The Shared Experience

<%image(20061217-Shared_TV.png|588|407|Shared Experience prototype: two people and TV feed.)%>

This is a picture of a three way iChat. My friend Preston Austin travels quite a bit with his business. Here we see Preston in the bottom display, cleaning bicycle parts in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. His wife is folding laundry in Madison, Wisconsin. A third computer has a TV tuner attached, providing a live feed from “Sex in the City.” Preston and his wife have watched movies “together” this way several times. He reports that the experience allowed for more rich interaction than just long video calls and certainly better than separately watching TV.

Preston has been emphasizing to me the value of the shared experience almost since the moment I met him. When he first told me about shared virtual movie theaters, I didn’t really get it. But now I see my kids gathered around the TV or the computer running a DVD, and talking to each other about what they’re seeing. Or they’re on the phone discussing the same TV show that they and their friends are separately and simultaneously watching.

I think the principle here is that every(*) experience can be enriched by sharing it. Regardless of where the solitary activity is in the range from passive to active, the activity becomes more active when shared. This has value for education, training, and entertainment.

The TV picture, above, has an ad for an iPod. Video iPods like this one embody a lot of issues about the capacity to distribute information that is clearly to everyone’s benefit, and which some folks fear as an outlet by which some shred of potential profit might escape. People are already creating networked iPod-like devices to form a shared experience. The shared experience of networked iPods or the shared chat/movie above is yet another channel by which information, brand and advertising are going to be distributed. And more than just distribution to more eyeballs, I feel that the ad is more effective when multiple see it and might discuss it.

Being I’m more interested in the potential for education than for advertising. Consider an exhibit or activity at a children’s museum. Sometimes these are better than what is available at home for reasons of cost. That is, it’s too expensive for everyone to own their own exhibit, and so the games and toys we buy are simply not as good as those in the museum. Thus the public museum is a more efficient distribution channel for expensive quality activities. But sometimes the experience itself is actually better at the museum precisely because it is shared. One kid doesn’t know what to do, but sees what the other kids are doing. “Oh, that’s cool.” One kid discovers a particularly intriguing aspect. “Oh, I didn’t think of that.” Moreover, the kids are talking to each other. They’ve never met the other kids before. They might be from different neighborhoods, cities or countries. They might speak different languages. But when engaged in activity, kids will find a way to communicate with each other. Some of this communication won’t have anything to do with the activity, but it’s still “A Good Thing(TM).” Some of the communication will help each child to internalize the lesson. While some single-player home-use toys and computer games do end up being shared, they are usually used individually. An activity that is deliberately constructed and placed so as to be shared has a much greater opportunity for social reinforcement.

(*). Advocates of standardized tests have a very odd way of having the students share the experience. They make all the students silently share the same misery, but not the learning!

About Stearns

Howard Stearns works at High Fidelity, Inc., creating the metaverse. Mr. Stearns has a quarter century experience in systems engineering, applications consulting, and management of advanced software technologies. He was the technical lead of University of Wisconsin's Croquet project, an ambitious project convened by computing pioneer Alan Kay to transform collaboration through 3D graphics and real-time, persistent shared spaces. The CAD integration products Mr. Stearns created for expert system pioneer ICAD set the market standard through IPO and acquisition by Oracle. The embedded systems he wrote helped transform the industrial diamond market. In the early 2000s, Mr. Stearns was named Technology Strategist for Curl, the only startup founded by WWW pioneer Tim Berners-Lee. An expert on programming languages and operating systems, Mr. Stearns created the Eclipse commercial Common Lisp programming implementation. Mr. Stearns has two degrees from M.I.T., and has directed family businesses in early childhood education and publishing.

One Comment

  1. A follow-up: I heard a story of Christmas travelers stranded in Denver during the recent blizzard. A few people jury-rigged a portable DVD player to a public TV monitor and arranged chairs to form an impromptu movie theater for the kids.

    What makes this story interesting to me is that the non-technical aspect of arranging chairs is what really makes the story work.

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