topical media & game development

talk show tell print

technological developments

Let's see if we are able to give a more precise characterization of digital convergence. In their introduction to the theme issue of the Scientific American, Forman and SaintJohn locate the beginning of digital convergence, historically, at the 1939 New York World Fair, and more in particular the RCA Pavillion, which should be considered as the formal debut of television broadcast. They observe that


the receiver at the RCA Pavillon was way ahead of its time, it was a combination of television - radio - recorder - playback - facsimile - projector ...

Moreover, they remark that this in hindsight suggests that we humans have a fundamental desire to merge all media in one entity.

By way of definition we may state, following Forman and SaintJohn, that digital convergence is:

digital convergence

the union of audio, video and data communication into a single source, received on a single device, delivered by a single connection

And, as they say, predicted for decades, convergence is finally emerging, albeit in a haphazard fashion.

Taking a somewhat closer look, we may discern subsidiary convergences with respect to content, platform and distribution:

subsidiary convergences

  • content -- audio, video, data
  • platform -- PC, TV, internet, game machine
  • distribution -- how it gets to your platform
Here, Forman and SaintJohn continue by speculating that if compatibility standards and data protection schemas can be worked out, all d-entertainment will converge into a single source that can shine into your life on any screen, whereever you are ... However, observe that the number of competing standards and architectures is enormous, and that apart from the technical issues involved it is not entirely clear what business model should underly such convergence. In computer shops, there PCs with TV receivers are sold in the range of 1000-2000 euro. This does not include the screen. They come with either the XP Home or Windows Media Center. One of the first in this line of machines, in the higher prices range, was the Sony W1.



TV or PC

It is fair to say that no device has changed the way we live so dramatically as television. Television, for one, has altered the way we furnish our living rooms, not to speak about the time we waste watching the thing. Comparing the graphs for television and communication, we immediately see that their underlying concepts are very different. And more specifically, the association of television with a phrase such as idiot box may raise doubt whether the promise of convergence, which does include communication as an essential feature, will ever become a reality.

Now, we may wonder what interactive television and enhanced televison have to offer us. Looking back, we may observe that it takes some time for the new possibilities to catch on. For example, interactive television was introduced in 1970, but apparently people did not want to communicate with the broadcaster. As another example of enhanced televison, take Big Brother. Although many people watched Big Brother when it first appeared on television, the willingness of the audience to react other than by phone was (apparently) somewhat disappointing. Perhaps, in the Netherlands this was due to the fact that only a fraction of the PC owners was, at that time, permanently online.

In spite of the failed experiments, Forman and SaintJohn state, somewhat optimistically, that the convergence of digital content, broadcast distribution and display platforms create the big convergence of d-entertainment and information with feedback supporting human interactivity.

Before looking at digital television more closely, let's summarize what digital convergence involves:


  • content -- 2D/3D graphics, data, video, audio
  • distribution -- broadcast, wireless, DVD, internet, satelite, cable
  • platform -- PC, television, game machine, wireless data pad, mobile phone

This summary indicates the technical opportunities, and the possible functinal extensions that may enhance our use of television, computer, game console and mobile phone. As concerns digital television, we may come up with some immediate advantages, such as enhanced resolution, a multiplication of channels, and (more relevant to the issue of convergence) interactive television.


exposition on the history of TV in Institute for Time-based Arts/Montevideo


To get you failiar with some common acronyms, when speaking about (digital) television, we must make a further distinction between:


  • HDTV -- high definition television
  • SDTV -- standard definition television
  • ITV -- interactive television
As further discussed in chapter 3, we have (standard) codecs for d-TV, in particular MPEG-2, for recording digital video, and MPEG-4, for high-quality streaming video on the internet, both from the Motion Picture Expert Group, that enable the effective delivery of digital video, possibly in combination with other content.

Unfortunately, experts disagree on what might become the most suitable appliance or platform to consume all those digital goodies. Here are some possible choices:

a killer d-TV appliance ...

  • personal television -- TiVo, Replay-TV (MPEG-2 cache)
  • game machine -- Sony PS 2/3, X-Box
Will we prefer to watch stored video, instead of live televison broadcasts? Will the Internet be able to compete with traditional television broadcasting. Will DelayTV or Replay-TV, which allows you to watch previous broadcasts at a time that suits you become popular? Will an extended game machine or PC replace your television? Currently,we must observe that streaming media (still) have rather poor resolution.

