The word is convergence. Live with it

Big Brother's huge success on both TV and the Web was just the start. Convergence is the new buzz word as games, movies, phones and computers embrace each other in digital ecstasy
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The Independent Online

According to a report published last week, Britain is expected to have the biggest "convergent" population in Europe by 2005. Within five years, the number of individuals on the three major platforms - digital TV, mobile phone and PC internet - will reach 18.8 million.

According to a report published last week, Britain is expected to have the biggest "convergent" population in Europe by 2005. Within five years, the number of individuals on the three major platforms - digital TV, mobile phone and PC internet - will reach 18.8 million.

The convergence of computing, television and telecommunications, and the arrival of internet broadband, has been talked up at length, but we still have more idea of the technology we will use than of what we will actually do and see. "In the name of progress", Marshall McLuhan wrote, "our official culture is striving to force the new media to do the work of the old." Innovation is something we still imagine belongs to the technology, not the content.

Television, for instance, always the last medium to capitalise on new ideas and cultural trends, is only now wising up to the potential. "I don't feel that it is yet aware of the real implication and possibilities of these new technologies," says John Wyver, co-founder of Illuminations, a TV production company that has pioneered the creative development of convergent media. "The technologies are still seen as existing separately."

Initially, producers were baffled as to how to bring in revenue from the internet and therefore used web pages simply as adjuncts to existing programmes: the new media doing the work of the old. The Net was used only to expand on brands already established by traditional broadcasting. The fact is that just as Napster's music-sharing software made the music industry sit up, and e-books are making publishers twitchy, digital cinema and broadcasting are likely to wake up the worlds of mainstream film and television.

This was part of the agenda at last weekend's festival in Sheffield, described as the UK's "first celebration of creative use and abuse of convergence media". Andy Stamp, a festival director, believes: "Content and creativity will come to the fore, because broadcasters now have to open up to artists and concepts much more than they used to." The embryonic entertainment industries are enough of a threat to make the mainstream listen.

One of the contributors at Sheffield, Atom Films, heralded as "a next-generation entertainment company", has come to prominence for reviving the short film. It is one of a number of companies to bring short films to the internet, and access has been key to its success. It allows new and first-time film-makers an outlet for their work, and the viewer benefits from being able to download films, particularly those whose content makes them unlikely to be shown at the local multiplex.

E-cinema is expected to have a huge impact. In a recent study by Screen Digest, its development is compared to the emergence of "talkies" 75 years ago. Although the mega-budget Star Wars: Episode I was the first mainstream film to premiere in e-cinema format, it is the cheapness and accessibility that will appeal to new film-makers eager to create work for cinema as well as the internet.

The new digital order will reinterpret the role of the distributor, just as surely as the age of "enteractivity", as it is termed, will usher in a form of "narrowcasting" that questions the traditional role of the broadcaster. The recent launch of the Tivo will jump-start a trend for such personal video recorders, enabling users to customise their viewing. Internet TV sites such as I-chooseTV are now commissioning programme-makers to produce shows for the Net that will all but provide people with personal channels.

"It is not merely the role of the broadcaster that is changing," Andy Stamp thinks. "The roles of consumer and producer are also becoming confused. The audience will become the producer, whether they are choosing to put art or TV on their mobile phone or choosing the content for video conferencing." He suggests that we will inhabit a culture of "always on" technology, and the TV set will increasingly become the point of access to the internet.

Both PlayStation.2 and the forthcoming Xbox from Microsoft are marketed as digital entertainment units rather than mere games consoles. Games are moving away from their natural habitat. The games market has created a subsidiary industry that is expected to become massive - online gaming. Just as text-messaging has become popular with British teenagers, the mobile phone is expected to become a second home for games. And while gaming will engage the youth when convergence really kicks in, older users are likely to use interactive TV at first for shopping and betting.

Certainly, since the arrival of Open TV, interactive TV has been seen more as a provider of services than of entertainment - with the exception of sports programmes, in which the viewer can choose the camera angles. TwoWay TV, the interactive games channel, has created a hybrid for On Digital that will be broadcast from January. By licensing the rights to familiar TV brands such as Mastermind, Fifteen to One, The Crystal Maze and making them interactive, they are appealing to both age groups. It was the success of Big Brother that helped to put the word "interactive" into the mainstream: it was the first show to be transmitted on television and the Web. But it was still a brand appearing on two different platforms, rather than a show embracing the spirit of interactivity.

Genuinely innovative drama projects are currently in production at the BBC, where a new post of head of imagineering has been created to concentrate on new technologies. The projects may emerge not solely as programmes, but could be computer games, CD-roms or online interactive experiences. In two planned dramas, The Asylum and The Party, each episode views the same event from a different interactive perspective.

Another project, The Block, is an online soap featuring a virtual building in which avatars of members of the public and scriptwriters inhabit the rooms and create the drama collectively. The stories may begin with a simple premise and have more of traditional game-playing about them than plot and storyline, but they are a step up from shopping and commerce toward creativity and entertainment.

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