Perceptive Media: campfire storytelling in the 21st Century

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When the extraordinary Chrome Experiment called “The Wilderness Downtown” went viral in 2010, it was the first time that most people had seen the potential of what people are beginning to call “perceptive media”. Now Britain’s venerated broadcaster, the BBC has again thrust this new technology into the spotlight with its first foray called “Breaking Out”.

What is it? According to The Next Web, it’s “media — either video or audio – that adapts itself based on information it knows about individual viewers’. So if, for example, the show you’re watching is talking about the weather, it would adapt its content to match the conditions that the viewer is experiencing. Or if the characters are discussing a band that they like, they would talk about music that they know that the viewer can relate to. Infinitely adaptable and extremely difficult to get right.

On the BBC’s Research & Development Blog, Ian Forrester has been sharing his thoughts on the medium and where it could all go. He writes “Perceptive Media takes narrative back to something more aligned to a storyteller and an audience around a campfire using internet technologies and sensibility to create something closer to a personal theatre experience in your living room.”

The essential thing to note here is that the connection between storyteller and audience is immediate and obvious. They are connected in time and space, and the storyteller will know something about his or her audience. What perceptive media seeks to do is try and recreate that using the two-way nature of the new breed of media tools which are shaping communication in the 21st Century.

Right now it seems that everything is on the table. From large interventions where your television set can judge who is watching it and tailor the programming to that person all the way through to “subtle feedback, based on viewers’ body language.” The BBC feels certain that this kind of interaction will “add to the overall engagement level in a way which storytellers have been trying to do for decades with interactive media.”

The most visible examples of perceptive media so far were The Wilderness Downtown and the Facebook-driven “Take This Lollipop” campaign, which used the data you shared on Facebook to recreate, in cinematic style, the obsessions of a serial-killer who is stalking you. It was effective and unnerving, if a little overdone.

But these are just extreme examples of the impact that perceptive media will have on the mainstream. In much the same way that gaming and augmented reality apps use the real world to influence the content provided, so too will this new wave have a profound impact on the way that we consume media in the coming years.

It may not be soon, but this is clearly a sign of the times and a clear indication of the way that the next generation will experience the media.

NOTE: You can try and enjoy the BBC’s experimental prototype called “Breaking Out” to get a real sense of the new wave. I found it to be particularly troublesome to load as it is geared towards a UK audience and eventually gave up.

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