Do we need a ‘Digital Media Project’?

Yes, says Andy Finney, a past chair of the British Interactive Media Association. Why? Because we need to understand the obstacles on the way to a ‘digital nirvana’.

First, a quote: “In the last 50 years Digital Technologies have kicked off huge and profitable industries, but this is not happening for Digital Media. To remove the hurdles, and let society and business reap the benefits of the Digital Media Revolution, we need a Digital Media Project.”

Leonardo Chiarigione

It comes from Dr Leonardo Chiariglione. Why should we take notice of him and his Digital Media Project? It’s because he is a man with connections and a history of getting impossible things done before breakfast. If you haven’t heard of him then you will certainly know of one of the previous projects he has led: MPEG.

As for me, I have been involved in media all my life, starting with steam radio. It has been an unnatural career progression via television and video into interactive media. So do I think digital media has achieved its potential?

Actually defining the term ‘digital media’ is difficult. My latest attempt is: Digital media are expressions of human ingenuity and creativity that are enabled, created, stored, distributed, reproduced, received, displayed, modified, improved ... (you add to the list) ... by means of digital processing techniques and systems. This would include digital television but not, say, teleportation.

And what are the hold-ups on the road to digital media nirvana?

The biggest is analogue. We have analogue legacies all around us that, for better or worse, we have to live with. On one level this is a detailed practical issue. In digital television there are things like interlace and the continued use of spectrum by analogue transmissions. On another level it is more ethereal. Copyright is firmly rooted in an analogue world—if not a world of shipbuilding.

So far our successful digital applications are revamped analogue ones: compact discs, DVDs, digital broadcasting ... even digital cinema. Is another obstacle our analogue thinking? You’ll notice I didn’t include the Internet. I believe the jury is still out on whether that is a successful digital medium. The major uses of the Internet, such as mail, publishing, fraud and extortion, were with us before and the Internet boom bore uncanny similarities to the South Sea Bubble.

But digital does change some important rules. The Internet has not behaved like analogue distribution channels. It is bringing the means of distribution into the hands of everyone just as digital technology is doing with production. However, using the Internet is a bit like going to Milton Keynes: when you go there, you know there is something beyond the communications system (trains, buses and roads) but you’re not really sure how much there is or even where it is.

Of course, along with an analogue legacy comes analogue thinking. It may be that it takes generations to truly move from one mind-set to the next. It has taken cinema a century or more to develop from a static camera pointing at a moving scene (the legacy of theatrical thinking) to multi-layered dramatic structures where sometimes the plot develops backwards. What would the audiences who ran away from the movie of an advancing train think of the Matrix?

The communications industry is just coming to terms with interactivity, even if it means totally different things to different parts of it. This is down to technological differences, and it was interesting to see how many of the initial discussions of Leonardo’s plan were concerned with bandwidth and devices, rather than concepts. (And, yes, teleportation has been raised.)

For me, the next key concept is object-oriented production. There are parts of MPEG-4 which recognise that a scene can be broken down into its component parts. These parts can be stored and transmitted in different ways to each other and can have different functions and properties. They are assembled together, following rules in ‘the script’, by the viewer’s ‘television set’ to make what looks to be an ‘ordinary’ programme. This concept has possibilities far beyond synthespians and game play and is probably the most exciting development for adding interactivity to core ‘linear’ concepts like drama and comedy.

But perhaps the biggest obstacle to the development of digital media is digital technology. To follow Murphy’s Law (Part 42)—‘If they can change it they will’—digital technology doesn’t just keep moving the goal posts, it modifies the shape and texture of the ball, the playing surface and even the law of gravity … continuously. This principle does not hit all forms of digital media in the same way. Print publishing and the cinema are mostly enjoying the digital revolution at the production stage. Even with the advent of digital cinema distribution the essential bit—sitting in a darkened room in a public building looking at an image on the wall—does not change. At the other extreme the computer software industry is so used to moving targets that it is now literally impossible to be sure that all your potential customers will actually be able to use your product. Hence help desks and long lists of system requirements on packaging. Digital television is dragged screaming into this continuum. The D-word pulls it towards the computer end of the spectrum while the T-word pulls it towards the book end; at least as far as consumers are concerned.

It’s like a series of Japanese prints: ‘Obstacles on the road to true digital media’. Will we ever reach the end of that road? Leonardo Chiariglione’s project at least sets out to try. Go to www.chiariglione.org to find out more.

Me? I’m off to fire up my Nipkow disc and see if that nice Mr Baird is still transmitting.

© 2003 Andy Finney/ATSF


This piece was first published in Digital News, the magazine of the Digital Television Group (web site: www.dtg.org.uk) in September 2003. Since then the Digital Media Project has formed into a not-for-profit organisation and is concentrating on principles for dealing with rights in the digital domain: both from the point of view of rights owners but also rights users.

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