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What's A Digital Media Futurist?

Upon seeing Joan Van Tassel's title, Heather Kenyon decides to investigate just what a digital media futurist is and what she has to say about this supposed digital future of ours.

While going through some notes from E3, I came across a title that fascinated me: digital media futurist. "What on earth is a digital media futurist?" I thought. The answer is Joan Van Tassel, an author and teacher who has worked for every major university in Southern California, including such leaders as the University of Southern California (USC) and the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). She has followed up her first book, Advanced Television Systems: Brave New TV, with Digital TV Over Broadband: Harvesting Bandwidth, which hit bookshelves with its second edition since being published in 1999.

kenyon01a.gifkenyon02.gif Joan Van Tassels's First book, Advanced Television Systems : Brave New TV.The follow-up book by Joan Van Tassel, Digital TV Over Broadband: Harvesting Bandwidth

Expecting a very serious technophile, I was surprised when Ms. Van Tassel turned out to be vivacious and talkative as she imparted to me, her sort of wonder about what the future is going to hold.

HK:

What I am really interested in is this day when our television, computer and phone are one. But before I get into questions about how gaming fits into this new world, I wonder if you could explain your background and study in this realm?

JVT:

I was a documentary television producer. I worked on Real People and did a couple of pieces for 20/20 and PBS. We did about 40 documentary pieces over a ten year period. Then I went back to graduate school and I thought I was going to walk under great trees thinking great thoughts about television, but it turned out that I had signed up to a grad school that specialized in new media, which in 1983 I had never heard of.

HK:

What grad school was that?

JVT:

The Annenberg School of Communications at USC. I thought it was going to be like the Annenberg School in Pennsylvania, but no it wasn't. Everybody had computers on their desks. I remember in 1984 when this young professor hauled in this huge suitcase and put it on the desk and said, "This is a portable computer." Everyone in the audience gasped.

HK:

Wow, now they are three pounds.

JVT:

In those days you had to walk over to the computer department to pick up your output. We worked on a mainframe and sent it to the output for printing. I wasn't very interested in technology, but I worked with a Ph.D. student on an interactive video disk. In those days you didn't have digital video processes -- you couldn't encode or decode it -- so we put analog video on a video disk which you could digitally control. I did my Ph.D. dissertation on comparing linear video with interactive video to cancer patients using material explaining the side effects of cancer treatment. I took the same material, using exactly the same footage and did different kinds of interactives. We categorized different types of interactives and placed them in the video footage. People had the illusion that they could do something different, in fact they couldn't, but it looked like they could. That was very exploratory. I had about 50 subjects and really found some differences in how people reacted to interactive material. I think the most interesting one is that people who had the interactive presentation were more likely to seek a second opinion. I didn't even write that up in my dissertation because I didn't really have any theoretical support for it, but it stayed in my mind. Since then I've thought that it's really because in an interactive mode you are more in a decision making mode, period. That carries over into how you imagine you would act in the future.

HK:

Did you think that it would make them feel less like victims and more empowered by finding information and asking questions in this format?

JVT:

I didn't even think of that. You know, we didn't have the Internet then, so I didn't have a framework for it and that's why I didn't look to support it particularly in theory. Therefore I couldn't really write it up, but that was the conclusion that I reached, yes.

HK:

So you just put it out there saying, 'I wonder how they will react to this different, interactive stimuli?'

JVT:

I did have some things that I did test that I would say really supported some of the research, which is that people in the interactive group actually experienced more emotions and a wider range of emotions. Consequently their intellectual grasp of the material suffered a little bit because they could go back over things and really deepen their emotional response to it. Let me tell you, side effects is a very emotional thing for a cancer patient. You are going to be sick. You are going to lose your hair. Nobody wants to hear this. Part of the question was, "Could you use an interactive device, like a computer, especially if it had video material, in place of a person?" Which initially sounds horrible, but consider this,would you rather have a well produced piece or a nurse practitioner at 4:00 p.m., who has already told eight people the effects of cancer treatment? That person has been through a lot and so at the end of the day they may forget to tell you things. They have had their own emotional experiences that day.

HK:

So these pieces that you produced, they had video and then they also had...I am just trying to figure how it worked...how it was interactive.

JVT:

The video pieces were the same. The people who saw linear video, that's all they saw; all the pieces put together. But in the interactive conditions I broke them up in different ways. It looked like TV.

