interfaces – Antenna Responses to Media and Culture Thu, 30 Mar 2017 23:48:47 +0000 en-US hourly 1 To XFinity and Beyond… The Missing Smart Living Room TV Interface Sat, 10 Mar 2012 20:58:56 +0000

As a Comcast subscriber, I greeted the recent announcement of the Streampix service with some curiosity. I have not joined the Netflix nation and, since my monthly Comcast bill just went up $20, felt some added value appropriate. I began to thumb through the new offerings last night, simultaneously pleased, befuddled, but increasingly irate.

I demand a moratorium on breathless distribution announcements from cable companies until they upgrade the user interface. We all know the technology exists. It was all on display at the Cable Show last June. The BBC iPlayer has been in homes for years now.



But when I go looking for content on my supposedly most-high end Comcast HD DVR, I get this.

Select Xfinity Streampix and get this.

Select TV, get a choice of alphabetical suboptions that I’ll spare you, but select O-S and get this.

I select Scrubs and get this.

I do acknowledge that if I choose to watch Streampix on an iPad tablet, the interface looks more like this. (and that is where the top pic was intended).

Hmm. I’ve always thought it would be great to watch all the episodes of Scrubs in alphabetical order, that way any ongoing storyline would make absolutely no sense. Even better, include absolutely no episode numbers so that I could at least sort them out myself since this is apparently too giant a leap for your technological interface. Come on. Yeah, I’m frustrated, maybe even angry.

And that is cool, but I watch TV at home. And when I do, I want to watch on the ridiculously large and beautiful screen that adorns my TV cave, where I can sit on my fantastically comfortable and unstylish reclining sofa. I’m not alone. New numbers from Nielsen on the “State of Media: U.S. Digital Consumer Report” (Q3-4 2011) tell us video consumption on PC or mobile phones (not sure where tablets figure) is a whopping 4 minutes per user per MONTH, which pales some to the 146:45 minutes spent on “television.”

While I’m obviously not suggesting this number won’t continue to grow and that such screens will be an important part of the television future, I am astounded by the lack of attention cable companies have afforded to the interface of the primary screen. It is this frustr-anger of the experience of the above screens that explains why I (and likely others) continue to dream of the potential that the new Apple TV might bring, even though I know full well that the arrangements with content providers that would be necessary for Apple TV to be a game changer remain most unlikely. Why are industry analysts and trade journalists endlessly willing to speculate on the tiniest bit of news regarding Apple TV, Netflix, or Google TV? Because these companies have figured out that it doesn’t matter if you have content if you have the most ridiculous, cumbersome, and counter-intuitive way to sort through it.

Comcast Streampix is a good idea and clearly indicative of the further disruption of economic models and distribution that will continue over the next decade. But this array of offerings will be meaningless unless it rolls out an interface for the living room screen that is as good as the one for tablets/phones/PCs. The first company to have both content (with a sustainable economic model) and an interface might just win this. Quantity of industry press, tweets, and blogging to the contrary, this is still the Comcasts-of-the-world’s battle to lose, but its willingness to bring Streampix to the market without a new cable box interface suggests they just might manage to do so.


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Accessing the Cinematic Cloud Tue, 31 Jan 2012 19:07:11 +0000 The demise of Blockbuster Video has become a kind of shorthand for describing what might be called the end of the video store era. Video stores, we are told, can no longer compete with the many different forms of digital delivery, whether streaming videos or digital downloads. But as I informally survey my students, colleagues, and other avid consumers of movies, much less Hollywood trade publications, there is still quite a bit of uncertainty about what comes next. Part of this challenge entails the difficulty of finding, accessing, and paying for movies on digital platforms. For this reason, I have been fascinated by some recent discussion in film industry blogs and trade publications that sought to compare the experience of paying for digital access to a movie to the early experience of using an ATM, a metaphor that seems to offer quite a bit of potential for describing how we will be buying and watching movies and television shows in the near future.

