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The future of entertainment, USC style

Usc_entertainment_technology_center The entertainment industry has been pressuring colleges directly and indirectly to teach students the do's and don'ts of copyrights, hoping such lessons will help abate online piracy. But at USC's Entertainment Technology Center, students often are the ones giving lessons to Hollywood and the high-tech world about the right way to deliver movies and TV shows to consumers who are increasingly mobile and digital.

Etc_screen_grab_3 The ETC, a 15-year-old branch of the university's School of Cinematic Arts, was established as a forum for tech companies and studios to collaborate -- a good example being the center's work on digital cinema. A more recent project is the Anytime/Anywhere Content Lab, a place for ETC staff to put a variety of cutting edge (or even bleeding edge) entertainment equipment and services together to see how they work. Or don't, as the case may be.

David Wertheimer, the ETC's executive director and a former digital guru at Paramount, said that while studios focus on their product, the lab concentrates on the user. The hope, he said, is that its work will show studios and tech companies how to "meet in the middle and provide new kinds of products" that appeal to the next generation of consumers. In addition to interviewing USC students on campus every week about their media consumption habits and attitudes, the ETC brings about 20 students into the lab to talk to its board and try out some of the gear it has assembled. It's not a scientific sampling, but the ETC does try to draw specimens participants from a range of backgrounds and fields of study.

The lab takes up a portion of the ETC's office, which is planted in an industrial strip between the USC campus and the 110. The current configuration includes a home theater, a conference area and a room for testing and experimentation (i.e., a place to answer questions like "Can I make it do this?"). The centerpiece, though, is an 18' x 20' demo room with eight flat-panel screens hung on the walls at eye level. Below the screens sit black metal boxes of various shapes and sizes -- amplifiers, disc players, computers, hard drives, iPods, cell phones, networking gear and the like. It's a bit like an electronics retailer's showroom, designed to make it easy for the staff to add, subtract and connect things. "It could end up looking like NORAD and be totally stressful to people," Wertheimer cracked. The intended vibe, though, is more like the living room you wish you had at home. If you were me, that is.

Etc_lab_left_3 Etc_lab_right

Last week, four students came in to the demo room to talk about their viewing habits, compare upconverted DVDs with Blu-ray discs and check out a Vudu box. Given the small size of the group (final exams got in the way), it's not safe to extrapolate their opinions onto the larger population of 18- to 22-year olds. Nevertheless, the four young men were united on a few interesting points. In no particular order:

They all watch a lot more TV than they used to, thanks to the networks making shows available online. And while they used to rely on BitTorrent to grab the shows they wanted to watch, now they use the authorized sites -- unless, of course, the only source for a show is BitTorrent. In other words, they weren't downloading illegally because they liked file-sharing or hated the studios. They were doing it because it was the best way to get the content they wanted. When the networks provided a better way, they switched. Wertheimer said almost all of the students interviewed by ETC say they watch "Lost" on ABC.com, which streams the show in high definition. "These kids, they're voting again and again for legal alternatives. And not because it's legal. It's quality." Added K.C. Blake, the ETC's director of business development, "I see over and over again a willingness to pay for stuff they enjoy."

They like Blu-ray discs better than upconverted DVDs, but they don't like the price of the players. If they have a few hundred dollars to spare, they'll buy a Blu-ray-packing PlayStation 3 and kill two birds with one stone.

They have no qualms about watching video on their laptops. Two of them occasionally connect their laptops to a digital projector so they can watch video with friends, and a third said a projector is on his wish list (but mainly for gaming). The fourth, a communications major named Ben, said he watches TV on his laptop but prefers the bigger screen for movies. He's particularly fond of the HDTV at his parents' house. "It's one of the reasons I enjoy going home," he said. (I'm withholding Ben's last name out of consideration for his family, which apparently ranks lower in his esteem than a plasma set.)

The convenience offered by Vudu is appealing, but the service has at least one deal-killer: once you start watching a rented movie, you have only 24 hours before it expires. They had the same objection, by the way, to movie rentals from Apple's iTunes Store. Online movie services in general get a thumbs down from the group. "It seems like certain online services have only certain movies. There's no one-stop shop," said Anthony, an interactive media major. Another complaint: it's too hard to bring legal movie downloads to a friend's house and watch them there. (Wertheimer said one of the challenges for industry will be coming up with a sharing mechanism for downloads that's as easy as DVDs. "What's the digital equivalent of throwing it in your backpack and sharing it around?" he asked.)

Finally, they don't go to the multiplex nearly as often as they used to, in part because of rising ticket prices. That makes them more selective about what they'll buy a ticket for. Still, if given the choice between seeing a summer blockbuster in a theater or watching it at home on the same weekend, they'd choose the theater because of the energy level there. Of course, none of these guys have wives, kids or soul-sapping careers yet. Nor do they have a living room that looks like the ETC's.


Photos of the Anytime/Anywhere Content Lab courtesy of the ETC.


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Times editorial writer Jon Healey pens opinion pieces about a variety of business issues, and blogs about technologies that are changing the entertainment industry's business model.

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