HK:

If you had a question could you go more into that area and then skip other areas?

JVT: .You couldn't skip, but it looked like you did.

HK:

Were they interacting with the other patients as well?

JVT:

No. When I got out of grad school I went back to television. I started teaching but I wasn't able to stay there because I realized that the students' world was going to be changed within ten years of their graduating. I couldn't stand the idea of not equipping them for it. I became more and more tilted toward digital media. Gradually it took over, and here I am, totally digitized.

HK:

How do you spend your time now? I know that you've been at Pepperdine and at UCLA. Do you do special seminars?

JVT:

I do at UCLA. I taught as a faculty member at Pepperdine, but I stopped because of my full-time writing. I wanted to write more because at the Annenberg school, I was given this vision of the new communications of the world and I will tell you how I thought of it: it is global, high definition, interactive, two way communication networks.

HK:

Which is where we are heading very quickly

JVT:

I have a 50-year timeline. It's not so much high definition as it is variable bit rates. So it's a variable definition depending on what your needs are and what the infrastructure permits. For instance, you are not going to have broadband wireless everywhere anytime soon.

HK:

But pieces and chunks will eventually come together.

JVT:

They are already here! A really completed global network is what I consider the work of the 21st Century. This is what we are doing.

HK:

In The Industry Standard, they had pictures of underwater cable that was laid a year ago versus this year and it was just incredible! From these threads to these chunks of red. We are building a whole new infrastructure. How do you think gaming, or what gaming is going to evolve into, is going to fit into this new structure?

JVT:

I started out like everybody else on consoles. Then in about 1987, I went online to things like MUOOS, Multi User Object Oriented Spaces. They weren't so game oriented. They were more like chat rooms where you imagined the space that you were in. It was a sort of collectively designed space. MUOOS was very much the forerunner to things like Ultima. You got to be an immortal by designing an area. You came into the central square and it would be a kingdom of some kind. A lot of them had this medieval idea to them. There were usually multiple kinds of points and you chose the kind of player that you were. At any given time you could alter your communication between whisper, talk and shout. You could talk to one person, to only the people on your team or to everyone in that location, which was shouting. You used words in little pointy brackets to indicate, 'Joan curtseys,' or 'Joan waves.' I went on a few times and then a guy contacted me and I got on his team. You could be a warrior, magician, etc. There were things written into the game so you had to sleep and eat, which means you had to stop what you were doing and go take care of business. If you didn't you ran out of what were called "mana" points. There were three kinds of points to get: money, killing points to get weapons, and then there were mana points, which were power points. If you ran out of power points then you couldn't go anywhere and had to sit out a whole round. You can see all these elements coming together now in the online, multi-player games.

My general belief about this is that there will always be a market for fictional entertainment and that games are the template for what will be in the interactive environment. So far we have about 30 years of interactive entertainment development. The only successful ones that I have really seen are games. One thing that has not migrated has been traditional drama/comedy type programming. But where you do see it is in games like Ultima.

Ultima was developed out of MUOOS. It is an online game that takes place in a sort of vaguely medieval space. A player is born into Ultima pretty much like you were born into the world: naked, crying and alone. You have to accumulate an identity and it takes a long time. It also costs $10 a month. The more time you spend the easier your identity will become. You buy property, you build a house and you take on an occupation. There is actually quite a conflict between the settlers and the soldiers so to speak. The same conflict if you had a house in Woodland Hills and people were always starting wars. It's really very funny. Pretty much the users keep the story moving; 90% of the story is moved by the players. But they have a staff of writers and if they begin to feel there needs to be some big event then they will stage it. Or they have celebrities come on who play characters. It's starting to take on some of the characteristics; the attention to detail, individual environments, the use of writers to quote 'move the story along.'

I think some people have been looking at the wrong format. Look at DEN and the most recent crop of failures. What was their template? TV. TV is not natively interactive and isn't going to work. Games have a native interaction to them. No matter how fast or slow, they just do, so they fit the interactive environment really well. We are going to see many, many, many more ways of doing games that are collaborative, dramatic environments; fantasy environments.

HK: So when your TV/computer et. al. is one, you might have the option of watching TV or a movie as we know it today, or interacting in one of these environments?

