Defining Rich Media

Welcome to this new series on rich media. As chairman of the Rich Media SIG (Special Interest Group), an industry consortium dedicated to the growth and understanding of rich media technologies, the number-one question I get asked is: “Hey, smart guy, what IS rich media, anyway?”

Now, you might think this would be lobbing softballs to a seasoned pro. But the truth of the matter is that even the Rich Media SIG Board, which includes some pretty heavy-hitters in the rich media technology field, has difficulty agreeing on a coherent and all-encompassing definition of rich media.

One tactic is simply to enumerate all the different technologies that are currently being used by the major rich media ad formats; these include video, audio, vector graphics (i.e., flash), DHTML, cursors, Shockwave, and Java.

The SIG Board itself has kicked around a few terms such as “interactive” and “click-within” to convey the abilities of certain rich media ad technologies. But these are, at best, terms that only incompletely define what rich media’s about. (We finally agreed, albeit a bit reluctantly, on the term enhanced experience.)

Perhaps to find the answer to this elusive question we need to delve back further than the current lexicon of Internet buzz-words allows. I quote from the classic work of Chinese wisdom, the “Tao Te Ching”: “The rich media which can be defined is not the true rich media.” Okay, so maybe I paraphrased a bit. It’s just that the subject of rich media is too big, and too important, to be summed up in a simple catch phrase or definition.

Here’s another quote, this one from one of my favorite paragons of modern wisdom, Jim Nail of Forrester Research: “The Web is a dress rehearsal for Interactive TV.”

Jim’s line is a good start, but it’s just a start. No one disagrees that the principal story of the final five years of the 20th century has been the growing presence of the web in our everyday lives. But here’s a prophecy for you: The untold story of the first five years of the 21st century will be the web’s accelerating transparency in our everyday lives. The web, my friends, is starting to disappear. It’s disappearing not only into televisions, but radios, personal digital assistants, cell phones, game consoles, automobiles, even refrigerators.

No form of traditional media – TVs, radios, newspapers, even billboards – will be left untouched by this ghost in the machine. In one way or another, every form of media will go joy-riding on the backbone of the Internet. Except we won’t think of it as the Internet with a capital “I” anymore than we think of that Furby doll as a microprocessor computer.

No, but we will play along with “Jeopardy” from our TVs at home to show how smart we are. We will press a button from our remote control and purchase the clothes or furniture featured in our favorite sit-coms. (“That credenza in Ross’s apartment would look just lovely in our livingroom, don’t you think, dear?”)

Music playing on the radio will be available for easy purchase at the click of a button from our handheld devices. Our experience will be, in other words, …enhanced. If you think I’m kidding, check out what companies like WebTV and SonicBox are up to these days. Or eavesdrop on a conversation in a coffee shop in Pasadena, like I did recently, to hear how the movers and shakers are planning on changing the way we experience and interact with just about everything around us.

And what kind of advertising will run over these Net appliances of the not-so-distant future? Well, for one thing, it will be targeted and interactive and contain the ability to process transactions directly from the TV, radio, and maybe even the newspaper. It will be engaging, even game-like, with the power to deliver additional information as needed. It will be, in a word, rich.

What we will find is that this thing called rich media that we find so difficult to define today will be absorbed into the framework, into the very nature, of all media in the very near future. So, you decide: You can experiment with rich media in this dress rehearsal we call the web today, or be consigned to the chorus line tomorrow.

It’s up to you.

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