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A Brief History of Entertainment Technologies

Entertainment is usually associated with the idea of doing something we enjoy — something we can do alone or with others to amuse ourselves, to have fun in our leisure time, or perhaps something relaxing, or that can make us laugh. Yet, ways to entertain and be entertained have changed throughout history. In ancient Rome, for example, one might relax in thermal baths or attend gladiator games and chariot races.

During the Renaissance, on the other hand, people found amusement mainly in art, music, and theater. And, of course, entertainment isn’t always available to everyone. For instance, in the Middle Ages, dance and circus acts, with jugglers and exhibiting animals, performed primarily for the upper classes and royalty. In recent centuries, entertainment has undergone a progressive spread across the global population, with many kinds of recreational activities — from reading books or visiting museums and cultural sites to playing sports or traveling the world — becoming commonplace.

Indeed, virtually all fields of entertainment have witnessed a technological evolution that has contributed to making amusement more affordable, accessible, or comfortable. Nonetheless, when we think about where technology currently plays the biggest role in entertainment, show business generally tops the list with the television, movie, music, and video game industries.

In each of these fields, technology changes have historically been the source of great innovations. Hence, a look at the past can help us imagine what the future evolution of entertainment technologies might be.

A Bit of History: The Music Industry

The website gov.uk says that people refer to today as the music industry started in 1877 with the phonograph, which allowed people to record and play back sounds. After Guglielmo Marconi’s early experiments with wireless telegraphy in 1894, sound was successfully transmitted over the air to a larger audience with the first public radio broadcast in 1910. The next big advancement occurred in 1954 with the production of the first analog pocket transistor radio, which let people listen to music on the go.

Some forty years later, the doors of the 21st century opened for music with the introduction of digital audio broadcasting. In 1998, the first MP3 players appeared on the market. In 2003, Apple launched the iTunes Store, allowing users to purchase individual songs and letting them create their own playlists. Subsequent developments, including the explosion of Internet radio, tools such as Shazam for song identification, and so on, are no longer history but rather part of everyday life.

Curiously, some initially viewed the Internet and the digitalization of media content as possible causes for the music industry’s death. Statistics now indicate a continuous decline of traditional media, but that has been paralleled by a complementary growth in the streaming business. In 2013, as Apple was announcing the download of the 25 billionth song from its store, audio streaming was showing more than 30 percent growth over the previous year in the US. Most notably, in the same year, about half of the 200 million subscribers on platforms such as Pandora and Spotify accessed those audio streaming services via mobile apps. For a bigger picture, interested readers can read Sheau Ng’s recent article, “A Brief History of Entertainment Technologies.”

User-Centric Mobile Entertainment

Processes that shaped the evolution of the television, movie, video game, and other entertainment industries appear to have many points in common with the music sector.

In July 2014, the Wall Street Journal interviewed Disney Chair and CEO Bob Iger about the future of entertainment. Iger said the key will continue to be having good stories and telling them in the right way. At the same time, he stressed technology’s growing importance, asserting that what’s being created today can be referred to as technology-enabled leisure.

At bloomberg.com they note that indeed, technology is changing the way stories are created — by removing barriers to artists’ creativity. And this is happening not just in movie productions, with special effects and computer graphics animations, but also in television shows, theme park attractions, video games, and much more. Of course, technology is also modifying the way entertainment is delivered to audiences, by basically canceling space and time boundaries.

Mobile and user-centered are two adjectives that help describe the vision of various industry gurus on the future of entertainment and related technologies. Clearly, these keywords describe the music industry’s evolution, as users can now listen to their favorite music anytime, anywhere, on nearly any device.

The ongoing convergence of information and communication technologies with ever-faster mobile networks is aligning with improved services in the cloud and increasing multimedia traffic, as technological advancements behind the preceding keywords are driving changes in other entertainment fields, as well. According to recent statistics, multimedia traffic accounted for slightly less than 70 percent of overall Internet traffic in 2013. And about 60 percent of such traffic came from smartphones and tablets.

Nonetheless, the end user’s central role in strategies for the entertainment of tomorrow is highlighted not only by the focus on the use of personal mobile devices but also by the growing attention toward content customization and personalization.

Video streaming is already a kind of personalization, in that the user is allowed to access content on demand. And it’s growing at incredible rates. With 111.5 million viewers when it aired in the US on the Fox network in 2014, Super Bowl XLVIII is currently rated as the most-watched single television live broadcast. By comparison, Comcast’s Xfinity On Demand services currently see about that many accesses each week.

Evolution or Revolution

By looking at technological changes with today’s eyes, the various branches of entertainment might appear to follow a common evolutionary path. However, several technologies now appearing in the panorama of entertainment promise to be truly revolutionary, much like the introduction of MPEG standards, GPU-based graphics processing, and other breakthrough innovations.

For instance, content is expected to become increasingly personalized, with leisure experiences growing ever more capable of becoming interactive and adapting to audience expectations. This is already starting to happen with social and intelligent entertainment systems, which learn users’ habits and preferences and use them to discover other related content that might be of interest.

The devices we use to access content will need to adapt to user expectations, as well, especially in terms of flexibility. Distinctions among the roles of television sets, gaming consoles, mobile devices, and e-book readers are ever more ephemeral, as users already expect technology to let them use their smart TVs to watch movies, keep in contact with friends, and play online multiplayer video games.

The goal of moving content outside of traditional settings is also shared by technologies such as virtual and augmented reality. These technologies, combined with innovative solutions for visualization (including Ultra-high-definition 4K screens and curved and holographic displays) and, more generally, for rendering content for other senses (reproducing smell, leveraging haptic feedback, and so on) are helping content developers create increasingly engaging entertainment environments that more directly immerse the audience in the show or game.

New content and new devices will require new input mechanisms, enabling ever more effective and intuitive interaction paradigms. Devices are on a course toward being seamlessly controlled with touch, voice, gaze, brain, as well as hand and body gesture commands. Whole environments will be transformed into entertainment settings with interactive rooms created using projected displays and controlled by some interaction means based on natural commands, wearable sensors, or handheld devices.

Technological Changes for Entertainment as a Whole

Of course, entertainment isn’t just about telling stories or listening to music. It’s also about sports, arts, and many other recreation or leisure activities. Countless application examples illustrate how relations among all these worlds and their visions are becoming ever tighter. For instance, interactivity is progressively extending to all entertainment objects, including toys. Robots are benefiting from synergies with other industries and thus getting more powerful control and interaction capabilities.

Museums and cultural heritage sites are leveraging sensors, mobile, and computer graphics technologies and being transformed into intelligent information spaces that are aware of individual visitors’ behaviors and interests and thus able to feed them the appropriate information at the right time. In many sport disciplines, sensors and tracking systems are in use for monitoring athletes’ performances and recording game statistics, even as augmented reality solutions are enhancing live sport shows, as well.

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