JVT:

Yes. Who wouldn't want to have a big, beautiful game that's 8 x 10 while you're leaning on the couch eating grapes with your horizontally and vertically fixed air mouse? It probably won't work for twitch games very well though.

HK:

That's one thing we have been discussing in the magazine, is that gaming is becoming a much wider realm. People used to only think of twitch games, but actually a lot of games that are currently being sold are for kids, family titles. Are you saying that in this new world, that trend is going to continue even more?

JVT:

I do think so but the genre that I think holds the most promise is role playing games.

HK:

Shows like Friends and Cheers: folks watch them because they are a group of people they like. It's almost like spending time with them. You want to see what is going to happen next.

JVT:

That is something that is called terra social interaction and it's the tendency for people watching television to identify with characters as though they were real people and as though they were talking to them.

HK:

It seems like in these environments you get to know the other players, so you are having that same experience but instead of watching it, you are immersed in it.

JVT:

Yes, and besides that in many ways you may interact with both the character and the person. If you get to like a character, the two of you can go off-line, exchange email, meet and even get married. It is also possible to have friendships with a person's character that you would never know in regular life. You might not even like them but like that particular inclination of them.

HK:

Everybody out there is waiting for Star Trek's Holodeck to become a reality. Do you have any thoughts on this?

JVT:

Well, it's kind of interesting. Okay, we have the world. Let's just call that for now "reality." The three dimensional and four dimensional world of stuff. Now we have a network, it's the doubled world. It goes back to the Greeks with their myths. There's nothing original about this, as kind of a collective conscious and that is really what we've created on the Net. We keep making this a more and more real example or real copy of the world. It gets more and more detailed. If you can't find something on the Net, it's really frustrating. You have a sense that, 'It has to be there somewhere. I am just not able to find it.' Probably you are right. You don't have the right combination of search engines to get to it. The world, like our real world, has become bigger than anyone can know. That is what the Holodeck is. This is when the other world becomes as big as, maybe bigger, than the real world. Since the imagined world needs both that world and the resources of the real world to make it. Then it's probably bigger than the real world.

I will take this a step further -- there will be no popular film that does not have an interactive extension. There will always be the desire to sit around the campfire and listen to a story, why would that change? But when you have people who are fully engaged interactively as well, they are going to want to recreate that experience whenever they want it. Plus, they are not going to want to watch the same movie twice, or three times or four times or even the sequel forever. They are going to want to be able to do things in that world, so if companies don't create that, then the users will.

HK:

For instance, The Phantom Menace: LucasArts came out with a pod racing flight simulator game. Would these types of elements now be integrated into the film? So that if you wanted to take a break from the film and pod race with all those characters you could and then you could rejoin watching the film?

JVT:

There's that kind of interactively, but I am thinking more along the idea of this sustained immersive environment. So there's going to be the Phantom Menace world that you can belong to.

HK:

And you can go in and investigate all the different planets and live in those areas...

JVT: ...and reinvent those characters so that you can be someone's cousin. I think the next group of users is absolutely going to demand the ability to engage in an immersive environment that is responsive to them. They don't have to change the characters that they have invented, but those characters need to populate that world and some extension of those characters need to be able to respond to users in some way.

HK:

That is going to be a lot of work for a lot of people.

JVT:

It is. Although users do so much of it themselves, it is going to be a lot of work for a lot of people. I think that there will be big environments and small environments.

HK:

And some might continue on and on and on very strong, where some worlds might be popular for a little bit and then ebb as the movie becomes less popular.

JVT:

Exactly. I think too that people have not really, in the game world, capitalized at all on email, but they will. You are not necessarily going to have to go to a place. Elements of games will come to you, and they should.

HK:

How will that work?

JVT:

Well it depends on how broadband the deal is. The work space is already pretty broadband. Characters can interact among each other using email. If I were running a game, I would certainly be notifying people of things that were going on in the environment, if they wanted. If there is going to be an attack, you want to know so you can come and pick up your pitchfork. You could be emailed with graphics of your 'house' going up in flames. They could notify you on your cell phone. There is a lot of cross media engagement that could be occurring that is not that expensive to do and players could opt in and out. There's a source of private amusement that they might enjoy. You could really link this game into someone's life. You could send them Christmas greetings from the characters in the game, for example. And that's just off the top of my head.

HK:

What do you think the time frame on this is?

JVT:

As soon as people think of it and start doing it, it's ready to go.

