Shaping the Future of Media

Illustration by J Chris Campbell

When Renu Kulkarni agreed to return to her alma mater in mid-2009, she wasn’t sure exactly what she’d signed up for. Her position was vaguely charged with unifying Georgia Tech’s efforts at the intersection of next-generation technology and media. But Kulkarni, MgtSci 85, said she didn’t know Tech had many digital media efforts until she started.

“When I was brought on, we didn’t know what to call this or what to call me,” Kulkarni said.

As ephemeral as her job was, the subject matter presented even more uncertainty. The rapidly changing technological landscape has revolutionized the way people create and consume media.

Consumers increasingly are reading newspapers, magazines and books online, while print publishing has flagged. People use Web sites like Netflix and Hulu or services like TiVo and DVR to watch TV and movies whenever they want and without any commercials.

In one instance of this widespread change, Verizon recently announced it would cease publishing phone books. People are replacing landlines with cell phones, the company explained, and if consumers need to find a phone number, they usually look online.

“What I find is this revolution,” Kulkarni said. “There’s chaos, a perfect storm. It’s a terrific opportunity.”

For Kulkarni, jumping into chaos is like a fish diving into water. She’s spent much of her 24-year career in the high-tech field at the front edge of nascent areas. After graduating, she joined GTE and later Sprint, where she developed a packet data connection service. One of the businesses she worked with became America Online.

“What we were creating was a cloud,” Kulkarni said. “This was the Internet.”

From there, she joined BellSouth International and dove into the global wireless communications market. It was a new, rapidly growing business, and she described the experience as if she were a kid in a candy store.

As the focus shifted from wireless to mobility, Kulkarni, a self-described geek, transitioned from management consulting to a position with Motorola in Chicago. With mobile devices, social networking, augmented reality and other new technologies changing the media landscape, Kulkarni decided to return to Georgia Tech.

As she cast around the Institute, she unearthed more and more efforts relating to media. By her count, Tech has 20 academic units, 37 labs and nearly 500 faculty members working in the area.

“That’s a powerhouse,” Kulkarni said. “My job is to put the experts together and help Tech garner the reputation we deserve.”

This loose amalgamation of media researchers has come to be called FutureMedia, with Kulkarni as its executive director. It has the stated mission of driving research and economic growth for Tech and its partners while exploring and enabling new paradigms for creating, sharing and consuming content.

One of Kulkarni’s first efforts was organizing an event to bring together that community of educators and researchers. Only 89 days into her time at Tech, Kulkarni kicked off the 2009 FutureMedia Fest. It was a successful, though relatively small, event, but it raised awareness within the Institute and with its partners.

This fall, Kulkarni launched the 2010 FutureMedia Fest with quite a bit more fanfare. Turner, Coca-Cola, HP and Cisco were among the sponsors. Nearly 800 attended the weeklong event, which included talks by leading media members and presentations of the cutting-edge research at Tech. CNN aired 20 segments related to the event, including an interview with Kulkarni. An online replay of the fest was viewed by people in 77 countries. Those videos are available on the FutureMedia site.

Tech President G. P. “Bud” Peterson spoke at the fest and made clear how much importance he places on FutureMedia, which fits in with the Institute’s new strategic plan.

“We believe that innovation and creativity are going to be the drivers of the 21st century,” Peterson said. “What things might be beyond the horizon?”

During her introductory remarks at the fest, Kulkarni unveiled the first FutureMedia outlook.

“We put a stake in the ground,” Kulkarni said. “Based on pragmatic research with our partners, we found there are six fundamental trends, and these will only exacerbate over time.”

Instead of specific predictions, the outlook is a map of the six crucial areas — mixed reality, data tsunami, content integrity, true personalization, multimedia assumed and collaboration — in the future of media. It offers a glimpse at the potential and pitfalls on the horizon and a course for Georgia Tech to navigate as it seeks to shape that future.

Mixed Reality

At the FutureMedia Fest panel discussion on augmented reality, a video clip was shown of an updated version of the classic game Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots. In the video, two men sit at a table. One sets down a simple sheet of paper with a few designs on it. When the two men raise their smart phones, two robots appear on the screens, and the men control their punches during a virtual boxing bout.

Whereas augmented reality long has been associated with clunky visors wired to large backpacks, the handheld multimedia devices that have proliferated in recent years have brought augmented reality to consumers worldwide.

Mixed reality is a major focus of the GVU, an interdisciplinary center for human-centered computing. GVU director Beth Mynatt, MS ICS 89, PhD CS 95, said that research area has changed dramatically in the past decade.

“Previously, our focus was mostly on workplace technology,” she said. “Augmented reality 10 years ago was primarily about defense and the workplace. Now, [SimCity creator] Will Wright has said mobile AR is the future of gaming.”

