Not so long ago, convergence was the trend getting all buzz in the media universe. The possibility that any video or non-video content, such as animation and multimedia, can exist — and be available to anyone — over any platform, from advanced television sets and smartphones to cars in motion, dominated the conversation in public forums and water-cooler discussions.
The buzz may have shifted to the next shiny object, but AT&T's WarnerMedia continues to explore convergence under a new name: experience fluidity. The vehicle for exploring this trend, and others impacting TV's future, is WarnerMedia Innovation Lab, a 20,000-square-foot facility that will serve as the connective tissue between WarnerMedia's creative storytelling capabilities and AT&T's data and technology, projected to be operational by the end of March 2020.
As detailed by Jesse Redniss (pictured below), the project's general manager, the lab's overriding goal is to generate experiences for the public deliverable through any or all of WarnerMedia's content and consumer touchpoints, as well as the network and distribution offerings that AT&T provides, from TBS to the upcoming HBO Max. What's more, the experiences could be watched via or interacted with from any platform, including smart TV sets, TV-connected devices, and Internet protocol–enabled car screens.
"How do we create the next new opportunities, when we think about the future of 5G technology and Internet of things infrastructure, combined with our traditional storytelling platforms?" Redniss asks. "You start to provide new consumer touchpoints and connect them together [to create] the future of audience and fan experiences not constrained to the TV ecosystem."
WarnerMedia's lab will be housed in Manhattan's Chelsea district, a growing hub of technology development, and a short walk from the company's just-opened new headquarters in Hudson Yards. The Innovation Lab will be a two-floor operation, with the main floor dedicated to an immersive "zone" for specific project demonstrations. A staircase will bring users to the second floor, which will feature a mix of research and development lab space and conference rooms "where engineers and creative people sit together in a collaborative work environment," Redniss explains.
WarnerMedia is about four weeks away from submitting final design plans on the Innovation Lab for zoning. Construction is anticipated to begin around Thanksgiving and complete three months later.
The idea for creating a permanent space for innovation efforts came from a series of conversations last fall between WarnerMedia chief executive officer John Stankey and National Basketball Association commissioner Adam Silver. "We wanted to bring our relationship with the NBA (via TNT and NBA TV) to the next level," Redniss recalls. What resulted from these discussions was resolve "to not only build a destination, but also a WarnerMedia-wide operation and center of excellence that encompasses how this [next level] can come to life."
One example is to develop a way to use 5G's ability for wider transmission bandwidth and lower latency of video and non-video quality to deliver numerous live video feeds (say, six to eight) of a single NBA game directly to viewers, and allow them to choose what to see at any time. One feed could focus on a specific player, while another provides an overhead view of gameplay, and so on. Viewers also could check player information or the latest scores from other games on-screen. During the game, consumers could switch from the live game to interacting with a virtual or augmented reality display of the same game. All of the capabilities, content, and real-time analytics and interactivity can be delivered through the single 5G connection.
Discussions with several content creators, advertisers, and technology suppliers about participation in the Innovation Lab's efforts are underway. Xandr, AT&T's advanced advertising and analytics division, is expected to take part in some near-term initiatives.
The lab will focus on implementing multiple technologies with a variety of service offerings, including 5G, artificial intelligence and machine learning, virtual/augmented/mixed reality, interactivity, videoconferencing, and Internet of things connectivity. In July, the lab collaborated with the NBA and AT&T for the first-ever live sports broadcast using smartphones with 5G during the NBA Summer League.
As for the lab's relationship with HBO Max, Redniss says, "We'll do early consumer research to get insight [into] how consumers will engage with this type of offering, then allow [HBO Max's] product team to see these insights and determine how they fit into [their] offering."
Various pathways of interactive storytelling, advertising, and commerce will be another priority for the Innovation Lab. "The more you can build touchpoints for consumers to get deeper into a narrative or brand experience, the stronger bond you'll have with that consumer. We want to explore opportunities like gaming and branch narrative storylines," Redniss says. "We are at the point where technology is starting to enable a lot of interactivity."
And that interactivity is essential for long-term viewer engagement. "The idea of a real-time water cooler is very powerful, and very important, not just with news or sports events," Redniss concludes.
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