A few months ago, just before I left Ireland, I promised some more information on my new job. Yesterday, we launched the public website of The Venice Project, where I’ve been working for the past few months, which makes now seem like a good time. You can read Dirk’s post in the company blog for more info on what we’re up to.
As can be seen from the site, we havn’t launched fully just yet, and there’s a lot more to come, but we’re now at a stage where we can be slightly more public with what we’re doing. It’s an incredibly exciting place to work; the depth of talent in the organisation is extroardinary, and the approaches to problem-solving that come from that, even more so. The technical challenges, both in terms of development and of operational scale (which is what I’m mainly working on) are exciting and terrifying – we can be sure of one thing; users will not accept crappy quality of service when it comes to TV!
I could go on a lot about the cool technology, some of the great stuff that goes on behind the scenes, the exciting numbers that are involved, the fun atmosphere, but there’ll be time for all that, and it will all make itself clear when you get to use our product for yourself. But for now, I’ll try and explain why I moved country and joined the project, because in telling that story you’ll probably learn more about the true potential of the project.
Anyone who has visited my place in Dublin will have seen my AV setup, and when I’m sitting in front of it, I have a glorius experience. I can immerse myself in entertainment, I can hear the gorgeous tones of Diana Krall in 5.1 surround sound, I can play music on demand from my little server, I can pop in an SACD and hear that, I can pull out a DVD from the hundreds on my shelf and get near-cinema quality right in my living room, and man does it kick total ass.
But when I switch input to my TV, all that changes, I get an apalling resolution, with an even worse refresh rate, on my 2 metre screen. Most of the channels make me reel in visual pain, I actually wince nearly each time and it takes a concious effort to distract myself from the terribleness of it all. There’s no consistent colour mappings or contrast, I don’t have 5.1 (o.k., I’m too cheap to fork out on digital), certain formats and aspect ratios are frequently cropped or deliberately played at the wrong rate (did you know that most NTSC to PAL conversions involve changing the pitch of the soundtrack?) and outdated teletext is all that’s available in terms of contextual information.
Someone really needs to fix all of that. But that’s not The Venice Project. Rather, the point I’m trying to make here is that I’m an audio and visual nut, not as mad as some people I know, but pretty mad all the same. I’m so mad that it’s nearly physically painful for me to watch TV. And yet, if I had to guess the percentage of time I spend using my shiny expensive equipment to do just that, I’d say it was around 90%.
That tells me a lot. There is something uniquely compelling and appealing about television. I can watch up to the minute news and current affairs, or the latest episode of CSI, or a movie that’s being screened and I can do so easily and lazily. Even for non-news content, there is a real sense or immediacy; in which there is somehow a participation in a shared experience, where I and others get to view the latest (and often greatest) cultural output all at roughly the same time. Sure, it might be just a dumb soap, but we still feel a connectedness to the characters and want to be able to talk about them and their situations the next day. It might be a headline scandal-revealing documentary, and we all need a good opportunity to be outraged, or it might just be a film we’ve seen before, but we’ll still end up talking about it the next day.
Television isn’t just a passive viewing experience, it’s long been part of identity, and part of a social network. People have been defining who they are – in part – by the shows they watch, for over half a century, and people have been talking about those shows with each other the next day for just as long. TV was building and harvesting social networks before anyone ever even bothered to think of those things as concepts, it just never had a truly effective feedback mechanism.
We’re not adding community, that’s already there; it’s over 40 years since the Star Trek cult began, and when that started telephone directories were the pinnacle of information interconnectness. As Dirk says, we’re adding community features, ways of empowering the viewers.
Our product kicks ass, but what made me most excited about the project, and what ultimately made me leave Ireland and move to the Netherlands to work on it is the simultaneous implications all of this has for viewers, advertisers and content creators. When I saw the demos, and the concepts, it really did shift some things I’d previously assumed. That making things better – or more attractive – for advertisers could only ever annoy viewers or that making things more secure for content owners could only ever limit what viewers could do.
I joined this project because I genuinely believe we have a chance to help shape the future of culture. Fundamentally, my own guess is that TV isn’t going to change – its format and content is the result of our inate desires and responses – but that doesn’t mean it can’t be made better still; more social and responsive to viewers and more accessible and rewarding for creators. The Venice Project isn’t a new medium, it’s not like being around when the Gutenburg press was invented, or TV itself. This is more like the unleashing of potential. It’s like being around when film was first developed in colour, the postal system was invented and the first affordable home-movie camera was released, as if they were all happening at the same time.
In the meantime, I’ll be cursing my regular TV even more, now that I’ve seen at least one vision of the future, and it looks a lot better.