Opinion: The future of the Web is 3-D, not video

Online video is limited in areas such as interactivity and will be challenged by sophisticated 3-D environments of photorealistic quality

YouTube co-founder Chad Hurley has posted an interesting description of his company's long-term plans and prospects. YouTube's (and Google's) goal is to allow anyone to easily upload video to the Net and make that content available on any device. He also makes a bold prediction that online video will be the "most ubiquitous and accessible form of communication" in 10 years.

I would like to offer a counterpoint to Hurley's vision. While I don't dispute the impact of online video and its growing importance to the way people produce and consume media, I believe that online video is limited in several important ways and will have difficultly competing with emerging graphics technologies that allow better interactivity, customization and visual appeal. I am talking about sophisticated computer-generated 3-D environments, delivered in a variety of formats and serving many different types of customer needs, including entertainment, news and community. These formats will use advanced computer graphics to deliver photorealistic, three-dimensional representations of real and imagined spaces to a vast, online audience, and allow audience members to interact with these environments and one another in ways that are simply not possible with video.

Hurley is not the first person to predict that video will come to dominate the Internet. Mitchell Stephens articulated a similar vision in 1996 in is book The Rise of the Image, the Fall of the Word. It's a vision that still has a powerful appeal. In the past few years, a bevy of software, hardware, media and telecommunications giants have spent billions positioning themselves for a future dominated by online video.

But the popularity and promise of video is overshadowed by several drawbacks. Despite the rise of amateur video and the new modes of distribution and discussion, Internet technologies have not been able to change the fundamental character of video. Whether someone watches video on a television screen, or plays it on YouTube, video is a linear, passive experience, designed to be watched from beginning to end without alterations or input from the audience. In this sense, video is still following the model set by film in the late 19th century.

For Web video, interactivity is limited to tangential content -- the text links in the navigation column, the comment field below the Flash video player, the icon-based ratings systems and the offsite commentary on blogs and discussion boards. The video itself has none of these features. Objects on the video screen are not linked. An audience member cannot easily reshoot it, to make it more to his or her liking. What the viewer sees depends upon whatever lit subject or scenery passed in front of the lens, and whatever creative choices the people controlling the camera and editing the footage decided to apply. Yes, there are some encouraging experiments with online video -- overlay-style ads and links spring to mind -- but these do not change the linear character of video.

The failure of video to move beyond a static, linear storytelling device does not mean online video is doomed. It has a healthy future, as experimentation with formats continues and more members of the population learn to use cameras, editing software and Internet publishing tools like YouTube. In addition, video is the best tool to accomplish certain tasks, or tell certain stories -- such as documenting nature, showing news events and recording living people.

But it won't dominate the Net in the way that Hurley foresees. I believe a family of graphics technologies will eventually overshadow video and realize the true interactive potential of moving images accessed via the Internet. The technologies employ 3-D computer-generated environments that rival video for clarity and visual beauty, allow creative options not possible with video, can be customized according to audience preferences and situational factors, and can enable social interaction, cooperation and competition. In the coming years, new formats, tools and hardware technologies will be made available to audiences and content creators, further accelerating the adoption of computer-generated environments and ensuring a premier place in the Internet media world.

Today's machinima, virtual-reality tools, virtual worlds like Second Life and massive multiplayer online games like Warhammer are harbingers of what's to come. If Moore's Law holds for the development of CPUs and GPUs, moving photorealistic graphics will be possible on home PCs and gaming systems in 2013, and will be commonplace by 2018. Advances in hardware technologies will be matched by new Internet-based software tools that will lead to 3-D content types that go far beyond what's currently possible with video. Audiences and content creators will discover that 3-D environments will not only be able to duplicate many types of video programming, but will also be able to provide customization, interactivity and social options that amplify the ability of moving images to entertain and inform.

Imagine a soap opera that lets viewers preselect the appearance of the avatar stars, the sounds of their voices, the location of the dramas and other plot elements. I may opt to watch the program in the default mode -- a standard plot involving a love triangle between two men and a woman in Los Angeles. However, another viewer may want to see a love triangle with two women and a man in a small town in the Rockies, change the name of the lead male character to "Earl," set the appearance of both of the women to blondes, and restrict close-up shots to less than 3% of the total plot length. A third viewer in Japan may transfer the story to Tokyo and have all of the characters speaking in Japanese. Such options will be possible with more-advanced development tools and user interfaces.

Other possibilities: Programs in which viewers can bring their own avatars into the story or introduce their own props, using video sampling or 3-D modeling. Horror sims that are based on 3-D models of people's homes or hometowns. Newscasts that are delivered by a 3-D anchor who looks and sounds exactly like Chris Matthews but only delivers news about "China", "Sarah Palin," "baseball" and other keywords that we select.

Already we are seeing crude experiments with machinima and virtual worlds, but photorealism will change people's perceptions. Such programs will move from the realm of "neat trick" to a serious contender for people's time and attention. The possibilities are endless, and I think far more appealing than video. To be sure, YouTube and its competitors will play an important role in 2018, but I don't think they will dominate the Internet media world in the way Hurley predicts.

Note: This essay is based on a paper I wrote entitled Video, Computer-Generated Environments and the Future of the Web.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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