Leaving game machines aside, will it then be the TV or PC that will become our platform of choice? Forman and SaintJohn observe:

TV or PC

The roadblock to the Entertainment PC could be the PC itself. Even a cheap TV doesn't crash or freeze. The best computers still do.

However, they conclude that it might make sense to adopt a programmable PC that can support competing TV standards, rather than construct a stack of TV peripherals. Nevertheless, there are a number of problems that occur when we (collectively) choose for the PC as our platform for d-entertainment. Should we have thin clients, for example based on the Sun/Java platform or so-called fat clients based on some version of Microsoft windows> How do we handle the fact that the current internet protocols are not robust, and how can we provide what is known as quality of service? Should we adopt any of the proprietary architectures and codecs, such as RealVideo, QuickTime, Windows media, or should we adhere to an open standard such as MPEG-4?

Evidently, the situation becomes even more complex when we just consider the range of alternatives for connectivity, that is for possible ways of distributing contents:


  • telephone network -- from 0.5 - 2 Mbps to 60 Mpbs (2.5km)
  • broadcast TV -- 6 MHz / 19 Mbps (4 channels MPEG HDTV)
  • cable TV -- hybrid fiber-optic coaxial cable 6 Mbps
  • fixed wireless -- 2 Mbps (radiotowers + rooftop antenna), phones/handhelds
  • satellite -- downloads to 100kbps, modem for uploads ...
Most probably, convergence with respect to distribution will not result in one single way of being connected, but rather a range of options from which one will be selected transparently, dependent on content and availability.

Let's stay optimistic, and ask ourselves the following question:

digital convergence

what will we do with convergence once we have it?

One possible scenario, not too unlikely after all, is to deploy it for installing computing devices everywhere, to allow for, to name a few, smart houses, smart clothes, or, in other words, to create a smart world. I wonder what a smart world will look like. In the end we will have to wait and see, but whatever will emerge


we will watch

That is to say, it is not likely that we will have a world without television. Television as we are used to it seems to be the dominant paradigm for d-entertainment, for both the near and distant future.


Berkeley meshSan Francisco viewaugmented terrain map


example(s) -- visible world

Just imagine that every visible place on earth would be accessible in a virtual world. Researchers of the Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, have developed software for the semi-automated construction of detailed interactive urban environments, that takes data from multiple sources, including geo-corrected imagery from aerial photography and satelites and ground-based close-ups,  [World].

The challenge here is to collect data from multiple sources and convert this into models, and perhaps even more difficult, to make the models visible so that they can be navigated in an interactive fashion. Recently, the Georgia group teamed up with a group from Berkeley to develop more complex models (images on the left), and together they are working on automating the extraction of information from aerial pictures (image on the right), in particular the detection of groups of trees, and height estimation.

There are many applications for such technology, including urban planning, emergency response, tourism and entertainment, military operations, traffic management, construction and maintenance, mobile services, citizen-government relations, and (not in the least) games.

The next step might be to connect the cameras, that are already there in many of these places, to the model, to observe what happens there in real life. But, somehow, this vision becomes frightening.

However, if you want to give it a try yourself, and populate the virtual globe with your own creations, go download the viewer and editing tool from Google Earth:

Google Earth

and read the tutorials!

research directions -- technological determinism

Although there are many technical issues involved in (digital) multimedia, as exemplified in the issues that play a role in digital convergence, a technical perspective alone does not suffice. Each technological innovation has its consequences on our social life. Conversely, each trend in society might result in the adoption or development of new technology. Looking at the history of the media, we may observe that media become materials in our social processes. Or, as phrased in  [History]:

media as materials

each medium of communication tended to create a dangerous monopoly of knowledge

For example ( [History], p. 8) for Christians, images where both a means of conveying information and a means of persuasion, that is part of the rethorics of institutionalized religion.

Looking at our age, and the media that have come into existence in the previous century (radio, television, ...),  [History] observe that:

technological determinism

technological determinism was not the answer, ... more attempts were to be made to provide answers about the social consequences of television than had ever been asked about radio.

In effect, underlying all developments in the media (including the computer) we may assume a basic need for information. A rather problematic need, for that matter:


Information became a major concern anywhere during the late 1960 and 1970s where there was simultaneous talk both of 'lack of information' and 'information saturation'.

 [History], p. 555

Nowadays, we regard information as a commodity. Train schedules, movies, roadmaps, touristic information, stock prices, we expect it all to be there, preferably online, at no cost. No information, no life. Information drives the economy. Upwards and downwards!

(C) Æliens 04/09/2009

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