When the media meet as one
November 7, 2001 - by John Vince

The past 40 years have witnessed an extraordinary evolution. From slow expensive machines controlled by punched cards, computers have become low-cost, powerful units taking up no more space than a briefcase. Simultaneously, our world has become interlaced with telephone wires, optic fibres, undersea cables, microwave links, television channels and satellite communications.

At the crossing of these two developments stands the Internet-a direct result of computer technology intersecting with communication technology. But for many in the world of today's media, this is merely a first landmark in what promises to be a giant upheaval in the way people communicate, relax and work. This is the era of digital convergence.

According to a recent article in Scientific American, convergence is in principle "the union of audio, video and data communications into a single source, received on a single device, delivered by a single connection." Digital technology has already provided a medium for integrating media that until now required distinct channels of communication: we can now send emails using our televisions or text messages over mobile phones. Real-time video can be transmitted over radio channels, while television and radio can be received on Personal Computers (PCs).

Hyped-up precedents

Full digital convergence promises real-time access to information anywhere in the world, and global communication through text, graphics, video and audio. In fact, there seems to be no technological limit to what might be possible. "The reality of 'anywhere, anytime' access to broadband digital networks is going to make our lives freer and fuller," Gerald Levin, chief executive officer of AOL Time Warner, has promised. But technology alone cannot bring about such a world: as long as consumers and companies do not embrace it, convergence is likely to go the way of several hyped-up predecessors.

Over a decade ago, for example, virtual reality was the technology of the future, and many people anticipated a day where we would be wearing head-mounted displays and interacting with all manner of virtual environments. At the time there was real concern about changes in industrial practices and social behaviour brought about by this technology. So what happened to this vision? Well, we got it wrong. Currently, the home computer is the main interface to the Internet. But relatively few people in the world have access to PCs, and few would argue that they are ideal for the purpose-they crash and freeze because they were not designed for widespread Internet use.

In promising to fuse media as diverse as television, telephone communication, video games, music and data transmission, the era of digital convergence goes one better than yesterday's celebrated "information superhighway." Yet in doing so, it also raises critical questions: what services are needed, what is the ideal platform, will it be fully interactive? Can the old be so easily combined with the new?

At the root of any digital application stands a binary coding system: designers of early computers found that only when using such a system could their computers be relied upon to give consistent results. The binary code enables numbers, letters and characters to be assigned unique digital patterns that can be stored on magnetic tape, compact discs, DVD and computer files. These digital codes can then be readily transmitted via copper cable, fibre optics or as radio waves. Once in a digital format, text, audio, graphics and video can therefore all be processed by one common technology with great accuracy.

Skeptical consumers

Yet achieving this single technology is far from straightforward. There are currently three major television broadcast standards, and they are all incompatible with each another. But this is nothing compared to the many technologies supporting the Internet, each with a different bandwidth and physical media. The problems faced in designing platforms and communication systems that will be accepted across the world can appear insuperable.
One body, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), is at the heart of efforts to devise world standards for coding audio-visual information. Its Motion Picture Experts' Group has already notched up several important benchmarks via standards for storage media and broadcast, while the MPEG-4 (now under development) will establish the means for storage, transmission and interactive manipulation of video data-the essence of what digital convergence promises to deliver.

Even once global standards are assured, however, a further obstacle lies in wait. The Internet is plagued by long, erratic response times because it is a pull-technology, driven by patterns of user demands. Push-technology, on the other hand, reverses the relationship: servers simply send information to passive users, as in television and radio. But if some form of combination between one-way television flow and interactive Internet is to be the basis of our future media, it is hard to see how it could be operated. Current network technology could not support a pull-based approach towards television, while a push-based approach would simply duplicate what we have already: normal, uninteractive television or radio.

Yet the problem of fusing Internet with television is also one of defining the services offered. As Steve Jobs, chief executive officer of Apple, has observed: "TV is where you go to turn your brain off; the computer is where you go to turn it on." Information, entertainment and relaxation appear at first to be quite different needs. Serious doubts remain over whether consumers will be interested in having to make the sort of mental effort associated with computing while also settling down in front of a sitcom.

"There is a large group of people who have no interest in the new media and, contrary to many predictions, that segment is shrinking slower that the icebergs in Antarctica," recently warned Horst Stipp, director of research at NBC television network in the United States.

Besides the issue of consumer habits, infrastructure costs are set to be immense, and will have to be met by national states or the private sector before being passed on to users. Platforms do not necessarily have to be expensive. The mobile phone is a good example of how something that is technologically sophisticated can almost be given away, with its cost recovered through service charges. Users are then coerced through clever marketing to upgrade to newer phones with more features to reinforce their dependence.

The creation and copyright protection of digital content are other vital issues. We have already seen that satellite television provides us with so many extra channels that television programmes have to be repeated indefinitely to fill the available space. But perhaps digital convergence will solve this by making it easier to create totally synthetic television programs employing virtual sets and actors. One might even suggest this has already started to happen.

Whatever the outcome, it is obvious that technology will play an increasing part in our everyday lives. Beyond technology, digital convergence embraces the services, industrial practices and social behaviour that form modern society. We have in our hands the technology to construct the most sophisticated machines ever built, but if they are unusable, simply because of their operating instructions, then recent lessons have taught us they will not survive. Whatever we design must be simple, reliable and useful. Perhaps this is where artificial intelligence will play an important role.


John Vince is professor of digital media at Bournemouth University (United Kingdom)

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