Broadband and the Future: Talking with Jonathon Fishman and Chad Nelson
Over the past few years, I've reported in these pages about the possibilities for documentarians in the developments of cyberspace (see my last piece, I.D., July-August 1997). What's interested me is the technology being developed to bring sound and image in combo to surfers of the Internet, most specifically making documentaries available to anyone who stumbles onto them. The road to this has been slow, with the speed of moderns and phone line capacities quickly being eclipsed by fiber optics and other methods to bring information to users on an almost instantaneous response basis.
In my last installment, I pointed out that phone lines as the natural heir to new technology were facing a healthy challenge: I was placing my money on cable as the way speed and image/sound enhancement would make it into the home. I also mentioned the developments in "streaming" by which image and audio impulses flow in a series of packets, one behind the other, and how this method might be promising in eliminating any jerkiness in an image. Now I'm ready to report on something only hinted at previously: it's the technology sector's latest buzzword—"Broadband." Not only does this magic increase the viability for documentaries on-line, but there's even the promise that their transmission will transcend the two dimensional presentation of video and film.
Broadband occurs in the "fat" transmission lines already flowing into many of America's corporate offices, carrying the Web at speeds largely unavailable right now in the home. But as the cable and telephone companies battle it out with each other over what will offer broadband to consumers, the tact is that this new transmission mode is getting even faster. On the cutting edge of these developments is an unassuming looking converted warehouse in seaside Santa Monica, the location of Eight Cylinder Studios. In typical California style, the workers entering the building clutch their ice-blended mochas while others stumble in from the beach, surfboards tucked under their arms. This is not a traditional entertainment company: here surfing the Web at your desk is not only encouraged, it's required.
Jonathon Fishman and Chad Nelson, the founders of Eight Cylinder Studios (www.8cs.com), are engaged in transforming the Web as we know it: if these thirtysomethings get their way, their computer code—the "Eight Cylinder Engine"—could move the Web from a relatively static representation of text and pictures into a three-dimensional world of virtual rooms, landscapes and full motion movement. As advertising and commerce the whole world of buying and selling on the Web-take more and more demands on the technology, the Web is destined to come alive in ways that will naturally invite a flood from the rest of the entertainment industry.
Start by explaining "broadband."
Jonathon Fishman: Technically, broadband just means a data pipe-larger data, larger pipe. Think plumbing. Broadband is commonly being broken up and compared to something called narrow band, which is something like a 56K pipe. So, at least in that context, when around here we say "broadband" in the context of pipes, we're talking -500K and above, ten times at least what most people are used to at home. Really, it's just a larger delivery method or mechanism or methodology fbr delivering data to a variety of different places.
Chad Nelson: And how it technically is being delivered to you, be it a fibre optic cable or some other actual technical medium, that actually doesn't really apply so much: broadband essentially means that you're getting the data at a much faster speed—and lots more of it, maybe even in different configurations from what you've been used to.
So if your product is restricted to broadband users, who's going to use the Eight Cylinder Engine?
JF: We look at three distinct categories. The first is what we call the "agency," or the "interactive agency" component. And that's really the 24 hours a day/7 days a week situation-the thinking of new ideas: the razor fish. The people who are going to need this technology are looking for a solution to the interactive ad, to evolve interactive advertising beyond the banner ad. The second client is really a content aggregator, or a content creator—the sort of company that has a set of content and either wants to bring it to the Web, the way MTV is doing, or creates almost a portal metaphor, big reservoirs of existing content music, or video, or whatever it may be—and wants a very immersing experience for anyone walking in. And the third client is someone who is serving that audience who is on there every day, looking for a variety of information, looking for gateways to other content. That third type of client wants to service that user, the information surfer.
So your goal is not really to create new content, but to support those companies that are creating content?
JF: Take the case of our current client, Launch, a company that historically had been producing a CD-ROM monthly periodical. It's a cross between MTV and Rolling Stone magazine, a place you'd go to discover new music. The model's very ad-supported. That's how they make their money: selling advertising for the disk. They had been using Macromedia Director, a piece of technology that's a great tool but it's dated, in that there are other software development tools now that are doing different things, particularly 3-D. So, Launch came to us and said, "We love what you guys are doing, and we want to evolve our product from being 2-1/2 D" [meaning, 'point and click'] "to something less static: we point, and then all of a sudden the image begins to build into an immersive real-time 3-D experience." So, Launch came to us to acquire our technology. More importantly, they needed a partner, someone to install an infrastructure so that as they continue producing their monthly periodical, the new technology simply kicked in to complement their efforts. It didn't make sense for us to take over producing their monthly periodical for them. So we licensed our technology to them, helped them create this team inside their company, and we worked with them to create their first prototype. Substantively, we'll be there throughout: as our technology evolves, we'll give them new updates and work with them as we go forward.
