Smart Living in the Wired Home

by: Daniel Chamberlain / USC

The Wired Home

The Wired Home

The housing bubble may be bursting, but you wouldn’t know it from the Wired Home. In case you weren’t glued to your browser watching its installation last week, the Wired Home is a residential tear-down in the Crestwood Hills neighborhood of Los Angeles, conceived as “a showcase of the best in sustainability, technology, and design.”[i] A project of the LivingHomes company, the house features pre-fab construction techniques, the greenest of green building features, and sleek, modernist design from Ray Kappe, a big-name architect and the founder of the Southern California Institute of Architecture. LivingHome’s partner is Wired Magazine, responsible for outfitting the home with a comprehensive, integrated, and enviable technological infrastructure, and, of course, lending the cachet and awareness that the Wired brand confers. Although its emphasis on high-profile design and technology has all the hallmarks of “the home of the future,” the partners insist that their project, which will be sold for four million dollars after a season of public tours, is a showcase of the best practices commercially available today. This innovative project provides insight into the spatial dynamics of media convergence, the ability of corporate and entrepreneurial branding to create a market niche, and tensions in what it means to think progressively about the built environment.

The Control4 Wall Mount Touch Screen

The Control4 Wall Mount Touch Screen

If this house were to be described in a single word, a good candidate would be convergence. Popular talk of media convergence tends to focus on the multifaceted capabilities of individual devices, but that perspective generally fails to account for the integration of such technologies with their environments. Although there are a few stand-alone technological flourishes in the Wired Home, like a biometric iris reader governing entry to the front door, the emphasis is on getting diverse technologies to work together. Present in nearly every room is a series of screens and interfaces. At the heart of the system is a Moxi multi-room Digital Media Recorder, a TiVo competitor capable of delivering photos, video, audio, games, and data to rooms throughout the house. But this media center is merely a component of a larger home automation system, which will connect the entertainment services, several touch-screen computers, temperature control, the lighting system, and home security, all controllable through hand-held touch screen remotes. Like the customized systems used in the much lauded and critiqued Gates home, off-the-shelf commercial solutions are brought together seamlessly in the Wired Home to make it a paragon of the convergent residence.[ii] Millions of home theater owners, home network builders, and early adopting technology users already have elements of these systems in their homes, but rarely do they have everything working in harmony.

As media and home automation technologies converge and extend across the space of the home, it is clear that convergence is simply another word for control, bringing with it all of the promise and peril that goes along with living a networked life. While television scholars have long appreciated the relationship between television sets, residential architecture and design, and daily patterns of domestic circulation, this understanding needs to be updated to consider the multiple networks in which contemporary screens are situated and the way corresponding spatial arrangements affect the uses and practices of domestic technologies. The media spaces created by the integration of entertainment media technologies with home automation systems and multiple external communications networks are multi-layered, unevenly distributed within homes and across neighborhoods, and determined by an array of forces, including municipal arrangements, corporate options, geographic limitations, cultural preferences, individual finances, and technological affinities.

Gold LEED certification

Gold LEED certification

While the integration of media and home automation technologies makes the Wired Home an interesting technological case study, it is also part of a conspicuous effort to link Wired’s traditional emphasis on technology with more contemporary markers of “smart living.” The ideological banner waved most enthusiastically by the project’s creators is that of sustainability — the previous house was deconstructed (rather than demolished) and 75% of that material is to be reused, the home is designed to earn a Gold LEED certification, efficient lighting, plumbing, and services will be used throughout, and funds raised through special events and tours will be donated to green organizations. While these are all positive and overdue steps for the housing construction industry, the no-stone unturned quality of their incorporation in LivingHomes’ projects seems designed not only to promote green living as an ethic but also to create green living as a lifestyle category; green is not simply something you do, but someone you are. But smart living doesn’t stop there. As constructed by the Wired Home, smart living means marrying green living with the ability to appreciate the refined simplicity of modern architecture, the benefits of automated technology, and the value of design. To make sure that the target market understands the parameters of smart living, the Wired Home has partnered with a range of signifying sponsors, featuring the latest no-emission vehicles from BMW, computers from HP, and even design elements for a kid’s room from Cookie, the magazine for children of distinction. Just as Wired and LivingHomes would have it, this is emphatically not the home everyone will be living in ten years from now, but rather the home that a certain demographic, a niche that is being targeted even as it is being constructed, aspires to live in right now. Although the elements of the house can be appreciated individually and as a whole, a primary function of the Wired House is clearly to commodify sustainability, technology, and design, and to create a profitable market niche out of those select individuals who can appreciate this mode of smart living.