The ATM metaphor seems to originate with a comment made by Lori McPherson, the executive vice president of global product management for Walt Disney Studios, during a panel at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in January 2012. In her discussion of how consumers might grasp the idea of cloud storage, McPherson remarked that “The exciting thing for content in the cloud is any consumer who has used an ATM machine should intuitively understand what it is now.” McPherson, of course, is arguing that our familiarity with interfaces that enable us to conduct transactions also allow us to grasp how accessing movies and TV shows online might work. We know that we can go to virtually any ATM and obtain cash and conduct many other basic transactions.

Screenwriter John August expanded on this metaphor in a blog post that, in many ways, helped me to rethink some of my own assumptions about digital delivery. As August points out, this early experimental stage of cloud distribution might be compared to the first generation of ATMs, which introduced a number of “bugs” that banks and software writers needed to work out. August points out that initially some ATMs would take your card while others wouldn’t, and some demanded longer PINs than others, initially making it difficult to adjust for some consumers. I would add that we should also consider the degree to which consumers had to be “taught” to accept the practice of conducting transactions without the presence of a banker. Users had to be assured that an ATM transaction was as “real” as one completed by a person, which is probably why so many ATM networks were anthropomorphized (my bank featured Tillie the Teller). The issues of cloud ownership continue to be perplexing for many consumers who want the tangibility of physical media. But eventually consumers adjusted as ATM interfaces became more standardized, and Tillie was retired (and her bank has been swallowed up twice by even bigger banks).

August raises some other interesting complications. First, is the fact that money is “fungible.” All $20 bills are essentially equivalent, but movies are not identical, and one network or delivery service may have the movie you want, while other services don’t. As digital catalogs remain incomplete, I think this will be an ongoing problem. The backlash against Netflix over the last year has been due in large part because their streaming catalog features only a limited portion of our cinematic history and excludes most new releases. August describes this term as an industry need for differentiation. Each piece of hardware (or interface) needs to offer features that differentiate it from its competitors.

August goes on to argue that the ATM metaphor can help us to understand the ongoing struggle between the consumer’s desire for standardization and the industry’s need for differentiation and uses this conflict to illustrate why some early forms of digital delivery, including UltraViolet, seem likely to fail. As August implies, the confusion about digital copies leads consumers to feel uncertain about digital lockers and other unstable platforms like UltraViolet. These points all seem relevant to me, but I think that August’s exploration of the ATM metaphor could be taken even further, especially in light of some of the current complaints about banking. First, it’s not quite true that our ATM cards work “anywhere.” When my family was traveling abroad, some of our ATM cards didn’t work in Spain, forcing us to use others. Although there may have been other factors at play, it’s worth considering whether and how geography will matter in these new forms of cloud storage and distribution. More crucially, banks charge fees if you go outside of your “network” and, in at least one instance, sought to charge users a monthly fee just for using a debit card. Once we have paid for movies that are on the cloud, how will ownership of those movies be defined? Finally, what sorts of information are we providing to the media industries when we make these online rentals and purchases?

Mark Andrejevic’s recent Antenna post, in which he discusses the new regimes of privacy in the era of digital delivery, answers at least some of these questions. As Andrejevic points out, companies are allowed to collect vast amounts of data on these online purchases, and our digital trails–through tweets, Facebook updates, Netflix reviews, and purchases–often mean that consumers are doing much of the work of data compilation for these companies, practices that August associates with the term “targeted messaging.” Andrejevic acknowledges that users are, for the most part, voluntarily sacrificing their privacy.

The digital multiplex opens up any number of possibilities for distribution and storage models. As John Calkins of Sony observes, these delvery systems may provide a new home for special features and interactive media. But I think we are well served by thinking about the intersections between digital delivery of movies and ATMs, about the fantasies of personalization, convenience, and ubiquitous access, as well as the real costs of these new delivery models.


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