CES 2011: Do tablets mean more entertainment -- alone?

Now, the big story here at CES is, of course, the number of tablets that are coming out. Everyone is announcing one, and everyone is covering the story (including, of course, Computerworld).

And while all these tablets are amazingly cool, the old fogie in me is beginning to protest against the constant onslaught of PR about how amazing it will be for each family member to be sitting watching their own personal entertainment on their own tablet. For example, in yesterday's Netgear press conference, one demonstration showed how three different people could watch three different programs in three different rooms using the company's new wireless router.

It could be that tablets are revolutionary in a sense that perhaps nobody is emphasizing -- they are taking entertainment one step more toward the isolation of the individual.

I mean, just think of it. Until the 1950s, motion pictures were a completely group experience. You went to the movies; you sat in a theater with a few hundred people from your area and watched (and reacted to) full-length films, shorts, the news of the day, etc.

Once television gained prominence, the people you sat with closed in to your immediate family and/or friends. Sometimes, it was an individual experience; people had their own televisions in their own rooms, for example -- but if somebody else walked in, they shared that experience.

Now, it's possible that, with tablets, the experience of watching a moving picture could be focused even more narrowly. A 7-in. or 10-in. tablet offers an individual viewing experience; two people trying to watch something on a single tablet makes for a very uncomfortable (and painful, if they happen to knock heads together) experience.

Or perhaps I'm being too old-fashioned. Certainly, sharing doesn't necessarily mean being in the same physical location; as somebody who works a couple of hundred miles from Computerworld's main offices, I know that. It could be that sharing a video will mean, in the future, sharing the same visual/audio experience from two separate locations.

But even the tech-savvy need to admit occasionally that something is lost when an experience isn't physically shared. Several years ago, I went to a showing at a local museum of the Marx Brothers in Horse Feathers. I'd seen this film several times already on television, and didn't expect much, but I thought I'd give it a try on a large screen.

What I didn't expect was that I found the familiar film much funnier than I ever thought I would. The presence of a couple of hundred people laughing along with me had an amplification effect that changed the whole experience.

Will the experience of watching entertainment in a large group go away? Probably not, at least in the near future. And let me be clear -- I spend a large number of my waking hours on computers and other tech devices (both for work and for play), and I've met a lot of important people in my life, both personally and professionally, online.

But sometimes, listening to the vendor evangelists, I get a sci-fi vision of thousands of people sitting by themselves (wearing silver coveralls, of course), in-ear headsets firmly fixed and their eyes on their individual tablets.

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