The Technology Crystal Ball

If you’re a parent of children today, chances are a decade ago you were still "without children" or perhaps had a young toddler. And, as you watch your offspring get taller, louder, and develop an ever-increasing ravenous appetite, you may be wondering where the past ten years went.

Now look at what went on outside your home in the media world. Ten years ago, the Internet was barely becoming a household word, attracting a mostly male culture reserved for computer nerds. Portable music devices relied on tape cassettes or, for the privileged, CD discs, and the DVD was just being talked about as the next $2,000 addition to your home theater.

I’m not likely telling you anything you don’t already know. But if you still expect to have children in your home for the next five to ten years, it may be appropriate to consider what media devices are on the horizon, and how will they affect your ability to help your kids make wise choices.

Obviously, I don’t have a crystal ball. However, when not writing about the effects of media on families and society, I have a definite passion (my wife might say, "obsession") for consumer electronics. If it plugs in or takes batteries, and has a visual or aural output, I’ll likely be in line to try it out. (Again, my wife pointedly mocked this inclination when she gave me an exciting looking Christmas present a few years ago. It was an ice cream scoop that plugged into a wall outlet. "How cool," I exclaimed, and then discovered she has taped an extension cord to the inside of the handle. "How cruel…")

Yet, when speaking with other parents, I recognize their children are often more aware of upcoming technologies than they are. Thus, I think it would be useful to visit this topic a couple of times each year, so that parents may become more aware of what trends are developing that may change the way media is used within and outside of their homes.

Perhaps the greatest single concern for parents when considering the future of entertainment hardware is the trend toward individualization. The days of one TV the family gathers around have been replaced with multiple media appliances that are coming in smaller and tinier sizes, along with gargantuan alternatives. The range from 60-inch plasma to 2 1/2 inch Video iPod is wide, and will only grow greater. Obviously, the former will likely grace a family room and be used in a relatively public environment. However, the tiny screen is far more able to "sneak under the radar" of a monitoring parent.

If you look at the evolution of how we listen to music, it’s only natural to assume visual entertainment will follow the same course. Sound-only entertainment involves simpler technology than video, and has preceded screen-based diversions by a couple of decades. The transistor radio allowed people to disconnect from their hi-fi in the early 1960s. By 1980, truly portable music players of reasonable quality gave listeners an additional ability to control what music they listened to along with where they enjoyed it.

Now, video is maturing as the next ultimate portable device. Apple’s iPod has become the ultimate answer for many desiring to have a virtual library of tunes at their fingertips. The company’s newest incarnation, the Video iPod, marries the two media of music and video together, and while the little device may be the most popular, it’s hardly alone. Many other "toys" on tech store shelves are able to replay whatever video is loaded into them… anytime, anywhere.

However, at this point most of these devices still require a home computer with a broadband connection to acquire the media they will play. Or, physical CDs or DVDs will need to be copied to the computer and reformatted for these ultra-small screens. (And it’s noted the process of re-compressing DVDs for portable players is seen by the motion picture industry as an illegal activity.)

But this attachment to a feeder computer won’t last long. Already, some of these small-screen TVs are able to play back broadcast television, and the options for "live" entertainment will keep growing. Cell phone companies are making quick use of the color screens on their phones for this very purpose.

There are no V-chips in this new frontier of ultra-portable TV. Not only is it impractical (perhaps impossible) to regulate video content downloaded from the Internet, the V-chip legislation only covers televisions with screens 13 inches and larger. That was adequate in 2000, but in years to come, I suspect young people will be viewing more and more episodic TV, movies and music videos on tiny screens.

While the devices shrink, the content available to them will continue to grow. Today, tens of thousands of songs, thousands of music videos, and hundreds of TV shows and movies are available for legal download. (I won’t even try and estimate how many illegal items are finding their way through peer-to-peer file sharing services.) As mentioned, cell phone companies are catering with live television feeds.

Entering into the satellite era, delivering media anywhere will be a definite reality. Remember those huge satellite dishes in the 1970s? Then came the smaller ones we have today to receive direct-to-home satellite signals. Next, the receiving antenna will shrink into a size suitable for handheld use. That means a veritable 500-channel universe may reside in the palm of your child’s hand.

Not wanting to be ousted by the competition, cell phone companies will continue to provide faster Internet access. Already, some have download speeds that are comparable to basic home broadband services. That means the streaming audio and video services (and peer-to-peer file sharing) you have available with a home Internet connection will be a portable offering.

This new frontier of handheld entertainment will undoubtedly make those waiting times at the doctor’s office more enjoyable, and has the potential to deliver educational services in new and unique ways. However, parents will need to keep a close eye on these future developments to ensure they are being used in ways that are in keeping with their family entertainment standards.

More details about the movies mentioned in this post…