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Convergence Comes in Small Packages

  |  February 28, 2011   |  Comments

The dream of "convergence" had centered on the television. But no longer.

For a long time now, the dream of "convergence" has centered on the television, the device that's insinuated itself over the latter half of the 20th century as the core of the home. From "TV dinners" to "TV rooms" to "TV trays" and "TV parties," television replaced the hearth as the place where the family gathered.

So of course it's been completely natural to think of the television as the place where electronic "convergence" was going to occur. From early "teletext" (also known as "videotext") experiments in the '70s through the rise of console gaming in the '80s and '90s, to "Web TV," on-demand digital cable, and the current crop of Internet-enabled televisions, multipurpose gaming consoles (Xbox Live, for example), and digital set-top boxes (such as those from Roku and Netflix), the idea of "convergence" has been to bring the Internet to the TV room so that mom n' pop could get online without all that scary computer stuff.

Steve Perlman, founder of WebTV networks, offered the classic rationale in a 2007 PC Magazine interview: "I've been working to create an interactive television all my life," said Perlman, "I always knew it was a way of bringing computers to the average person."

For those of us who came out of the earlier days of the home computer, this attitude made perfect sense. Back in the day, even computers targeted towards the home market required a fair amount of technical capabilities and sheer nerve to keep running. Heck, I can remember buying a word processor for my Apple back in the mid '80s that required me to actually wire a jumper cable between the built-in keyboard and the motherboard so I could type lower-case letters! Even today, a trip to a big-box store to look at computer accessories can be pretty daunting for the average consumer who can't tell (and doesn't care about) the difference between RAM and hard drive storage. But when it comes to TVs…even Grandma can understand (eventually) how to use the remote! If she were able to "surf the Web" from her couch without worrying about that crazy "interweb" stuff…well, just think of the possibilities!

But if dream of "convergence" can be defined as bringing together all electronic media into one device that provides easy access to that media, the TV's too late: it's already happened.

That's right: by most definitions that get bandied about (especially when discussing television), convergence is here. It just came in a much smaller package than we'd envisioned: mobile devices, particularly the latest generation of smartphones.

Think about it: your iPhone or your Droid phone lets you talk to other people (that's the often overlooked "phone" part, if you don't remember). It lets you watch video. You can play games on it. You can get e-mail on it. You can connect to social networks with it. You can listen to streaming audio from terrestrial and online "radio" sources. You can even, using augmented reality software such as Layar, blur the lines between the "real" world and the "virtual" world with it. And, if you want to, you can use it to control your TV and your computer with various "virtual remote" apps.

The dream of "convergence" has always really been about crossing the barrier between the world of electronic information and our brains. Ever since William Gibson published "Neuromancer" in 1984 and coined the term "cyberspace," we've been working towards the ultimate convergence of mind and technology. Technology and biology have gotten in the way of actually (to use Gibson's term) "jacking in" and linking our brains to the datasphere, but if you consider how our smartphones have become the central hub that connects all our digital devices, these "phones" have gotten us about as close as we've gotten so far to making that link between our brains and cyberspace.

Does this mean that all the other stuff is going to go away? Of course not: TV is great for consuming video-based entertainment or as a platform for video games. Because of their keyboards and (relatively) large screens, desktop and laptops are perfect for writing, crunching numbers, playing certain types of games, and communicating with other people…they're just not portable. Radio still has a place as a "hands-free" medium for information and entertainment, especially when driving in cars. But if you're looking for a central place to be able to get all of that stuff, just reach in your pocket, pull out your smartphone, and you've got it. Convergence. In one tiny package.

People are starting to catch on. I'd say that it was somewhat of a watershed moment the other night when Jimmy Fallon held up a large QR code (instead of an album cover) when he introduced his musical guests. When he did so, he explicitly jumped that divide between the TV and the Internet, and did so in a way that didn't require any fancy additional technology added to the TV. Old Navy's partnership with song-identifying-app Shazam that allowed Shazam users to "tag" Old Navy's commercial with their smartphones, share it with others, or even download the full version of the song featured in the spot represented another leap across the convergence gap; one that explicitly tied together some pretty powerful marketing by smart use of smartphones.

Recent studies by firms such as Deloitte show that almost 50 percent of Americans are now online while watching TV…using a device other than their TV. They're using those devices to talk with others about what they're watching, gather ancillary information, and even buy stuff. Multi-screen usage allows them to do so without interrupting the entertainment stream of the TV…a good thing because that's what TVs are good for. The entire entertainment ecosystem that includes both the content on the TV and the content of the Web comes together in that device that they're poking at during the show. Convergence, folks. Convergence.

It might sound a little flaky, but as marketers we need to recognize that the smartphone has become the mind-machine interface that technophiles have been dreaming about. Its ubiquity, ease of use, constant data connection, ability to provide a standard platform for all electronic media, and (perhaps most importantly) it's ability to link the "virtual" world with the "real" world (via QR codes, AR technology, location-based tech, etc.) provides an incredible platform for creativity and reaching out to consumers…once we recognize what it is. And as wireless technologies that allow devices to "talk" to one another improve, we'll have even more opportunities to reach out via the digital ecosystem directly to consumers.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sean Carton

Sean Carton has recently been appointed to develop the Center for Digital Communication, Commerce, and Culture at the University of Baltimore and is chief creative officer at idfive in Baltimore. He was formerly the dean of Philadelphia University's School of Design + Media and chief experience officer at Carton Donofrio Partners, Inc.

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