Control4 Automation Tools

Control4 Automation Tools

Ultimately, this project is fraught with paradoxes. It is a showcase home, but its technologies and design are out of reach for the vast majority of homeowners. It will be one of the greenest homes ever built, but its construction involved tearing down an existing structure rather than adapting it. The suite of entertainment and information technologies in the home will offer its occupants unprecedented control over their environment, yet in the process will subject them to regimes of surveillance. The project’s governing principles of sustainability and prefabrication represent a progressive approach to the built environment, but its commitment to technology and architecturally-significant design — not to mention its 4,000 square foot layout and $4 million price tag — belie broader progressive goals of providing quality affordable housing to a broader public. This particular tension, between principles of progressive design and progressive urban planning, is perhaps the most troubling and familiar. Radical ideas in residential construction, from new urbanist regional plans to stylish pre-fab construction to green features, tend to exist as either renderings or high-end homes, as the capital necessary for their construction prefers the profit margins offered in upscale markets to those offered in affordable housing. While the Wired Home can be praised for emphasizing innovative design and sustainable building, it must also be recognized that the Wired Home is an exclusive demonstration of principles that will at best trickle down into high-end home building. There should be little doubt that this showcase will offer a wealth of lessons regarding the integration of sustainable building and home technologies, but we might ask whether this will simply serve as data for high-end home marketers or whether it might provide extensible insights that might address broader housing problems.

Notes
[i] The official press release for the project can be downloaded at http://www.epicurious.com/cs/wiredhome_text_release
A floorplan can be found at
http://www.wired.com/promo/wiredlivinghome/pdf/wh07_floorplan.pdf

[ii] Lynn Spigel provides a critique of the Gates House, and future homes in general, in the essay “Yesterday’s Future, Tomorrow’s Home” in her book Welcome to the Dreamhouse: Popular Media and Postwar Suburbs; Fiona Allon builds on Spigel’s critique in her essay “An Ontology of Everyday Control” in the volume MediaSpace: Place, Scale and Culture in a Media Age.

Image Credits

1. The Wired Home

2. The Control4 Wall Mount Touch Screen

3. Gold LEED certification

4. Control4 Automation Tools

Please feel free to comment.




Watching Time on Television

by: Daniel Chamberlain / USC

Apple iPhone

Apple iPhone

It has become nearly axiomatic that emergent media technologies are dramatically impacting the fundamental temporalities of television. Often cloaked in the hype-friendly language of the gadget industries — time shifting, webisodes, place shifting, mobisodes — the general tendency of such pronouncements is to emphasize the control viewers gain over when and where programming (and if and how sponsorship) is consumed. The public face of this transformation is embodied by high-profile companies like TiVo, which emphasize viewers’ ability to record, pause, or skip television programming, and YouTube, which promises viewers the chance to avoid television altogether, but these are merely the best known among a host of technologies and services that challenge the decades-old practice of watching television programming in broadcaster-scheduled half-hour and hour-long blocks of time. While the ability to watch an hour of prime time television in forty-two minutes, at four in the morning, in a plane, on a mobile phone, is certainly a break from an earlier era of television, celebrations of temporal mutability have overshadowed the importance of a related phenomenon, temporal conspicuity.

Widescreen TiVo HD Progress Bar

Widescreen TiVo HD Progress Bar

Watching time is now part of watching television. Once a structuring element in the presentation of television, time is now directly made part of the image through the media interfaces that govern access to content. This phenomenon is probably most familiar to TiVo owners, who conjure an informative and affirming time bar each time they pause or fast-forward through programming. This simple graphic concisely indicates the length of a recorded program, the portion of a program already captured, the current progress through a program, and the speed at which the video is being played back. YouTube, the standard bearer for web video (including many captured television clips), constantly displays a video toolbar, including a progress bar and current/total time display, as well as interactive controls for manipulating video, audio, and display preferences. Perhaps more importantly, YouTube also prominently foregrounds the total length of each clip in many of its video listing guides.