Explain that 3-D technology in terms that a basic Internet user could understand:
CN: One of the easiest ways to look at it i s to compare it to something like Yahoo, a service you can go to for a wide variety of different types of information-sports, or news, or weather, whatever. You get this two-dimensional screen of options and you click on the process that you want to follow. What we can do with our technology is present something that looks very much like a city, and it becomes an invitation not just to ask questions and get answers, but to wander through the streets and alleyways of this city of information, you know? This is an example of what Launch is doing: if Yahoo knew I was logging on from Seattle, then what would be seen on the screen would be a very three-dimensional virtual world within a Seattle—like setting—you'd see this space, maybe a courtyard, or a cityscape, and you'd see various other graphics; you could actually build a true three-dimensional newsstand, or a three-dimensional sports arena, or a three-dimensional music store, whatever it is you need to respond to the request that I as a user am making. And I would actually-virtually-walk around within that environment. In the process, I'd be able to get the same content that I would if I had just scrolled through the text, but now it would be experiential, as if I had actually been in this kind of fictional place. It's "the place" metaphor.
And that's what Eight Cylinder Engine can do?
CN: Yes. Our technology is called Eight Cylinder Engine. And it's code.
JF: I've been looking at all the 3-D used on television—for branding and for graphics. The most classic example is Monday Night Football. 3-D is very effective there, in a very cost-effective way, to creating a sense of drama and emotion. And in the process, that branding with, say, the ABC logo, whatever, occurs. It's another aspect of how 3-D can kind of bridge the gap between what is existing today in TV, and what will be that broadband Internet experience tomorrow.
CN: I think also that if you look at the Web or the Internet, it's evolved from a very print, two-dimensional heritage: most sites look like a magazine layout or a newspaper, maybe with some animation and some movement. We're coming at this with a whole new palette of tools, to create a much more visually dynamic and immersive experience.
What do you guys see as the current state of the telecom entertainment convergence ?
JF: I think we're doing great. In a matter of just 24 months really, I'm talking just two years here—the Internet has become mass media, and it's become integrated into so many people's lives, and how we do business. That concept of being "connected", being online, has just grown like weeds, throughout the U.S., for business and into the economy, into the stock market, into everyday rituals. I'm on the Internet every day. Maybe our parents aren't, but our children certainly will be. The forces behind all this—America Online has 60% of the users, and all the different Internet Service Providers, like Earthlink and others, all those different people pushing that segment, they're succeeding. That business is fairly clear, what it's doing, signing people up. So that's one aspect. The second thing I see are the pipes: basically, the push behind faster and faster plumbing—to gain access, to get data. There's great momentum there, especially with the cable companies. In the early '80s, cable was introduced to households and in a matter of ten years, cable connection has become standard—who gets a house now, an apartment, without getting cable? That same spirit, at least in my opinion, will drive the movement for faster pipes into the home. So that's another big core component. The third is the individual computer, the PC or the Mac, and the interactivity it invites. That was the key missing linkin the television industry, that you had to actually put this box into someone's house and connect a special wire to that house. Now we see PC's in an incredible number of homes—I mean, some families have two! And you're going to see every kid with a PC. Whether interactivity comes within the PC, or you buy it for a Dell or a Compaq, or if it comes in a set-top box, people are going to have some type of interactive device. When I look at those three trends from a kind of global perspective, I have to conclude that they're all pointing to a new kind of environment—one that begins with connectivity and invites interactivity, and that just moves me to the ability to put video and audio into a space.
Is it still valid to ask how this distribution war is resolving itself? Are the telephone companies going to win, or will the cable companies be the victors? Is that something that concerns you guys?
CN: Of course, it's something that constantly registers on our radar screen.
