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Back to the Future

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As a kid growing up in the early 1970s in the Adirondacks in upstate New York, I wasn’t really glued to the television set like most of the kids from New York City who came up to visit the Lake Placid area on weekends and summer breaks. In fact, most summer mornings, I was set loose to play outdoors and free to roam the woods until I heard a cowbell—my mother's signal for me to come home to lunch—or saw bear tracks. 

Truth be told, our black-and-white television needed aluminum foil on the rabbit ears to even bring in a fuzzy signal from Albany or Plattsburgh. But I remember glimpsing a bit of Robbie the Robot and hearing the phrase "Danger, Will Robinson!" often enough that when I played in the woods, I typically gravitated toward imaginary space travel, boarding my favorite rocket ship—in reality, a tree that had been partially felled by beavers and partially by ice and wind—to head to the uncharted lands of Lost in Space. 

Lost in Space took place in 1997, and the idea of the year 2000 or even the far-off year of 2020 just seemed too much to comprehend. Even as I moved into high school in the 1980s and into the workforce in 1991, the idea of 2020 seemed almost mystical.

Now that we're here, though, what’s next for the streaming industry? 

On the business front, we're beginning what The New York Times breathlessly declares the "Streaming Era" now that Disney, NBC, and Warner are entering the OTT fray. The article even has the subtitle "Once a generation, Hollywood experiences a seismic shift. It is happening again." 

Streaming continues to have the potential to take its place alongside the moonshots of the 1960s or the advent of Dick Tracy technology in everyone's pocket, building on those achievements to shift media and entertainment. But beyond reshaping Hollywood, what are the big goals to shoot for? 

My suggestion is that we go full circle, back to the start of our own future, circa 1997. We should use 2020 as an inflection point to look at a few of the big ideas that we’ve dropped along the way to the edge of this current iteration of the Streaming Era. One idea that first gained popular attention around 1997 was immersive environments. Long before there was Oculus, there was IPIX, a company whose 360° camera technologies were initially intended for hemispherical video. 

Reading an article in The Washington Post’s archives this week, I noticed the author mentions that IPIX and its rivals were "vying to become the Kodak of the digital age." Substitute the likes of Netflix or Real­Networks or YouTube for Kodak, and you’ve got a snapshot of streaming history. But we still don’t have the immersiveness that IPIX had back in 1997. 

Discovery Communications, which owned a stake in IPIX, saw this immersive environment as a way to expand the educational and entertainment horizons of its customers. Calling it the "killer application for content on the Internet," Discovery’s then-chief executive John S. Hendricks noted that IPIX was "an enabling technology to allow people to have their own personal adventure around the world. We can take them places they may never be able to visit personally."

While the "enabling technology" may be different now, the idea of transporting viewers to other parts of the globe lingers on and fuels the imagination, in much the same way that imagination fueled my dreams of 2020 when boarding the tree-trunk-turned-rocket-ship so many years ago. As an industry, let’s figure out how to best harness those imaginations in our current future of 2020 and beyond.

[Editor's note: This article originally appeared in the January/February 2020 issue of Streaming Media magazine with the title "What Now?"]

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