Time Magazine Person of the Year, based on YouTube Video Toolbar

Time Magazine Person of the Year, based on YouTube Video Toolbar

In an attempt to keep up with the changing technological environment, the major broadcast networks all stream selected series and episodes on their websites using a variety of video players that similarly display time and related information. CBS’s Innertube uses Real Player to serve video, providing information similar to that offered by YouTube. NBC, using a Flash player, provides a different set of time-related information. An area below the video player indicates the segments (often mapping to act breaks) available, and a time indicator in the video control bar counts the currently playing segment down to zero; unlike CBS, total program length is not provided. ABC’s customized video player streams Flash video and provides a segmented time bar as well as total running time. In the network cases, of course, the programming is not simply broken down into clips for ease of access, but because the privilege of viewing each segment is earned by first watching a commercial. The ABC player even gives a thirty second countdown as the commercial plays, making the time of advertising as apparent as the time of programming.

ABC Full Episode Player, showing temporal details of the pilot episode of Daybreak

ABC Full Episode Player, showing temporal details of the
pilot episode of Daybreak

Regardless of the display technology, software platform, or content delivered, the prominence of temporal metadata associated with watching video in these emergent contexts alters one’s relationship to the video itself. When watching television in this manner the obvious temporal cues make it difficult to get lost in the story. I constantly catch myself glancing at the displays, hyper-aware of the narrative trajectory because I know exactly how much time is left. My pleasure in watching a dramatic scene is tempered when I know that there are precisely thirteen seconds left, and my uncertainty regarding an episode’s likely narrative closure is altered by my knowledge of its temporal progress. Occasionally, I even get caught up wondering why one segment of Lost on the ABC site is fifteen minutes long while the next is just three or four. To be sure, US television has long signaled the constraints and peculiarities of its temporality through its rigorous adherence to hourly and semi-hourly program starts, its regularized act and commercial breaks, and a varied assortment of strategies to maintain interest across the programmed flow. Yet none of these techniques is so bold or affecting as to actually foreground time as a visual element.

“Real-time” clock from Fox’s 24

“Real-time” clock from Fox’s 24

On the few occasions where temporal representation has been directly integrated into programming, such as with the “real-time” clock on Fox’s 24 or the “22:00”-minute countdown clock in the first few episodes of NBC’s 2002 series Watching Ellie, the technique was so striking as to dominate initial critical and popular discussion of the programs. In the half-decade since these experiments debuted, time displays have not caught on as a widespread trend for scripted programming, but have instead become integral features of the media interfaces that overlay television. 24‘s pre- and post-commercial ticking clocks are analogous to the TiVo time bar often summoned at commercial breaks, and Watching Ellie’s countdown clock functions similarly to the timers on YouTube and the broadcast network sites. Yet even as the temporal cues provided by media interfaces perform a similar function, their incorporation into such interfaces has freed them from the critical scrutiny which attended their presence in programming.

Competing timers — Watching Ellie on YouTube

Competing timers — Watching Ellie on YouTube

As television becomes a multi-platform viewing experience, time bars and elapsed-time displays serve both functional and aesthetic purposes. In the case of Current TV’s dual-platform approach, time indicators on the website, like at YouTube or most any online video site, provide information that eases interactive engagement with clips. Similar time bars on Current’s television broadcasts are primarily aesthetic flourishes indicating that the network’s pod-based programming model is rooted in a new media environment, but also serve the function of providing temporal cues to viewers unfamiliar with variable-length programming. The result is a striking departure from the standard television viewing experience, as the progress bar both informs and distracts from the content it describes.

Current TV’s SuperNews, featuring televised progress bar

Current TV’s SuperNews, featuring televised progress bar

The conspicuous presentation of temporal information works beyond just providing a constant reminder of how a program’s narrative is working against time constraints. Fundamentally, the ubiquitous display of time is a reminder and invitation to viewers that they have the ability to manipulate their television controls. Regular engagement with temporal metadata even changes related viewing practices, leading viewers to call up metadata screens when watching films on DVD or growing antsy in situations where temporal cues are not as directly available (such as watching a film in theatres or watching live television without an interface).

