streams at 30 million. The count will have grown by the time you read this column. The user can search for these streams using search engines; she can play them at various sizes; she can play a multiple of streams at once. Using languages such as SMIL, the designers can arrange streaming video clips into a dynamic hypermedia program that includes still graphics, text, animation, and other media types in addition to video.
Using formats such as QuickTime 4 from Apple, the designers can also embed hyperlinks into particular frames of a video stream, so when a user clicks on a frame or on a particular object within it, a movie launches a Web page. And they can also use software such as VideoLogger to automatically index video streams, identifying various speakers, spoken words, pans, zooms, and other changes in visual content. The user can then search video using this index just as we commonly search text files for particular words. In short, while the Web video may finally look like broadcast video, what is truly important is that it has very different properties and capabilities from it. But even if we forget about these unique qualities and simply focus on the issue of video resolution, 'VHS quality' is not the final frontier in the evolution of the Web media.
For a couple of years now, 'broadband' was the hot term in the Internet world, fuelling the imagination of companies developing network infrastructure, media-enabling software and the new 'rich media' content itself. While some take this term simply to mean simply dynamic media featuring content in Shockwave, Flash, and other interactive media formats, most equate 'broadband' media with 'television-quality' video and audio. To receive such media over the Internet requires a high bandwidth connection (cable modem, DSL, or even 'broader' hardware) and special software, such as Real Network's Real Video, Apple's QuickTime or Microsoft's Media Player.
But let us look at a near future when a typical user has enough bandwidth to receive 'VHS-quality' video over the Web. What will happen next? Where will Web media go after this benchmark is reached? Let me suggest two directions (among other possibilities) which I will call macro-media and micro-media. Here I will discuss macro-media. I will address micro-media in the next section.
We will reach macro-media when we have such high bandwidth connections that the whole issue of bandwidth goes away. We will simply not think about it anymore. It would also involve very high resolution displays: not just the
1024 by 768 or 1280 by 1024 common for computer displays or the 1080 standard for DTV (Digital Television), but 4K, 8K and beyond. These displays will most probably not be desktop-based but would fill the walls of our homes, offices, and other spaces.
The logic of technology development is such that we will get there in a not-too-distant future. If we have already gone from the initial 512 by 384 resolution of the first Macs fifteen years ago to 2K resolution available today on computer monitors, why would technology ever stop? If we have gone from 300 Kbs to T1 in Internet access speed, it is only a matter of time before communication bandwidth is no longer an issue.
But what is the unique advantage of delivering television and high-quality video to a platform with unlimited bandwidth, unlimited resolution, and unlimited storage space? The delivery of television- and film-quality video - even old CinemaScope films - to such ultra-high resolution displays will still leave empty space for more data. This space can then be filled by other video streams or by other kinds of media.
One possible utilisation of this space could be new kinds of shows and films in which not just one but a number of frames coexist on the screen to follow the narrative. (Mike Figgis' recent film Timecode, which uses four frames, is one example of this aesthetic at work today.) For instance, we can follow the activities of different characters simultaneously; different frames can also be used to display past events along with the main action; and so on. (Interestingly, Digital Television technology allows DTV monitors to receive a number of programs simultaneously. This may also encourage producers to adopt a multi-frame aesthetic.)
The second avenue of space allocation - surrounding the video image with other media - already exists both on television and on the Web. Television news and especially financial shows run market tickers, still pictures, graphics, and other dynamic displays alongside the video image. (Probably the most 'visually aggressive' example of such aesthetics today can be found on Bloomberg TV.)
Similarly, on the Web, many streaming media sites surround small video frames with other media types: blocks of text copy, lists of hyperlinks, still images and animation. (For typical examples, check videos on the abcnews.com Web site and its RealVideo Channel. Streaming channels in particular have adopted the practice of embedding a small video image within a larger multi-media composition.)
Rather than being reserved for particular kinds of programs such as news, in the era of macro-media such aesthetics may become the default condition for all programs, including fiction films. The future films and soap operas may look more like Bloomberg TV and less like Gone With The Wind.
To return to the present, it is ironic that new media companies have focused on the 'television quality' issue at exactly the time when television itself is finally leaving behind the analogue standard set half a century ago in order to become digital, thus embracing both a higher resolution and a new digital logic. Let us hope that television quality video is not the final stage in the development of Web video. Hyperlinks, automatic indexing, search, multiple resolutions and multiple frames - these new dimensions of digital video are waiting to be fully explored!
My Ericsson T28 cell phone comes with two built-in games: Solitaire and Tetris. Sceptical at first, I tried Tetris and found it to be quite playable. In Japan, which so far leads the US in the use of net-enabled phones, tens of thousands of users download simple computer games and cartoons onto their phones. But in this age of mega-pixel screens, why would people want to play games on a tiny phone screen?