Through those and other efforts, the GVU has become a central part of the FutureMedia effort. It has partnerships with Turner, Motorola and Qualcomm, which Mynatt said shows that Tech is at the forefront of the media experience.

The focus on media-related research has grown in the past five years, which coincides with Mynatt’s tenure as director. Rather than take credit for, Mynatt attributed it to the nature of media.

“What you see is media technologies tend to take the most risks,” she said. “They’re early adopters. Those other industries — health care, defense, workplace technology — are more conservative. Focusing on media allowed us to be at the edge of opportunity.”

The other factor that has led to the growth in augmented reality — and the revolution in all forms of media — is the increased use of mobile technology, Mynatt said.

Years ago, technology researchers assumed devices would converge. Instead of having a TV and a computer, people would have one device that combined both, she said.

But people have adopted multiple devices and fit them around their lives.

“Previously, media was thought of as something that happens on the TV,” Mynatt said. “Now, people watch TV on the tube, but they also watch it on their laptop and their handheld device.”

And in the future, augmented reality will play a much larger role in the media people consume. At the FutureMedia Fest, products were displayed that allow people to use a smart phone to view detailed instructions visually overlaid on an engine that needs to be repaired.

PBS Kids has created an online game using only a sheet of paper and a computer with a Webcam that lets children virtually hatch a dinosaur from an egg and interact with it.

Georgia Tech’s efforts in the area include creating a tour of Atlanta’s Oakland Cemetery that mixes physical travel with a virtual tour guide. And more developments are on the way.

In June, Georgia Tech and Qualcomm Inc. partnered to create the Qualcomm Augmented Reality Game Studio, a research and design center to pioneer advancements in the area.

As far as these efforts have come, there still are practical concerns to overcome before augmented reality truly proliferates. At the FutureMedia Fest, Qualcomm’s director of business development Jay Wright noted one hurdle.

“It turns out augmented reality is a battery’s worst nightmare,” he said. “It’s like running a 3-D game and playing a movie at the same time. We have a ways to go.”

Data Tsunami

As Internet usage has increased, the amount of content generated online has surged as well.

Every month, some 30 billion things are uploaded to Facebook, and that number is only increasing. People watch 2 billion videos per day on YouTube and upload hundreds of thousands of videos.

About 617 exabytes — an exabyte is 1 quintillion bytes — of content are added online every year, a virtual wave of information threatening to overwhelm Web surfers.

With this trend only increasing, “the winners will be those who help simplify, who help consumers get at what they really need,” Kulkarni said.

One of the central players in the dual efforts of adding and sorting data is Google. Michael Jones, creator of Google Earth and the company’s chief technology advocate, said during an address at the FutureMedia Fest that the world is made up of people who embrace the information age and those who are scared of it.

“The people who are frightened think it’s a fad,” he said. “They’re going to go back to the horse.”

He predicted a future in which the online world is completely enveloping, an ever-present ether of information. While only 30 percent of the world has Internet access today, he said that would increase to 100 percent within 20 years.

Jones said Google’s efforts will include continually perfecting its search tool and developing a universal translation system.

“To Google, there’s almost a holy nature to sharing information,” he said. “When you give societies information, they’re going to be able to purge themselves of bad things. Humanity has switched on an insatiable appetite for information.”

The Technology Enabled Visual Cognition in Virtual Teams project at the GVU uses visual representation technology to select, transform and present large amounts of data in ways that are easier for people to view and understand.

Another GVU effort at data parsing is the Cobot: Health Intelligence project. Researchers have created virtual agents with artificial intelligence to go onto a health Web site and sort through data to offer users the best personalized medical advice.

Mynatt said she hopes such projects will take off and spread outward from media.

“People are being too conservative in health, education and the workplace,” she said. “If you give people the opportunity [to use new technology], they will take it.”

Content Integrity

As more people come online — and put more of their lives online — there is an increased risk of hackers and other online criminals illegally accessing and abusing that information.

“There’s more vulnerability with growth, so security becomes more important — and more difficult,” Kulkarni said.

That area has been a major focus at Tech for years, formalized with the 1998 creation of the Georgia Tech Information Security Center. The GTISC holds an annual security summit and releases a yearly cyber threats forecast.

Despite all of the focus on cyber security, Mynatt cautioned that no silver bullet is on the horizon. For every advance in security that is made, hackers will work until they find a way around it.

“There are interesting challenges. Security, that’s a race that will never end,” she said.

But in that ever-changing environment, Kulkarni sees opportunity.

“There are going to be job titles we don’t even know of,” Kulkarni said. “New industries will be created.”

True Personalization

Gone are the days that advertisers could get by with a single, simple ad campaign to run in newspapers and on network TV.

Through Google, Facebook and other channels, companies are using online data to learn about consumers and customize advertising to the individual.

