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On the next killer app

Ubiquity, Volume 2001 Issue June, June 1 - June 30, 2001 | BY Ron A. Zajac 

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Full citation in the ACM Digital Library


Why video telephony failed in a market dominated by visual content -- and what can learned from the experience.



In the corporate world of high-tech software production, most people spend much of their time engaged in "legacy work"; activities involving incremental improvements and enhancements to existing products. Sometimes, "enhancements" can be robustness work, which may be seen to represent work on things whose impact is perhaps less tangible and hence marginally exciting and cutting edge. But in the big picture, even this is ultimately beholden to a product or products whose market viability has been established. This work obtains additional increments of money from customers who have already bought the legacy product.

One can imagine that, during a thoughtful moment at work, or at home, or in some bar over a beer, certain of these "information society" workers pause a moment to contemplate the future. Often, this is an attempt to predict the shape, size and odor of something that will be the "next Killer App." The next Killer App will come; it's just a matter of time. But what will it be? Underlying the thought is the sure knowledge that, by midwifing the next Killer App into existence, this technology worker would attain to a prestige they feel is not due to your average infoschlepp. The fantasy that one might be the conduit for the next Killer App can be intoxicating.

I hope to introduce in this paper a new tack in the fantasy space of this epic quest. My hope is that it sheds light on an important human element in the social reality of popular technology acceptance.

The Visual Element

Consider the classic failure of what, to most casual observers, should have been a shoo-in as a Killer App: Video telephony. Why the jarring clash between all the immensely popular fictional representations of video telephony -- countless sci-fi television programs and movies, and Dick Tracy -- and the hard, cold reality that attempts to introduce such technologies into the market, even recently at low cost, have failed? Why is it people don't want distance realtime video; or, at any rate, why don't they consider the costs and hassles worth the trouble? The role of the visual in human learning and interaction is one of the great wonders of life and existence. The visual is compelling. It's not just a cliché, and Missouri is not the only "Show Me" state. And consider all the successful visual inventions; television, movies, and that ultimate recent Killer App, the Web, whose voracious appetite for high-bandwidth visual content precedes and drives forward the IP infrastructure's capacity to stomach it all. Why the glitch with video telephony?

Nausea

Strange as it may seem, I may have found part of the answer in Jean-Paul Sartre's testy little tome, La Nausée. And what an amazing book it is! I'm not sure I could write a yarn in which the main driving plot element is that the hero exists, and make that premise work. But M. Sartre does. One of his devices is that he structures the book around an episode or series of episodes that drive to some engaging philosophical conclusion. One of these conclusions is summed up in a sentence neatly ensconced between leading scenarios and further ruminations on the theme:

But you've got to choose; to live or to tell stories [...; vivre ou raconter].

I should mention that in the development following this rather bold pronouncement he makes it clear he's not calling for the end of narrative in deference to living; he's just saying it's important not to confuse the two. Obviously, if he was seriously promoting the idea that narrative was antithetical to life, the writing of Nausea would be a consummate act of hypocrisy!

Something clicked in my mind, and I saw the connection. People embrace visual technologies when they're not realtime, when they enable people's natural storytelling, narrative-weaving capacities.

Two cases

To illustrate, I'll raconte two little stories.

At my youngest daughter's 6th birthday party, a neighborhood friend agreed to shoot some video so we could have a record of the historic event. I like Libby, but I discovered an amazing, and in some ways disturbing, thing about her when I watched her video. I learned that one should never take for granted the fact that, even in the hands of a nudnick user, a home video recorder ultimately engages the user's natural narrative faculties; and that this is the essence of its charm. This becomes plain when viewing the birthday video. It's apparent that Libby, bless her heart, has no awareness of the narrative potentialities in the camera. She clamped that sucker to her eye, punched the "record" button, and treated the viewer to the non-stop cannonballing freight train of life, as lived by Libby. Like I said, I like Libby. She's actually one of the nicest people I know. And she just did us a favor. She highlighted the fact that the visual Killer App of home video recording best serves the narrative interests of the customer (raconter); not the interests of verité-with-a-vengeance (vivre).

The other story involves my recent video viewing of Robert Redford's The Horse Whisperer. I don't watch a lot of movies, so what I'm about to relate may be a regular experience for most folks; it was fairly unique for me. The movie is designed very carefully, and I might add skillfully, to engage the viewer at the emotional level. The job facing Redford was to emotionally compress the months over which the narrated events took place into the two or so hours it would take to view the movie. In this Redford hit his target with the expected results; a lot of deeply felt emotion in a very short time. The question: Why isn't there a thriving business in radio drama production, rivaling film production? Why didn't Redford consider releasing this as a sound production?

The obvious answer is institutional; films are what people do. There's an existing infrastructure of public showing of films. People like films. If sound production of drama were so hot, there'd be more than the scattered cassette drama production houses, books-on-tape, NPR's This American Life, and so forth. In the 1960s and '70s, The Firesign Theatre played up sound stage production as a kind of radical chic in the belly of the Age of Television beast. But ultimately the visual wins out when the technology exists and the narrative is compelling. When Redford directed, it's obvious he was continuously conscious of the ways that we take powerful emotional cues from both visual and auditory images. Why stick with choosing one set of cues over another, when you can have both?

"...Earth to Infoschlepp...."

If that's true, why the failure of video telephony? Because telephony is vivre. People pay for visual media when their inherent capacity to raconter is bolstered thereby. Vivre means I'll be at the laundromat 'til maybe about 4 p.m. and I'll pick up the tortellini on the way home. Raconter means I think the boss likes tortellini, but that doesn't mean it'll tip the scales in favor of my professional viability at dinner-with-the-boss tonight.

What does this mean to us as we take another slug off our beers and take another stab at dreaming up the next Killer App? It could mean we have to find a way to fashion a realtime interpersonal video technology that in some new way encourages people's natural narrative abilities; their ability to fashion a narrative that gives meaning to their lives. It could mean that further opportunities to incorporate high-bandwidth visual media need to continue to be focused on the finished objets d'art associated with TV and film production or visually intensive Web pages. Perhaps exploration into some other as-yet-unknown produced media could be productive. Or it could point to a mass psychological change in which people come to find the video transmission of their everyday communications as deeply meaningful as video communication of emotionally charged narratives.

The idea that people don't want to bother seeing the person they're talking to just because it doesn't help them fulfill their need for narrative -- potentially revisionist, reassuring narrative -- is a little damning. Maybe that's the real gauntlet thrown down by this little analysis. Maybe Sartre's right. Perhaps the next Killer App is inside each of us and is not for sale. Perhaps there's No Exit.

The author would like to thank Stewart Maxwell for the discussions that helped put together these disparate bits.

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