Journalism can be welcome in 'smart homes'

News organizations seem to be throwing open many doors, if not windows, hoping the right one or combination yields the secrets of audience attraction. Maybe the search should be more reflective – not based on science, necessarily, but at least on principles more closely tied to what’s going on in the information ecology of homes, offices, schools, libraries, cars, trains and buses.

Ideally, the equipment or products used to spread words and images would create micro-environments where news can flourish. Wired-up homes, a big opportunity for online journalists, create a space where news undergoes cognitive processing, to use research talk. Studies indicate that audiences prefer content when both the media environment and delivery mechanism match the natural or biological capabilities of the consumers.

Evolution is not necessarily a remote theory. Whether news is sent via print or through TV or computer screens, earplugs, baby-faced mobile devices or trained-pigeon messages, its success may depend how the delivery engages human sense organs and minds formed by millennia of biological development.

The TV screen, floating in a space where humans can either focus or interact among themselves and ignore it, has had a lot going for it. The movie theater, a dark space redolent of unhealthy candy, butter and popcorn, inhabited by strangers who seem more and more to get on each other’s nerves, has been waning in a culture absorbed by interaction. IM fits the needs of teen organisms. Radio hitches itself to the fertile Internet and draws a global audience seeking to escape broadcast boundaries. Music lovers migrate from CDs to the mobility and flexibility of iPods and cell phones. Each medium makes use of heritable human traits, like curiosity, mate searching and a preference for mobility. The losers are anachronistic.

This train of thought brings into question assumptions about the usefulness of displays, formats and delivery systems that have decidedly non-evolutionary origins – like engineering compromises chosen to get commercial products off the ground at a set deadline. Many news websites were pushed into the public sphere by senior editors and executives out of panic, not planning or calculated resource allocation. What success journalism has had in new media often seems more accident than design.

As the wonders of the “smart home” unfold, this might be a good time to re-examine assumptions about how electronically delivered news is used. The developing space for news in the home represents the opposite of what happened when Macs and PCs came through front doors in the mid-‘80s. The devices went into dens and separate bedrooms for single-station use; personal privacy and segmented content within the home became the norm. Gender, marital and age gaps were allowed to squelch domestic discourse –sometimes with unfortunate results.

That may not be true now. The creation of info-nodes, wide screens and hybrid TV-Internet-games platforms for the home has the potential to change news consumption from isolation and segmentation into a more communal dynamic where family members actually talk about what they learn, are amused by or share in common. They can interact among themselves, as well as within the virtual worlds they enter. It is not just mixed but multiple use, where the physical and virtual co-mingle.

Game designers are putting these tools to good use. Military and aerospace trainers have developed extraordinary simulators. Medical innovators are making important use of telepresence in surgery and remotely monitored therapy. But news providers are only beginning to offer access to space imagery, panoramic perspectives, 3-D and immersive delivery formats. Even though the ability to combine virtual reality technology and interactive immersive environments has been available since Howard Rheingold brought it to public attention in the early 1990s, the potential of virtual reality (VR) as a news conveyor has lagged behind developments in other fields.

And like phylogenic trees, media trees tend to diverge and channel. Military and entertainment needs moved VR development in directions that haven’t been much help to journalists. Bendable worlds, exotic avatars and complex battle scenes don’t fit well with journalists’ need for accurate, timely, verifiable and in-depth information. But delivery tools need to be thought of separately from content.

As wired-up homes open their doors, journalists will have to give more thought to how they want to be received and how they will make use of not just wide screens but of local wireless networks, surround sound systems, laptops and games technology – haptic devices that convey physical feed-back, intuitive controllers (think Wii news) and sophisticated head-mounted displays, which are also becoming cheaper, more powerful and accommodating (even for adults).

Taken together, these developing technologies have the possibility of making broadband news delivery a different experience, more like the ‘60s family gathered before the TV, but with 21st Century feistiness and a taste for global connections based on common interests. News content can be shared both within the physical group in the home – on networked devices, if not physically together – and within alternative worlds.

Take a crass example: The smiling guy with a beer behind home plate who’s waving to the family at home and talking with them on a cell phone. “Right, I’ll buy that team shirt on the way out, don’t worry.” This is a complex event, involving media crossover and telepresence or intervention in a parallel reality. Crass, but a mustard seed. Computer scientists and engineers are working to develop layers of reality and multiple paths for audience intervention.

Here are examples of barriers that threaten to keep news websites in a state of perpetual anachronism. They are drawn from current discussions in the computer science, communications and media design literature:

1. As VR technology becomes more accessible, the tendency is to think of it as a “home theater.” That’s not a good metaphor, since theaters are dying. Journalists should be moving away from the lights-out, no-talking tradition of passive theater experience. If what is happening in research labs is an indication, the future lies in cooperative tasking in mixed reality.

2. VR’s capability to simulate real environments, which should be a plus for journalists, can also inhibit graphic imagination. News and information can sometimes be best told in non-literal ways, as designers at the more forward-looking print publications have discovered. If print has become comfortable with abstractions, why does online journalism, with its vast capacity for animation and collage, lag behind?

3. VR worlds tend to function in isolation from one another, a legacy of audience segmentation. It’s hard to traverse multiple worlds, when scale, navigation, sound and avatar portrayals have little standardization. No rules exist on what may be accurate or authentic vs. fanciful content. This may be keeping news organizations from thinking creatively about VR news applications that would fit into the ecology of the smart home. Indeed, coming to grips with VR technology could be an expensive, difficult task, but think of the alternatives.

4. Screen-based personal computer displays have a fixed field of view and a concrete frame that limits interactions. It’s hard to collaborate when you have to do the electronic equivalent of peering through a key-hole. But that is changing, if the width of screens at Best Buy check-out lines are any clue. Expect homes to have multiple wide high-definition screens, panoramas of at least 180 degrees and user controls of perspectives that can free up the human eye to rove and make full use of peripheral vision.

5. Commercial virtual settings, including Google Earth, provide spaces where interaction can take place, but then what? It’s nice to navigate cities, buildings, landscapes, pyramids, veins and arteries, molecules, etc., and fiddle with mash-up information. But critics of shared virtual environments argue that often “there’s nothing to talk about within them.”

What an opportunity for bright, entrepreneurial journalists – converting sterile spaces into human places.

About Larry Pryor

I am an associate professor at the Annenberg School of Journalism and am a former editor of OJR. I left online journalism to work full-time at teaching environmental journalism. I had been an environment writer at the Los Angeles Times before getting into new media.
I'm attempting to combine my work in visual journalism with environmental coverage. Digital models can help us connect data points into more understandable patterns. Mash-ups are great tools.