Next Frontiers: The New Entertainment
By N'Gai Croal
NEWSWEEK

Still waiting for the so-called digital revolution to change your home life? Sometimes you just have to take things into your own hands. New, user-friendly computer programs have made movie-making possible with a few clicks of the mouse.

Dec. 10 issue - They said we wanted a digital revolution, and during the '90s, the slogans came fast and furious, each more seductive than the last. The 500-channel universe. The wired home. The jukebox in the sky.
Everyone can be a director.

FOR YEARS, companies like AOL, Sony, Apple, Microsoft and Sun have tried to sell us on the idea of a world where everything connects seamlessly as part of a massive infotainment universe-where you can see any Web site, watch any movie, surf every TV channel and listen to any song ever recorded, all at the touch of a button or the click of a mouse. And one by one, each "wow!" turned into a "zzzz." The 500-channel universe ended up giving us channels with nothing on. The wired home made no sense without affordable, dependable broadband. The jukebox in the sky fell victim to the shortsightedness of the record industry in the face of Napster's rapid success. And countless bad short films later, we realized that while everyone can be a director, making a watchable movie is a different proposition.

The digital revolution may have fallen short of the hype, but it is far from dead. The same way the Internet grew up thanks to grass roots users, not corporations, a bottom-up vision of personalized digital entertainment is taking hold in ways big and small. If you have a PC hooked up to the Net, a digital camera, an MP3 player, a digital camcorder, a videogame console, a DVD player or a personal video recorder like TiVo or Replay, you're already halfway to being a digital rebel. Just look at the impact that MP3 files have had on recorded music, where you can take a CD and rip the songs you like onto your PC's hard drive-or, in the case of file-sharing pioneer Napster and its many clones, download songs from a vast worldwide library. With digital cameras, you can print pictures at home or send them to friends via e-mail. With personal video recorders like TiVo, Replay and UltimateTV, you can watch the shows you want on your timetable, not the networks'. And with increasing numbers of videogames, you don't have to be satisfied with the levels that the designers created; you can import new ones created by fellow geeks or assemble your own. The common denominator is you-you decide what you want and how you want it.

What's driving this trend? The Internet has evolved from novelty to necessity, both at work and at home. Slow, aging PC connectors like parallel and serial ports have been replaced by faster, more intelligent ones like USB and FireWire. Digital still cameras and digital video cameras continue to get better, cheaper and easier to use. The MP3 music format made it simple to listen to music in compressed digital formats, and MP3 players let us take that music on the go. Hard drives and memory cards for portable devices have shrunk in size and cost while growing in capacity. And the growing popularity of CD and now DVD recorders means that we can easily move music and video from the PC, where we create, edit and assemble, to the TV room, where we sit back, relax and enjoy.

"When I look at entertainment, there are two types. There's creative entertainment: professionally made music and movies, etc., which takes creative talent. Then there's passive entertainment, where you just sit and watch. We wanted to bridge the gap by letting people be creative without requiring a degree." - MARK HANSONVP of VAIO marketing for Sony

If the idea of creating your own entertainment sounds scary, that's because until recently it has been. Using a digital camcorder to record family fun may have been easy enough, but often the process of getting the video footage onto the PC was difficult, to say nothing of editing it and sharing the movies with friends. Sony has taken aim at this problem with MovieShaker, which lets you import video clips, select a "mood" for your video and, at the click of a button, produce a short video complete with music and an assortment of transitions-wipes, fades, irises and more-that suit the mood you've chosen. "When I look at entertainment, there are two types," says Mark Hanson, VP of VAIO marketing for Sony. "There's creative entertainment: professionally made music and movies, etc., which takes creative talent. Then there's passive entertainment, where you just sit and watch. We wanted to bridge the gap by letting people be creative without requiring a degree."
Sony's zeal for creativity extends all the way to the PlayStation 2, says Alex Rigopulos, whose simple yet addictive music-remixing game, Frequency, is published by Sony. "Playing music feels so damn good, but learning it the traditional way is so damn difficult," he says. "Sony understood what we were trying to do right away."

Another company seeking to bring creativity to the masses is Apple, whose iTunes and iMovie software gets high marks from the Mac crowd. The company has made an immediate hit with its new iPod: a pocket-size MP3 player with a hard drive large enough to store 1,000 songs. Because it uses FireWire, the connecting standard that Apple helped create, instead of the slower USB, the iPod can automatically synchronize its contents with those of your Mac's jukebox in seconds. The iPod can also store data files in addition to music. "I don't think of the iPod as an MP3 player," says Peter Hoddie, president of Generic Media, a streaming-media company. "It's a hard drive with headphones. And I don't think it's an accident that the name of the product does not include the word 'music'." Though Apple refuses to discuss future products, the iPod clearly has the potential to become the ultimate portable media player: a tiny, slick device that lets you carry "work" files (documents, spreadsheets, presentations) and entertainment (music, movies and games) with you anywhere you go. For now, the iPod works only with Macs, but Apple is coyly suggesting it might come out with a Windows version.

The place where hard drives may have the biggest impact on entertainment is in your living room, thanks to personal video recorders from the likes of TiVo, Replay and UltimateTV. Because they let you watch television on your schedule, you'll make hash of the networks' carefully crafted "appointment TV" lineup, designed to keep you watching, say, NBC on Thursday nights from "Friends" at 8 to "E.R." at 10. Replay is taking the watch-when-you-want concept one step further. Based on research that shows that 70 percent of its customers have broadband, the company is including an Ethernet networking port in its latest model. The new ReplayTV 4000 lets you send a show that you've recorded to any of your friends who has the same device-earning the enmity of ABC, NBC and CBS, which have all filed suit against Replay maker SonicBlue. "The folks listed in the suit are among the original investors in ReplayTV," says SonicBlue CEO Ken Potasher, suggesting that studios are using the carrot and the stick. "They helped bring this technology to market, and they're shareholders in our company today." It might be time for the two sides to play let's make a deal. Potasher says the same companies are negotiating with SonicBlue to create new services for TV viewers that devices like the ReplayTV 4000 make possible. They're contemplating offering viewers a free episode of "Sex and the City," say, followed by a one-click offer to subscribe to HBO; or they could serve up racy "Survivor" outtakes over the Net. The networks have a major incentive to try some new ideas: the Big Three lost a record $880 million in advertising revenues in the third quarter of 2001, a drop of nearly 30 percent compared with the same period last year. It's possible that they, as well as the music industry, will join the revolution rather than fight it.

© 2002
Newsweek, Inc.



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