Digital personalization doesn’t just belong to advertising. Mobility has led to a rise in geo-tagging programs like Foursquare, which allows people to digitally check in at different physical locations and build an interactive map of their lives.

Personalization also is spreading to content creation. At a demonstration that coincided with FutureMedia Fest, GVU researchers showed off WorkTop. It’s a multi-touch tabletop that allows users to interact with and create content.

Another project is Urban Remix, which lets users record natural sounds around them and then remix the sounds into customized music.

Mynatt is the leader on the Salud! Health and Wellness project, which allows users to track and analyze their own physiological metrics and see how they change over time in response to different factors.

But the movement to personalize content is not without risks. If people only get information tailored to their interests, how will they be exposed to new ideas and outside viewpoints?

“It’ll be a balance,” Kulkarni said. “I do worry we’re losing objectivity. We’re beginning to take sides.”

Multimedia Assumed

In the future, Kulkarni expects that content will be available not only on whatever device people use, but also that it will be interactive and combine multiple forms of media. Text, video, audio and games will all blend together.

One of the main questions for panelists at the FutureMedia Fest was what this shift means for traditional media companies.

Jim McAffrey, Turner’s executive vice president of operations and strategy, said that while technological changes have been affecting media dating back to Gutenberg’s printing press, “the water’s getting a little frothy these days.”

Turner’s strategy, he said, is to embrace new technologies. Last year, for instance, the company sent a team with experimental cameras and gear to do a test broadcast of a Georgia Tech basketball game.

At the same time, McAffrey said, people will be drawn to quality material.

“At the end of the day, it’s about great content,” he said.

Janet Murray, the dean’s professor in digital media at the Ivan Allen College, said the changing technological landscape allows for more complex storytelling. She discounted the concern that today’s content is too scatterbrained and insubstantial.

“I tend to take the long view,” she said. “You don’t get Harry Potter without Don Quixote. We’re at a point that is similar to the invention of the film camera. There’s a new method of inscription and transmission. For movies, it took a long time to exploit that ability.”

Murray directs the Experimental Television Laboratory, which looks to exploit that technology. One project, the Smart EPG and Story Navigator, uses an iPad as an advanced remote that allows users to scroll through content on the device. It also can be used to custom design content, such as splicing new scenes into programs.

The lab also built an interactive story called Reliving Last Night. It’s essentially a choose-your-adventure story, but in digital form. Viewers make choices for the main character on the iPad control, and that impacts the outcome of a short film.

Mynatt said an important part of Georgia Tech’s efforts has been engaging undergraduate students in the research. The GVU and Research Network Operations Center hold an annual innovation competition for students to develop convergence applications.

“We get some of our best ideas from students,” Mynatt said. “I can’t think of a better way to conduct research in this space. They’re living this notion of convergence already. Our corporate partners love it.”

Collaboration

Kulkarni’s office in the Georgia Tech Research Institute building is hardly decorated beyond her desk and a few chairs. There’s a whiteboard mostly filled with a diagram of the FutureMedia outlook and a smattering of ideas and questions.

If the office looks like she hasn’t yet settled in, that’s because she hasn’t. Kulkarni works remotely for the most part from her office in Chicago.

“I credit Georgia Tech for supporting this flexible arrangement,” she said. “It shows it can be done.”

It makes sense that Kulkarni would utilize such an unorthodox working situation, as one of the tenets of the outlook is to encourage new types of collaboration through virtual work spaces.

Simple tools such as e-mail and file-sharing services make this possible, but Tech researchers are building more advanced collaboration systems and finding new uses for them.

One team, led by Michael Best, a joint assistant professor in the College of Computing and the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs, is developing an interactive story-sharing system and virtual war memorials to promote post-conflict development with Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Another of Best’s groups is building a system for people in developing countries to collect and share public information.

The idea of collaboration is central to the FutureMedia mission, both among media researchers on Tech’s campus and with outside partners.

“There are so many different groups at Tech working on the media experience,” Mynatt said. “How do we connect those working on security, user experience and everything in between? The nice thing about the fest is that it’s really pulled people together and connected them to the outside.”

Future of FutureMedia

Though Kulkarni is confident in the outlook, she warns that it only pertains to the coming five years. The landscape is far too tumultuous to predict beyond that.

What, then, is the future of FutureMedia?

Kulkarni said the initiative is having “mature” conversations with potential industry partners, and she expects to have something to announce within the next year. She also plans to continue to grow and improve the FutureMedia Fest.

Her goal for FutureMedia is to build Georgia Tech into a recognized center of world-class research in the area and to move research projects into the marketplace.

“It’s really an exciting time to reinvent ourselves,” she said.

For those looking to thrive — or even just to survive — these uncertain times, Mynatt offered some simple advice.

“Reinvent yourself,” she said. “Be ready to cannibalize some of your business. We’re just at the edge. The one thing you can count on is there will be winners and losers.”

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