HK:

And the sort of watching these immersive communities or fantasy communities on your television?

JVT:

There is a little bit of work here. In my opinion it's somewhere in a 15 to 20 year horizon. It's ten years at the soonest. There are some standards to work out. Basically what would have to happen is, you would have to have a communications gateway into your house and a communications center that allows you to port material to whatever device you want, where you want it.

HK:

What do you think the biggest technological hurdle is at this point?

JVT:

Standards. But that's not the biggest barrier. The biggest barrier is the business game. What are the relationships among the players? That's the real unsettling part. Everybody wants to make the biggest dollar. Some of those relationships are in place, but everybody argues and more time is spent on that. Nobody starts out by saying, 'Okay, I'll take 2%.' Everybody starts out at 50%. There's a lot of players and some of them are not going to make it. Like the equipment people, I don't see that they are going to be able to stay in the game.

HK:

Do you see the telecommunications giants as being the real winners? They are the ones that control the pipeline.

JVT:

No, I don't. Again, I'm using a 50 year timeline, so I have a different take on it. In the near term sure, they are the winners. But I think that wireless communication is really going to challenge them and broadband satellite.

HK:

So who do you see as the main players in this kind of new world? Obviously you have the people designing the games.

JVT:

Yeah, they have a really good future. The content people do. If you have a hit, you have a hit. When you get it right, you get it big. The delivery people are the near term winners -- actually the infrastructure people underlying the delivery people -- until the network is extended to its economical end points, which is probably well short of a global broadband network. Still, there is a lot of work that needs to happen. There is some technology work that needs to happen, like bandwidth trading.

HK:

What is that, bandwidth trading?

JVT:

It's kind of like the way you envision the electrical grid and moving electricity to wherever you need it. It doesn't really work like that but it should, and you think that it does. We need a grid like that for bandwidth. It doesn't really exist for a lot of reasons. GTE's network is GTE's network and Quest's is Quest's. They do trade around a bit but there's no center. Los Angeles is in some ways, as they are developing these telephone hotels, so that's kind of the precursor to bandwidth trading. The interconnects need to be developed before you can really move around bandwidths. There is actually something called the BTO, the Bandwidth Trading Office, and people are starting to work on it and figure out how to do it. In the next five to ten years, we are going to see it. Large amounts of digital assets will be able to be moved and you won't know how. You'll just get a 'bit bill.'to handle this world that's coming?

JVT:

Yes, there really is. Those submarine cables: when this system is in place, you are going to be able to push material across the networks easily. Right now it's a nightmare. You have to hire somebody to tell you how to get material from here to Tokyo or worse Osaka. Like Carson City to Osaka? If you are not in a major place then you have to hire a company to tell you how to do that. We have specialists in that arena. It should be easy and everyone knows that you should be able to run material over a network and somebody gets paid for it. There's a settlements process that's not here yet.

HK:

It is like electricity; a distributor is buying electricity from a company and you, the consumer, don't even know it. You turn a switch and it works. You don't know how, you just get a bill. Well, everywhere except California right now, but it is the same principal applied to bandwidth.

JVT:

That's where we are, in this very fundamental working out of the distribution of bandwidth. We aren't even at the content part yet and we are not going to be there for a while. In the meantime there's all this richness of experiment.

HK:

What do you think is the most exciting or interesting thing going on right now leading up to this?

JVT: The most interesting thing to me is the amazing speed with which it becomes second nature. But, the most exciting thing is the opportunity for relationships with people. People can really find the other people who offer what it is they need in their life to grow and be satisfied. That's really thrilling.

Advanced Television Systems: Brave New TV, by Joan Van Tassel. Woburn, Massachusetts: Butterworth-Heinemann Publishers Ltd., 1996. 336 pages. ISBN: 0240802438 ($46.95)

Digital TV Over Broadband: Harvesting Bandwidth, by Joan Van Tassel, Woburn, Massachusetts: Focal Press, 2000, 2nd edition. 370 pages. ISBN: 0240803574 ($47.95)

Heather Kenyon is editor-in-chief of Animation World Network. After receiving her B.F.A. with honors in Filmic Writing from USC's School of Cinema-Television, she went to work for Hanna-Barbera Cartoons. Currently, she is an International Board Member of Women In Animation and on the Board of Trustees of Trees for Life.

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