multi media

BOUNDARIES BETWEEN THE MEDIA OF MASS ENTERTAINMENT ARE BLURRING. NICHOLAS BARBER REPORTS FROM THE FRONTIERS OF SIGHT AND SOUND
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The Independent Culture
2006: the main feature on your living-room wall is a reproduction of Vermeer's View of Delft. Yesterday it was a giant photo of your family; the day before, an animated country meadow scene. For these are some of the images you have set on your wall-mounted television: it's just 10 centimetres deep, but it's nearly two metres wide and a metre high, so you wouldn't want it to be blank and grey all day.

This evening, though, you want it to revert to its primary function. "What's on tonight?" you ask, and your voice activates the television's Electronic Programme Guide. Its artificial intelligence enables it to learn what kind of programmes you enjoy, and so it can scan the channels for suitable candidates. It also knows how much you spend on your viewing. Now that pay-per-view has taken over from subscriptions and licence fees, each programme you watch costs you a little more.

Vermeer makes way for a scrolling list of film and programme titles. You opt for yesterday's Top of the Pops instead, and instruct the video to put it on. The chosen programme has been recorded on a Digital Video Disc, on a machine hidden under the decaf table, metres away from the television. There's no need for wires, assembly diagrams and funny-shaped jacks that don't fit into their sockets any more. You just bring the video recorder into your home, turn it on, and it sets up a radio link with your television - or televisions. It learns what type of shows you watch, too. Remember when you used to have to set your own video? Not any more.

Top of the Pops zaps into life, and a band appears, looking and sounding as real as if the screen were a window and they were playing in the next room. That's still too passive an experience for some, but the "virtual reality" helmet just gives you a headache.

The band aren't what you'd call a cutting-edge group. They've already been dubbed "the new Oasis", but you don't think they match the originals. Still, they grow on you, once you've watched them from a few different angles of your choice, and you decide to buy some of their songs. You ask your PC to access the Internet jukebox, and to let you hear more of the band's material. The PC obliges. Music blasts from its top-of-the- range inbuilt speakers, while its screen displays accompanying video clips and background notes.

You like four songs, including two that were recorded yesterday. One cheap credit-card transaction later (no distribution, pressing or packaging costs), those four are downloaded on to your CD-Rom, which stores 15 hours of music. The band's on-screen notes had tried to persuade you to take all 14 available tracks, as if you were buying an old-fashioned album, but why pay for songs you don't want? In theory, you didn't need to buy the ones you did: you could have just paid a penny per time to play them direct from the jukebox whenever you wanted, but even now it's nice to own something. (Indeed, many people prefer not to get their music from the Internet at all: they use the Net to look up what they want, they press a button to order a CD, and a ship- ment company delivers the disc to their house the next day.)

For your recording you turn up the bass and vocals, add an extra chorus, and transfer the resulting sounds to a recordable CD, so that you can play them in your car. There are still record stores around, some of which even sell vinyl and cassettes. But who has time to shop these days?

You drive to the cinema. Maybe it's a waste of money, what with Near- Video-on-Demand being what it is. Video-on-Demand, the process by which 10 blockbusters would be available on TV every week, and you could dial them up at any time, proved unworkable. But Near-Video-on-Demand is the next best thing. Independence Day Part Four plays continuously, on a loop, on 20 different satellite channels. The starting times are staggered, so that every few minutes you can catch the film from the beginning on one channel or another - as long as you don't mind paying Rupert Murdoch for the privilege. There are a dozen different movies available, each one taking up 20 channels, and the programme changes every week. No wonder the video rental market is dwindling. Films are on television before they come out on video, so that while people still buy video discs, there's less incentive to go out and rent them.

For all that, cinema ticket sales are steady, and the cinema is still the place to launch a movie, to give it the high profile that will attract audiences when it's released on other formats. From your viewpoint, the cinema has the advantages of a colossal screen and the sound booming from all directions. Besides, you can't beat a communal experience now and then, for old times' sake.

TIMETABLE OF REVOLUTION

The technology already exists for the scene described above, but there is still work to be done, especially on making the new products attractive to the customer. "The question is," says Nick Thomas from Phillips, "what do you want and how much are you prepared to pay for it?" Here is one possible scenario.

1995: the Internet jukebox set up by Cerberus Sound and Vision: songs sent to you via the Internet, which can be recorded on CD-Rom.

1997: the introduction of Electronic Programme Guides, which navigate you through the endless choice of programmes towards the few you might actually enjoy. Appearance of Digital Video Discs which store 15 to 20 times as much information as a conventional disc. The beginning of interactive television, with viewers pressing buttons to take part in game shows.

1998: Near-Video-on-Demand. Each pay-per-view film takes up numerous digital satellite channels, with a different starting time on each, so you can start watching at different times. First versions of intelligent video recorders, which learn what programmes you might want to tape, and set themselves.

1999: wireless communication between machines. A radio link between TV and video means no stacks of equipment wired together.

2000: widescreen TV. Just 10cm deep, and 2m wide. "The Box" is no longer an appropriate term.

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