JF: Absolutely. The war's not over, and there are many more battles to face. For us, though, one benefit we have is that we're not so dependent on just one type of pipe or one type of technology being our distribution medium into the home or business. Our player technology will go through any sort of format. So whichever company or whatever technology emerges as the clear victor in the "broadband service provider wars," to us that's not as much of a concern. What we want to see happen, though, is that we don't get to a point where the technology has stagnated into a locked format where we're stuck at one speed for a long time. I mean, I think one of the big things for us is that every single year, the data transfer rates are increasing, and we're able to get more content through these pipes. I certainly wouldn't want all of a sudden for that to slow down and limit the amount of data that you're able to push through. The likelihood of that happening, though, I think is very slim, given what everyone really wants: you know, movies on demand. Every single studio here in L.A. wants to be able to pump their movies through this medium, into the homes, whenever the consumer wants. And that's going to require a lot of speed and a lot of connectivity, essentially between the service structure and, of course, the homes.
How far away do you think we are from seeing, say, Universal being able to pump every movie they have into the home? Is it five years?
JF: Probably sooner. And I think it won't be your standard feature, but maybe made-for-broadband-release type movies.
Okay, then tell me what kind of content broadband can offer that consumers aren't getting on television today. What is it that consumers really want?
JF: Well, first of all, that's a question that every single company into broadband is asking: what is the difference in the experience? You know what does it truly mean to have broadband-enabled content? Certainly, just having data coming through at a faster rate is not enough. For example, one of the things that I do on a daily basis is I look at stocks, I look at sports scores and I look at daily news. So, let's take this routine—for example, the sports metaphor: The Lakers just played last night, and I want to go read about the game. I want to see highlights; I want to see the scores; maybe I want some stats. So, if I want highlights, I have to watch television. And if I want the stats, I go on-line. And if I really want kind of the journalism behind it, I would either read the L.A. Times or I'd go on-line and check out ESPN's sports site. It's really three different places I'll need to go to receive all this different information. What I'd rather do is to be able to download in one place all this information for me to experience when I want—the highlights of the game, the key plays, have them already there waiting for me in the morning, simply because my "user profile" demands that this information has to be collated. That's one of the big things for me: taking all these different places that I go to for my traditional information-video, text, commentary, etc.—and putting them into a very simple-to-use interface that offers me all those features from a single source. And if I have a friend and I want to send him just this one moment from the game, say, Kobi's dunk, whatever, I can just e-mail him that cool little video clip, adding that element of connectivity to it—now there's a community, a really personal newsgroup of sorts, a group of people sharing bits and pieces of that information.
What you're implying is that every viewer is now going to demand an editor's credit, right? I mean, for me and my colleagues in the traditional broadcast paradigm, should we be shaking in our boots? Is television production as we know it going to go away?
JF: I think all of this opens tremendous opportunities for the traditional broadcast paradigm for a variety of reasons. One, from what I understand about documentary, it's all about how you convey information that you've gathered, how to make it compelling, how to tell a story. The medium truly offers a story. If you want to make it linear and just have it a thirty-minute segment, it certainly can be that. But then there's a whole other opportunity of adding a tremendous amount of other information behind your linear segment that people who want to go further can enter and have, so that they can understand more, learn more about. You can combine communities from all over the Internet, and bring people directly to those places, speak to them there through the Internet, or at least issue invitations to them, through traditional newsgroups, etc. So I think that from the documentary perspective—or from any creative perspective—this is something to embrace, because it only empowers you with more tools to tell your story, and to deliver your message. A second aspect that is very positive for a lot of people in traditional TV are the new opportunities to deliver content. There will always be segmentation, like in traditional cable networks, where four or five players deliver 75 to 90 percent of all the content, but there will be opportunities to get more direct access to potential audiences.
CN: The potential to take a documentary and to enlarge and expand upon the content in ways that you could never do in, say, a sixty-minute film-say, for example, there's a subject that's so deep and so rich that there's absolutely no way that in an hour that you'd be able to reach the depth you want-broadband would be a great way to accomplish that. If I was watching the Discovery Channel, and I'd just finished watching a show on the rain forest and I wanted more information, but I wanted it in the way that was very reminiscent of the show, in terms of how the information was presented-this would be a whole new way to continue or expand upon the subject matter.
JF: Yeah, the idea really is that you can still tell your linear traditional story through video. But the opportunity to add value and augment the entire experience is there with broadband.
MARK FINKELPEARL is an executive producer for Travel Channel, a network of Discovery Communications.