The world of new media appears to move only in one direction: more of everything. Every year, CPUs run at higher speed. Computer display resolutions increase as does the bandwidth with which you connect to the web, the size of the hard drive in PCs, and the amount of RAM that it comes with. The Internet has moved from being a text-only medium to being a multi-media in the 1990s, with each new platform offering more detail, faster frame rates, and more life-like characters.
This constant movement toward 'more realism,' or higher fidelity, is not unique to new media; it can also be traced through the history of old media. For instance, cinema develops from the low-resolution black-and-white images in the 1890s toward sound and then colour and then (if you accept VR and games as the next stage of cinema) to interactivity.
Similarly, television progressed from just a dozen scan lines in the earlier decades of the twentieth century to the present-day digital standard of over 1,000 lines of resolution.
This trajectory towards more does not seem to leave room for any other development. Yet the history of digital media contains another kind of trajectory. While some media forms get richer, others stay purposefully 'poorer.' A more minimalist kind of media, characterised by low resolution, low fidelity, and slow speeds, is born. I call it micro-media. Despite the continuous evolution of computer and telecommunication technologies, micro-media is remarkably stable. It just keeps moving from platform to platform, from one technology to another. In fact, given the current prognosis that by 2003-2004 more users world-wide will access the Internet through cell phones than through computers, micro-media seems to be gaining more ground than ever. It will not only successfully compete with macro-media but may even overtake it in popularity.
The fact that companies are now rushing to deliver entertainment to cell phone screens - and that users are bound to enjoy these services - may appear less strange when we realise that the resolution of these tiny screens is not that different from the resolution of video console of the 1970s and the 1980s which, after all, enjoyed huge popularity. So once you think of your cell phone as an old game console that has just been miniaturised, the idea of delivering games, movies, and other forms of entertainment to its screen makes more sense. This is an example of micro-media at work: having been wiped out by technological evolution on one platform, ultra low-resolution computer games return at a later time, on another platform.
Here are some examples of micro-media migrations. Consider the history of 3D computer-generated virtual worlds. In the early 1980s, the slow speed of computers did not allow computer animators to render anything more complex than cartoon-looking 3D spaces consisting of flatly shaded surfaces. Today a consumer PC is fast enough to render Hollywood quality virtual worlds. But the hardware limitations of computers used to render virtual worlds in the 1980s have returned in another place: the Internet-based real-time virtual worlds. What used to be the slow speed of CPUs became the slow bandwidth. As a result, the 1990s VRML (Virtual Reality Modelling Language) worlds looked like the pre-rendered animations done ten years earlier.
The same logic can be observed in the history of Web protocols. The original HTML specification allowed text-based pages to include still images, but no other media. Gradually, the extensions of HTML and the development of special formats such as Real Video, ShockWave, Flash, and others turned static text-based Web pages into rich and dynamic multi-media experiences. At the same time, Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) was developed to strip down these rich multi-media pages into simple, low-resolution screens appropriate for delivery to Net-enabled phones. This is an example of micro-media logic: a bare bones Web gradually became media rich, only to reappear once again in a different place in a 'poorer' form than ever.
According to the so-called Moore's Law, the logic density of silicon circuits (and thus the processing capacity of computer chips) doubles every eighteen months. Eventually, the law is supposed to stop working because the engineers will hit the limits of the physical organisation of matter. What about micro-media? Is this a permanent phenomenon, or will it eventually disappear, with even the smallest displays offering high resolution and full colour?
If the evolution of microchips toward being more and more dense is limited by the atomic organisation of matter, the limiting factor in the evolution of media toward more and more visual fidelity may be limited by the size of our physical body. I love my Ericsson T28 cell phone, but I do find it to be too small! When I was in the store purchasing the phone, another customer walked in to buy a case for her T28 so that it would have more of a 'presence' in her pocket or briefcase and so that it wouldn't get lost. I followed her example and almost always carry my phone in a case.
Even if it may already be technologically possible to make a much smaller phone, its correspondingly more compact screen will be too small to be of any use. The technological race towards packing richer media experience into the tiniest of packages is limited by the size of our hands and the resolution of our eyes and ears. So until some futuristic scenarios - i.e. projection glasses that shine the video image directly into the viewer's retina or direct communication between the computer and the human brain - become reality, we are stuck with micro-media.
If ultra-high resolution media, or macro-media, is one direction digital media will go after conquering the current frontier of 'broadband' (i.e. 'television quality'), micro-media is here to stay as well - at least for the foreseeable future. And as computing, digital media, and Internet platforms move away from bulky desktop systems toward a multitude of small, hand-held devices - electronic organisers such as Palm Pilot and Pocket PC, Net-enabled cell phones, MP3 players, Gameboy players, and other appliances - micro-media is quickly becoming more and more widespread. So you better get used to playing Tetris or watching Survivor on your cell phone screen because this tiny screen is not going away.
(This article is based on the column on media convergence I have been writing for http://www.television.com since 8/00).