What's A Digital Media Futurist?

by Heather Kenyon

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.

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.


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