Brave New Interfaces

Streaming media’s continued growth, with mature compression and delivery tools, is paralleled at a slightly slower pace by the evolution of user interface designs. Driven by a desire to improve the immersive entertainment experience and a need to meet the customized requirements of particular verticals that are embracing the use of multiple simultaneous streams, companies are looking for intuitive ways to improve and enhance the user experience.

Three verticals and four interface types hold particular promise in 2005. Each interface type in each vertical, though, shares similar characteristics—simplicity of design, the need to display many disparate types of information simultaneously, intuitive navigation, and the ability to replicate previous events contextually.

Tomorrow’s user interface also must be capable of delivering all information that streaming media capture software and hardware can provide, such as metadata about individual shots in an edited on-demand file, or global positioning information about where the live stream is being shot, which then can be tied to geographic information systems (GIS) for real-time graphical representation. This is especially important when, in the course of a lecture or keynote speech, the presenter references something locally that those physically attending the presentation can relate to, but whose meaning is lost on remote participants.

To properly assess the evolution of streaming media interfaces, one needs look no further than the closest Xbox. Today’s digital gaming industry, always striving for the next level of immersion and interactivity to satisfy a demanding player base, may provide the type of "out of the box" thinking necessary to mate improved interface designs with streaming media’s technology advancements. Just as a video game player has the capability of choosing the setting (type of race track or geographic location, for instance), model and color of his/her race car, power points (i.e., "turbo"), and conditions (crowded street, rain, etc.) for today’s popular auto racing games, so too should near-term streaming media user interfaces provide contextually relevant environments (exhibit hall, classroom, or individual study cubical) from which to view live or on-demand content in the proper context or setting.

This article focuses on three primary markets for streaming media delivery: entertainment, corporate, and education. Enhancements that push the interface envelope in any of these markets may in fact benefit all three, as end users in each of these verticals demand equal emphasis on immersive, passive, or interactive control of their user interfaces at any given moment within a single user session.

As a market vertical, entertainment often is split into passive and interactive modes; as such, it provides a good platform to assess the leading edge of immersive entertainment. Current software applications and capture hardware incorporate passive and/or interactive capabilities in limited forms, such as the current favorite "three-pane model." Tomorrow’s entertainment interfaces, by contrast, will look much more like a digital dashboard or military combat game screen, with 10-15 resizeable panels located around the viewing screen to feature—among other things—graphics, text, and pertinent metadata about the stars, director, or production crew.

Additionally, like the gaming industry’s use of multiple views in an aerial combat game, tomorrow’s streaming media interfaces will have the ability to set and recall multiple viewing preferences via a single click. These preferences would then recall particular settings if a pre-defined scenario were met: for instance, one could request that a translucent window pop up the first time each actress in a movie appears, stating both her name and her character’s name (which may mean, tangentially, that cameos are no longer relegated to the eagle-eyed viewer).

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