Thursday, March 11, 2010

'I want my... holographic karaoke'

I've just been at a conference on the future of media. I met some cool, smart people and it was an entertaining couple of days. I first started going to these sort of gatherings in the mid-1990s, and even if the players and the technologies have changed, the fundamental challenge is still the same - monetizing content.

The creative industries are perpetually wrestling with three basic questions: what is the audience prepared to pay for, will they pay enough (or will enough of them pay) to make producing it worthwhile, and if so, what's the best way to deliver it to them?

Meanwhile, notoriously fickle consumers have become complacent that something newer and better is always around the corner and, increasingly, they're expecting not to have to put their hand in their pocket for it.

I worked in 'conventional media' for nearly a quarter century, and one thing I know now is that the landscape is, more than ever, less about protecting what you already create and more about finding what you will need to create five or ten or twenty years from now.

There's a track record of innovation through functionality driving demand – look at models like Netflix, Shazam, Pandora, mp3ify, or even the iPod itself, for not just changing how consumers purchase content, but the very way they discover and interact with it.

Above all, the key is being able to admit that the 'model that's always worked' only worked because consumers were used to doing things that way. That's not going to be the case for much longer - as one panellist said at the conference, "we're not at a moment of transition, we're at a moment of destruction" - and the companies who can adapt to an environment where they're more responsive to consumer needs, and less dependent on their dying, so-called 'core' products, are the ones who will thrive.

Anyway, here's my totally bluesky wishlist for something that's 'next generation' as opposed to just 'next upgrade'. And it's something I'd willingly pay for if someone - Disney, EA, NewsCorp, whoever - can deliver it to me. I suspect I'll be waiting a while, though.

The original Guitar Hero game launched five years ago - and Rock Band two years later - and even now, in spite of tremendous improvements, and regardless of the artist catalogs they're able to sign up, and the more sophisticated on-screen avatars they can offer, their model seems stuck.

It needs something more, well, real. And I think there's a crucial demographic they're missing - people who can actually play an instrument rather than just manipulate a controller.

I want to plug in a real guitar and be able to play alongside holograms of my favorite artists. When I sign up for a performer's 'channel' I'll be able to jam with their images or, crucially, with other members of the channel, with social/community functionality wrapped around the content (and of course any advertising and merchandising opportunities that go along with that).

Imagine tapping into the highest-grossing concert tours worldwide on an annual basis: currently, performers like:

- U2
- Bruce Springsteen
- Rolling Stones
- Madonna
- Taylor Swift
- Jay-Z
- Britney Spears
- Dave Matthews Band

as well as archive or back catalog material - even from artists who may no longer be with us.

There were apparently more views for the streamed U2 concert online last year than tickets sold for all other rock concerts put together in 2009, and you only have to took at the popularity of the 'Met in HD' series, to see the appeal of an experiential combination of quality and exclusivity. It's only a matter of time before we see widespread concerts in HD at movie theaters then at home – an intermediate step to a fully immersive, holographic platform.

While there is effectively 3D functionality in a lot of existing game environments, the next wave of gaming will be around 3D control – increasingly, using your body as the controller, something that the Nintendo Wii has set in train, and which Sony recently moved forward.

So, looking way beyond that, what would you get with the holographic gig - what I call "Playalong"?

* It's both participatory and passive: you can either watch or take part – there might be different pricing plans for both, but it's designed to encourage people who start off just watching to do it themselves.

* It's incentivized – there'd be a ‘best performance of the day’ award – voted by members of the community who can view past performances of songs they play on video – and those are rewarded with points and/or merchandise.

* Advertising can either follow the content or the audience, but has to always have some relevance to the performer – ie – merchandising or rare downloads. You could also have a 'premium' subscription level option that removes advertising altogether and includes exclusive content: artists already do that with online 'fan clubs' whose primary function for the subscriber is pre-sale concert tickets.

Of course there are structural commercial problems - aggregation of rights is probably the biggest non-technical hurdle, but once the artists realize how much there is to be made from what is effectively a new platform for content distribution, they'd make it work. Technically, we'd be looking at something like a Home Theater system, only with sensors/projectors instead of speakers. But the important thing is the networked capability.

Research seems to show that people currently have a tolerance for only two boxes in their living room - a cable/satellite receiver box and a game system. There are roughly 125m US TV households (about 99 per cent market penetration). But we are looking at a globally networked environment. Microsoft's XBox has about 39m consoles worldwide – crucially, 23m of those are subscribing to the XBox live service.

So this service would likely initially piggyback on an existing game system. But growth of any 'new, new thing' can be dramatic and rapid, and force users to re-evaluate what they previously thought of as standard. There are other potential applications for the platform based on existing and new proprietary content, for example, experiential part-game/part-movies, where players affect outcomes by triggering alternate plot routes.

And of course, the concept is scalable and upgradable; every time there's a new album, the user can download both the 'rehearsal' version and the 'studio' version of the tracks, as well as live options once the tour begins. This way, the artist can monetize multiple individual performances of their content, as well as just the recorded staple.

Maybe charging for the service might work best on a Netflix model – unlimited usage for a monthly subscription - maybe with a joining fee and premium add-ons for things like tutorials, but what you'd get as the consumer would be:

- A compelling user experience
- Offers exclusivity of access
- Has many options to choose from (you can sing, play guitar, bass, keyboards whatever, and play in a 'rehearsal studio' or live)
- Play that's potentially different every time (you can choose things like arrangements; do you play solo or with the full band, or even venue; do you play at the Ryman Auditorium, Maxwell's in Hoboken or Wembley Stadium?)

Tracks would be recordable, so you can relive your triumphs and replay them, or you can use the studio option to put together demos, either on your own, or in collaboration with other members of the channel, which in turn could be uploadable for others to sample.

Is there a mobile app? No. it‘s fundamentally a home entertainment, multi-player living room experience. But you will be able to use your mobile phone to connect with the communities you're a member of in order to schedule jams / performances etc. or download new tracks. Or your phone can alert you to newly released content, or about other performers you might also be interested in, given your profile.

Of course, we're a long way away from working out the economics, and the existing technology is probably very much in its infancy. The audio technology's already available in karaoke versions of songs with tracks stripped out. It's the visual, interactive platform that will provide the all-round experience. For public performance, existing karaoke bars wouldn't need any additional space than they already use.

For the home version, we're probably looking at a post-3D intermediate stage involving a body suit or wrap-around glasses, but the key thing is that you'd be creating real music, with real instruments; not just mindlessly replicating some emotionless sequence of colored buttons.

And that's what will make it worthwhile, and worth paying for.

So, like my idea a couple of years back for a reality TV show, if I can help make this come about in any way, drop me an email.

1 comment:

  1. I have been looking at how bands, especially new bands, can make "money" these days, and must admit had not even thought of that as an idea - I can see it working, hope you have a good lawyer to get paid for it when it is in the shops at Christmas!!