If your TV was like a Book

Last month, Apple released their latest device – the iPad. It is capable of many wonderous things, and has many fabulous properties, but of all of them, for now I am interested in just three: its screen, its weight, and its ability to show video.

As various other manufacturers rush to market with devices to compete in the segment that Apple has just legitimised, they will most likely produce things that share those same three properties. However, as it is still early days, we don’t yet know for sure what people will end up doing with these devices. That’s why it’s so much fun to speculate!

The iPad has a 24cm (diagonal) screen, weighs about 700g (WiFi version) and can deliver TV quality video from the Internet to practically wherever in the house you decide to sit yourself down with it. If you hold it up in front of your face (about 60cm away), it’s as big as if you were watching a 120cm (diagonal) TV from 3m away. And, while lighter than a 120cm TV, it’s going to feel heavy pretty quick.

However, 700g is not very heavy if you’re willing to rest it on your lap, and there’s another category of content consumption “device” that is comparable in this regard: the book. I am willing to spend hours intently focused on a book while reading it, and a quick weigh of some of my books (using the handy kitchen scales) suggests the iPad is not unusual…

Which provides some legitimisation of a “TV-watching” scenario of a family in their lounge room, with everyone watching a show on their tablet device. (Assuming that you have overcome issues like individuals’ TV audio interfering with others and ensuring adequate bandwidth for everyone.) However, this scenario feels strange, even anti-social.

I am perhaps conditioned by the ritual of people coming together to share a TV watching experience. And before we had TVs, people came together to share a radio listening experience. But before broadcasting technologies, what did we do? In reality, this sort of broadcasting experience is a relatively recent phenomenon. Before that, presumably we all sat around in the lounge room and read books.

I’ve previously written on the idea that people prefer the personal, and that a personal TV experience will be preferred to a shared TV experience. The iPad and similar devices have the potential to enable this, through becoming as light and portable as books.

“Netbooks” also have similar attributes to the iPad. However, they tend to weigh at least 1 kg and have screens that are smaller. So, while future Netbooks might have the right form factor, it certainly isn’t common yet. The iPad is the first mass-market device that properly fills this niche.

The issue of the scenario feeling anti-social is still a little troubling. While our ancestors might have looked up over their books and engaged in a casual chat, momentarily pausing their reading, this is harder to accomplish with a video experience. Not only are the eyes and ears otherwise engaged, making casual interruption more difficult, but the act of pausing and resuming is not as easy either.

I suspect that while we’re now reaching the point where hardware can fill the personal TV niche, the software is not yet ready. We may need eye-tracking software that pauses the video when the viewer looks away, integration of text-based messaging alongside video-watching, and other adaptations to the traditional video player software.

I’m keen to see what competition in this new segment produces.

6 thoughts on “If your TV was like a Book”

  1. Remember that books as a mass market phenomenon are not that old either, and were, as expensive items, limited to the “upper class” of society when they first came to market. Widespread artificial light is also a relatively recent thing – so I doubt our ancestors really developed the kind of “let’s all read together” phenomenon you suggest. What’s more, the society a 100 or 200 years ago was a rather different place – most families rarely had leisure time as we define it these days, with hours to spend as a family doing whatever we want.

    But getting back to today, which model do you think will dominate in, say, 20 years; broadcast watch-as-a-group-and-a-social-event-television or personal television? In your earlier “People prefer the personal” post you predicted big-screen TVs to move into occupying a niche while here you mention the iPad-style devices can fill the “personal TV niche”. For both to be niche markets we would have to start watching radically less TV :)

  2. Honestly, I’m already a bit nostalgic for the TV era. HJ is watching Korean soap operas on her laptop and I’m, well, here.

    I hear there’s a fairly well documented decline in communal activities over the last generation or so — ie, well before the introduction of the iPad. A book my mum enjoyed on the subject is bowling alone, though hain’t read it meself.

  3. @Sami: I’ve heard… (FACTOID WARNING!!)… that actually we have less average personal free time nowadays than 200 years ago.

  4. I loathe the idea of tv watching becoming personal. We don’t watch much of it here, but I have a horrible vision of when Hamish and baby in the belly are teenagers and all four of us are sitting in four different rooms watching tv. Ick Ick Ick. Teenagers are hard enough to extract from bedrooms as it is, without the added complication of them being able to watch tv in there.

    I hope that in our house at least, tv viewing will remain a family thing and we won’t all be in different corners of the house ignoring each other.

    So, iPad looks lovely and handy and things, but if I ever got one it wouldn’t be used for tv watching. That’s what my tv (and comfy couch) is for.

  5. @Sami,

    While cautious that forecasts tend to all be wrong, I’d be comfortable with the idea that in around 20 years both TV on personal devices and on shared devices will be widespread models. In terms of niches, my references were to different timeframes: today, personal TV is a niche, but some time in the future, shared TV will be but a niche.

    @Bron,

    OzTAM estimates that over 30% of households have at least three TVs. Since it’s unlikely that those TVs are all in the same room, we are already living in a culture where people have to sit apart if they want to watch separate TV shows. At least, with the personal TV described here, people can sit together as a family. And there won’t be fights over the remote control.

  6. Reading aloud was quite common in families, sometimes members taking it in turns. That way those who were too young to read well could listen in, those with mending or needlework could have their hands free, less money was spent on books and parents always knew what the kids were exposed to. I have also seen illustrations where the book is under/near a candle and the listeners in semi-darkness so it could save on the expense of lighting too.

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