The Dawn of the Age of Responsive Media

By Bo Begole, VP & Global Head-Media Technologies Lab, Huawei R&D USA

The Dawn of the Age of Responsive MediaBo Begole, VP & Global Head-Media Technologies Lab, Huawei R&D USA

The future of digital media is more exciting than ever. While pundits search for the next big thing among a dizzying array of shiny ideas (drones, virtual reality, digital assistants, autonomobiles and more), we should also notice that technologies have achieved critical mass to enable a new world of audio and video experiences–media that responds dynamically to your attention, engagement and context.

Why Isn’t Today’s Media More Responsive?

Content producers are still patting themselves on the back for having discovered the phenomenon of binge watching, but in a world of perpetually distracted consumers, media needs to seriously raise its game to keep commanding a premium.

Today's media content is bifurcated into two extreme ends of a spectrum. At one end are "lean-back experiences" such as movies and television where the consumers are largely passive and are led through a story by content authors/producers. At the other end are "lean-forward" gaming experiences where the user is highly engaged and drives the action through an environment created by content authors/producers. Surely, there must be something between these extremes, some form of interactive media where the narrative can be driven by authors/producers and also tailored dynamically to the situation and preferences of audience members. Unfortunately, though examples are out there, interactive media has yet to gain any traction largely for two reasons.

First, content producers have a story to tell, usually as a single thread through a beginning, middle and end. Video production is time consuming and generating branches adds time and effort. Second, the way interactive media is usually done today is that when the story reaches a branch point, the audience is asked to pick a branch. Story viewing is largely a "lean-back" experience in which the audience has immersed themselves into an imaginary world; asking them to select a branch breaks the immersion and any suspension of disbelief they may have entered. Watching the story is no longer just fun and entertaining–now it's work.

Today's emerging technologies will change both of those problems. Not by asking the audience to interact directly with the media, as was done in interactive media of the past, but by creating intelligent media experiences that respond to the audience's engagement, preferences and situation. When I was at Xerox PARC in the 2000s, we called this concept Responsive Media and used it to create a number of media-based shopping experiences. Those prototypes were bulky and time consuming to create, but the technologies we are seeing announced recently will break down these two major barriers.

The future of responsive media is the convergence of lean-back entertainment and lean-forward gaming

Costs for Multi-branch Content are Dropping

There are amazing new cameras this year that generate 360-degree panoramic video such as Nikon's KeyMission 360, and some even in stereo like the Vuze. In contrast to a slew of large and expensive multi-camera rigs announced last year from Google/GoPro, Lytro, Jaunt and Nokia, that were aimed at professionals, the newly announced products are more consumer–– friendly in size and price, opening a wider market of 360-degree video production. 

Add to this the growing number of drones, robots and other vehicles that can take cameras to places humans cannot easily reach, and we'll see an explosion of new content from fascinating points of view around the globe.

But how can producers edit and tell a story from the large amounts of multi-view video that these new camera systems so easily capture? In the past, you needed high-end computers and software to manage such a production, but now we're seeing web-based editing systems like Interlude's Treehouse that make it easier for producers to specify branch points at which the audience can navigate through a multi-view landscape. As with the 360-degree cameras, this kind of capability has been available to professional video production studios, but it is now brought into the hands of consumers.

Keeping the Audience Immersed

On the consumption side, new technologies are eliminating the need for the audience to break out of the story to carefully select their preferred branch. Motion sensors on VR goggles can detect the user's natural turn of the head, allowing them to gaze upon elements of the scene that they choose. In addition, we see sensors like Google Tango that detect the position of a smart-phone in a room so that you can move it around like a "viewport" within a dynamic scene. Imagine moving your phone or tablet in front of you to navigate around 3D virtual objects naturally.

There's more, though. Apple recently acquired Emotient, a company that uses advanced computer vision to recognize the emotions of people. In the past, they and other companies like Affectiva used these technologies to help content producers maximize the emotional impact of advertisements and movies, though not in real time. Imagine the next generation of these technologies embedded onto smartphones and VR goggles and robots and autonomobiles so that they not only sense the audience's engagement in real time, but they can also predict disengagement and prevent it by dynamically shifting the content to appeal to an individual's preferences, emotional state and situation.

The Game Comes to You

Responsive media will be more like an engaging conversation among humans, rather than just passive consumption. Imagine what might a dynamic media experience would be like when watching a pro football game in virtual reality (VR). Of course, you can view the action from any angle. Also, the system prioritizes statistics and commentary depending on which team you are rooting for. It tailors information frequency and content depending on how you are engaging with the game (Are you quietly observing or are screaming and second-guessing?). It determines who your favorite player is by tracking your eyeballs, and defaults to that player’s microphone during breaks in the action.

It goes farther. Ultimately, the future of responsive media is the convergence of lean-back entertainment and lean-forward gaming. Imagine the day when you can watch a computer-generated simulation game between the fantasy football team that you designed and that of your fiercest rival. While the simulation uses the player statistics to dynamically generate the game play, it also reads your emotions and that of your rival, selecting outcomes that maximize the thrill of the experience to keep you both on the edge of your seat!

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