The 6-foot sweet spot for home media

by Jason Gross

10 August 2006


When I first read Paul Boutin’s Slate article The Myth of the Living-Room PC, I was intrigued by his argument about 2 foot vs. 10 foot media but thinking about it more, he seems as naive as the electronics companies that he pokes fun at.

Two foot media are the electronic devices that we input info on and get info back—usually we think of this as our computer but it can also be our cell phone or a gaming device.  Ten foot media is “passive” media as we don’t interact with it but just soak up its output—television is the best example but radio is another example.  As such, Boutin makes an interesting argument as electronics companies are indeed naively trying to converge too quickly so that our PCs are our TVs and vice versa as one big catch-all media center. 

But Boutin is naive also though because he laughs at the current models, not imagining that there could be new models for multi-purpose home media in the future: literally, if you split the difference between 2 feet and 10 feet, you get 6 feet, right?  It should be obvious that maybe not in 5 or 10 years but certainly in say 20 or 30 years, our computers are not going to be the same as they are now and neither will our TVs.  Should electronics manufacturers just complacently keep making the same kind of product for decades?  They can’t and they won’t.  Remember that the original computers that were made in the 1950s were the size of a bedroom and when computer screens came into the picture, they only showed letters and numbers (no graphics).  Before the 1990s, there was no World Wide Web and before the 1970s, there was no Internet, much less cell phones.  So again, why should the technology we have now stay as it is for decades to come?  Even as you sit reading this, many tech geeks are working on wrecking the models that we have for electronic devices- most of them will fail but some of them are going to revolutionize the industry in ways that we can’t imagine now.

Which leads to another point.  Many articles have been trying to push the idea that we’re entering a post-PC era.  With cell phones, MP3 players, Blackberries providing our connected needs in a portable way, the personal computer is already seen as a relic in some circles.  But it ain’t!  Too many of us still use PCs for so much in our lives but you can see where this is going.  Electronics companies not to mention information providers and entertainment companies are salivating over the opportunity to use the little devices to deliver info and make profits from people willing to buy it, be it music or videos or software applications.  They will find a way sooner or later and already, they’re raking in millions of dollars selling cellphone rings and songs through them.

But beware… just because you still media on a little device, consumers aren’t going to buy it up.  A recent L.A. Times article (No Big Demand For Small Screen) reveals:

“About half of young adults and 4 in 10 teenagers said they were uninterested in watching television shows or movies on computers, cellphones or hand-held devices such as video iPods, the poll found.  While more than 2 out of 5 teens and young adults indicated they were open to viewing this kind of content online, only 14% of teenagers said they wanted to watch television on a cellphone, and 17% said they would view programs on an iPod.”

Why aren’t they flocking like lemmings to these little gadgets?  Price and quality of the services.  The first problem will get solved as the providers figure out that they can get better profits by offering more reasonable deals (why pay double what you do on iTunes for a song to go on your phone?).  The second problem will take longer to fix.  Even PC video is many times a dodgy prospect with a high-speed connection.  Granted that the survey the article cites is just one but this isn’t the first time that similar results were found in other surveys.  No surprise—this is a new, still burgeoning field so it’s bound to take time to catch on.  I wasn’t around to experience it myself but it’s hard to imagine today that everything was once in black and white and could only be seen when it was broadcast (before VCRs or Tivo).

All of which seems to bolster Boutin’s argument that all the fancy new devices that are trying to cram in as much media as possible aren’t getting much love.  That’s definitely true today but it won’t be tomorrow.

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