Predictions from a Chief Futurist

In his role as Chief Futurist for Cisco Systems, Dave Evans is equal parts blue-sky prognosticator and hands-on builder and tester. On any given day, he might be pondering the social implications of people living to be 200 or demonstrating a drag-and-drop car dashboard that could be in dealer showrooms in just a few years.

In this article, taken from the book, 2024: The Future of Television, Dave's predictions include how the TV of the future will be a portal on your walls or on your mobile from the cloud, or even in your head; actors will be avatars and all programmes will be interactive.

Let me start with a few tantalising speculations about exactly where television might be in ten years time. On your wall and I don't mean the 40 or 50 inch screen that you may already have, hung on brackets. No, I mean that your whole wall could literally be a television screen, giving you a window on the world in any way you want it to. In a decade from now, bandwidth to the home will be sufficient to display streamed video on every square inch of wall in a mid-size home. There are people right now experimenting with ultra thin flexible displays and smart coatings spread on the wall like cream cheese that will enable you to turn any room of your house into a communications and entertainment portal.

In your pocket or handbag, even on your wrist, as a more portable medium than ever. In the past, you were a slave to a box in the living room, watching what the box offered you according to its schedule. Now we have iPads, smartphones, and (imminently) smartwatches. Already we're used to television on demand, but that will evolve to the point where you'll create your own customised dynamic TV guide that you carry with you, an aggregate of multiple inputs: traditional broadcasters like the BBC, but also new online sources, such as BT TV, HBO, Netflix, YouTube, where some of the content coming out today is so good it starts to rival high-end production studio work from major broadcasters. The cloud will also play an important role here, replacing your traditional static DVR or cable box and making it entirely virtual, so you will be able to pause the show you've been watching at home, go to a hotel or a friend's house, and resume watching right where you left off.

In your head or so it will seem. There's a wonderful device being developed called Oculus Rift, a kind of virtual reality headset that will revolutionise people's gaming experience, and could also, I believe, make television a more immersive experience for viewers. The latest version has a high resolution 1080p display, with accelerometers and gyros in the headset so as you move your head to look up or look down, the display changes to match what you're looking towards. After a few seconds, you forget that you're wearing it. I watched a sample demo of a rollercoaster ride, and my body was almost instantly reacting just as if I was on the real thing, switchbacking at high speed.

I'm a futurist, which means I make my living out of guessing what will happen five or ten years hence. Two considerations are at the forefront of my mind when predicting the future. The first is where the technology appears to be heading: for that I sometimes need also to look at the past, to assess the pace of change by extrapolating from how quickly things have moved before. And the second is the human element: how will people respond to these technological advances? What new ways might consumers find that we haven?t yet imagined to use the technology? Ultimately technology exists for one purpose only, which is to enhance our lives, and people are amazingly inventive in the varied uses they put it to.

One thing emerging clearly right now is that video is no longer just for passive consumption; it has become an interactive experience. It is also changing in terms of who is the producer; it?s not anymore just about the big studios or networks. The type of technology that an individual consumer possesses now would rival what a studio had a decade or two ago. Just look at the power in your smartphone, and its capability to create and broadcast video that can be consumed by millions or even billions of people, via YouTube. The balance of power is starting to shift.

Consumers are being bombarded by so many sources of video and content. Single channel is becoming multi-consumption, multiinput. When you watch television, you often see Twitter posts scrolling across the screen. You may have your iPod or tablet on your lap, to watch something else on a secondary screen. With wearable technology like smartwatches, there could even be a tertiary stream feeding into your entertainment experience.

To cut through all that noise, TV networks are going to have to adapt or die, spending significantly more to make their product stand out.

Not only in terms of production values: broadcasters and publishers will have to try harder to create content that is more customised, targeted according to a consumer?s individual preferences, their previous viewing history and where they are at the point of consumption, so that it doesn?t get lost in the competing chatter.

Viewer demography and history become ever more important to capture, and well worth the expense. As television becomes more interactive, it will also offer greater opportunities for advertisers. They will devise clever and entertaining ads done so well they seem to be part of the show, blending seamlessly into content, so that if you spot an actor wearing a leather jacket you particularly like, or using a new gadget you covet, you will be able to buy it and have it shipped to your home within hours.

In the attempt to attract audiences, we will probably see a lot more 'extremes' on our screens, pushing the boundaries of what can be shown. Compared to what was acceptable on television a decade ago, audiences have already become blasé about depictions of sex and death. On channels like YouTube, individual producers may compete with ever more sensational content. Though mainstream broadcasters will be more constrained, the limits of permissibility may gradually shift for them too.

How exactly will we use that extra bandwidth to the home, enabling you to have displays on every wall and in effect live inside a giant television set? You could be cooking to follow the recipe showing on MasterChef which is being streamed to the tiles above your hob. Or you could use your walls as a portal to anywhere else in the world. You could be working with one eye on your elderly parents, through a video link to their home. Family viewing will take on a whole new meaning. On a Saturday evening you could be sitting down virtually with your whole family to watch Strictly together - with the programme appearing on one wall, your daughter in Australia on the other, your grandchildren in America on another. Today we tend to think of video as something that is on or off, but once you can create a display on any surface, that will change just as a few years back, we used to think of the internet as on or off via dial-up, but now with broadband we are connected all the time. Your parents or your children, wherever they are, can be with you all the time, and you will only have to walk past the particular wall that acts as your portal to them to stop and say hi.

And as screen and camera technology improves, all of this will be shown in ever higher fidelity, until we reach the point where the human eye will not even be capable of discerning the available detail.

Let's finish with a real stunner: virtual actors. We've already seen amazing virtual environments and virtual characters in films like Avatar and Lord of The Rings, but that's only the beginning. Soon we will be able routinely to augment casts with virtual actors so lifelike they will be indistinguishable from a living breathing human. Take a look at the Digital Emily project, the work of a company called Image Metrics, who have posted examples of their progress so far on YouTube - the results are breathtaking. A virtual actor can do stunts a real actor can't; they can be killed or dismembered and come back to life. My bet is that within two decades, a virtual actor will win an Oscar.

Why stop there? Virtual actors may even be subtly morphed into a unique cast member designed to appeal specifically to you, based on personal preferences extracted from the available data on you as a viewer, pulling information from your social network, and feeding that into the programming to change dynamically what you are watching. Your leading lady could have bigger breasts, longer legs, your preferred hair colour. The murder victim could magically resemble your boss. The main protagonist could look like you.

As they say, you ain't seen nothing yet.

Dave Evans is Chief Futurist for Cisco Systems.

This is article is taken from the book, 2024: The Future of Television which is available to download HERE.