Where Is Home Entertainment Heading?
15 Minutes with Astra Insights’ Shawn DuBravac
STOP FOR A moment and think back to home entertainment 10 years ago. You were starting to build a library of Blu-ray titles, thankful that HD had finally made its way to disc, but 4K at home was a technology of the future and streaming was still a curiosity. Netflix was a hugely successful DVD mail order company with a billion discs delivered but could see the writing on the wall when it started offering movies on demand over the internet in February 2007. Today, streaming is commonplace, and home audio and video have reached unprecedented levels of quality, raising the question of what comes next? Looking ahead to the future, we reached out to Dr. Shawn DuBravac, founder of the Washington, D.C.–based consultancy Astra Insights, former chief economist for the Consumer Technology Association, and author of the New York Times Best Seller Digital Destiny: How the New Age of Data Will Transform the Way We Work, Live, and Communicate (Regnery, 2015). A well-regarded futurist and trend-caster, DuBravac writes frequently about technology with a focus on deciphering disruptive shifts.— Bob Ankosko
S&V: Home entertainment has experienced dramatic change in just the past few years with huge performance increases in audio, through object-based sound and widespread availability of studio-quality hi-res music, and TV/video, through 4K resolution and high dynamic range. At the same time, there has been a move away from traditional A/V components to soundbars and app-based, all-in-one wireless audio systems that ultimately sacrifice quality for simplicity and convenience. What’s your take on this dynamic and its impact on home entertainment as we move into the future? SD: Convenience will win every market when it comes to mass consumers. Consumers have repeatedly shown they are willing to trade off quality for a more seamless experience that integrates into their lifestyle. At the same time, quality audio and video experiences are proliferating as technology is increasingly accessible to the average consumer. As technologies digitized, they became subject to Moore’s Law, which means they improve at a quicker rate. Another way to think about this is that technology gets cheaper for the same performance. When televisions first went digital in the late 1990s, we saw quality-adjusted prices decline at a faster rate than analog TVs had in the decades before. For example, analog TVs came down in price roughly 1 to 2 percent a year. Digital TVs, on the other hand, declined 1 to 2 percent a month, or 12 to 14 percent a year.
Digitization has democratized quality, and consumers have gained greater access to higher-quality experiences. Over the very long run, all consumers will shift toward a highend, high-performance, high-quality experience.
S&V: Voice control has been around for years, but the meteoric rise of smart speakers, led by Amazon’s Echo, has pushed it to the forefront. Where do you see voice control—especially as it relates to audio/video and home entertainment—going over the next couple of years?
SD: Voice is the next computer interface. Speech recognition has improved more over the last 30 months than over the 30 years before that, and as a result it is becoming an incredibly important navigation tool across a wide variety of applications. Google reported last year that 20 percent of mobile search was already taking place via voice, and it has grown from there. Today, about one in six households owns a voice-activated digital assistant—a figure that will grow significantly over the next 24 months. The simplicity and intuitiveness of voice commands suggests voice control will become widespread in the years to come. At the same time, more objects are being digitized, so in the future there will be more things we can address with speech.
S&V: The market for headphones has exploded in recent years with an astounding number of high-quality options now available to consumers. What’s driving this trend?
SD: Five trends have combined over the last few years to drive the massive uptick in headphones. First is the significant growth in smartphones. In 2011, only 35 percent of individuals had a smartphone. Today nearly 80 percent of individuals have a smartphone.
Secondly, as smartphone ownership grew, we began using our smartphones for more than just communication.
A third influence is the proliferation of 4G cellular network coverage. We tend to think of the progress of cellular technologies as a linear progression since the naming convention moves in a linear way from 2G to 3G to 4G and, in the near future, to 5G. But each progressive iteration is an exponential growth from the previous network technology, not a linear one. For example, it takes 26 hours to download a two-hour movie over a 3G cellular network. That drops to 6 minutes when we move to 4G and will drop to under 5 seconds when we move to 5G.
Fourth is the rise of streaming services and podcast options. Streaming services like Spotify have forever changed content ownership and access.
Fifth is the rise of personalization, customization, and fashion. Headphones, in all of their assorted shapes and sizes, have become important fashion accessories.
S&V: What do you make of the resurgence in vinyl? What’s driving it, in your view?
SD: There are several trends driving a renaissance in vinyl. And while the trend is likely here to stay for the near term, it’s a trend that will remain niche. We have seen a resurgence in a number of retro analog technologies from film cameras to vinyl record players. To date, the core audience has been millennials who are experiencing these technologies for the first time.
Research suggests as many as half of those buying vinyl albums listened to the albums on digital platforms first before buying them on vinyl. Individuals are using older analog technologies in conjunction with digital technologies, and I expect that will continue.
S&V: What’s the most important trend you see right now in home entertainment—one that will change the landscape as we know it? Put another way, what’s the Next Big Thing?
SD: The entire way we think about home entertainment is changing. More objects in the home are being digitized, which is enabling more fully automated experiences to emerge. Speech recognition has improved significantly and is changing how we interact with technology. More general-purpose media rooms are replacing dedicated home theater rooms. We are also seeing artificial intelligence (AI) infused in more services. AI is probably the single biggest force influencing the future of home entertainment. Technologies like machine learning and speech recognition are changing content creation decisions, remapping recommendation engines, and changing how we navigate home entertainment experiences. We’ve only just begun to see how AI will rewrite the future of entertainment.
The full version of this interview appears on soundandvision.com.