Where Is Home En­ter­tain­ment Head­ing?

15 Min­utes with As­tra In­sights’ Shawn DuBravac

Sound & Vision - - PERFECT FOCUS - Edited by Claire Crow­ley

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.

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