In online contexts — visiting the YouTube site, for example — clip length is a crucial piece of metadata, along with title, rating, number of views, and submitter, that allow one to decide which clips to play. A ten minute clip might seem like a waste of time, whereas a fifty second clip or two might appeal as a pleasant distraction. Or consider how this dynamic works for Current TV. What effect does clip length have on how viewer created content is evaluated? Might a five minute pod receive a “greenlight” rating while a longer or shorter piece gets rejected out of hand? Is it that some types of content have natural lengths that make them more attractive, or that the length itself is both a prominently displayed aspect of the program and de facto criteria for evaluation, even before a clip is viewed?

Different Strokes on MySpace’s Minisode Network, featuring five-minute long edited episodes of kitchy programs

Different Strokes on MySpace’s Minisode Network,
featuring five-minute long edited episodes of kitchy programs

What remains to be seen is if and how temporal conspicuity will work into the array of factors putting pressure on standard program lengths. Already we see HBO giving limited flexibility in running length to most of its marquee programs, stunting with non-standard lengths of NBC programs like The Office, extended versions of certain shows on DVD, shrunken versions of kitchy classics, and block programming with multiple consecutive hours of shows like 24. As these and other programs are increasingly viewed in contexts that foreground their temporal parameters, and as more programming, like the WB YouTube NBC defunct(?) show Nobody’s Watching, is produced for non- or peri-broadcast environments, time indicators and descriptors will increasingly become more powerful elements of the viewing experience.

Image Credits:

1. Apple iPhone

2. Widescreen TiVo HD Progress Bar

3. Time Magazine Person of the Year, based on YouTube Video Toolbar

4. ABC Full Episode Player, showing temporal details of the pilot episode of Daybreak

5. “Real-time” clock from Fox’s 24

6. Competing timers — Watching Ellie on YouTube

7. Current TV’s SuperNews, featuring televised progress bar

8. Different Strokes on MySpace’s Minisode Network, featuring five-minute long edited episodes of kitchy programs

Please feel free to comment.




Everything is Under Control

by: Daniel Chamberlain / USC

Much of the promotional and popular discussion addressing the current televisual landscape emphasizes the concept of control, usually celebrating the ease with which a television viewer can select, adjust, and display desired content. The word “control,” often modified by “total” or paired with the marketing-friendly “freedom,” is used to describe an engagement with television through handheld remotes, time-shifting systems, or place-shifting technologies. In the ahistorical rhetoric of new media hype, what was once the passively-viewed province of the couch potato is now the dynamically-managed terrain of the techno-savvy. As usual, the effusive deployment and embrace of liberationist terminology is working hard to cover up the contradictions accompanying great change. In the case of contemporary television, the dominant references to viewer control figures as the ideological stalking horse masking the simultaneous functioning of control in other registers, notably in the consolidation of distribution and inherent systems of surveillance.

To be fair, individuals really do exert control over their television experiences through their engagement with and customization of televisual interfaces. One can watch an entire season of a program in a day, catch missed episodes on-demand or online before the next is aired, and stream recorded programming to a mobile phone or distant computer. In examples like these, control figures in popular discourse as a promise of empowerment, of consumer sovereignty over technology, information, and consumption.

Yet even such popular narratives of viewer control belie a subtle complexity. As the gadgets we use get more complex, so do the registers of control At its most fundamental, baseline control follows a logic of connection: turning on a television; powering-up a mobile phone; subscribing to cable, satellite, or broadband service. Low-level control follows a logic of selection: picking a channel to watch; entering a url; conducting a search or scanning through clips. Mid-level control follows a logic of personalization: setting preferences with a remote control; programming a digital video recorder; creating lists of favorite channels or blocking those deemed uninteresting or unsuitable. High-level control follows a logic of adaptation: TiVo recording programs it thinks its owner might like; Netflix’s collaborative filtering software selecting television programs to mail out; a mobile phone providing alerts regarding the availability of a new episode. The lower levels of control are governed by an ideology of participation, whereas the higher levels are governed by an ideology of efficiency, even to the extent that participation is sacrificed to technological agents rather than exercised directly.

The Slingbox

The Slingbox

Alongside all of this viewer controlled consumption are new forms of viewer controlled production. Television viewers have long produced eyeballs for sale by networks to advertisers, but the increased degree of control is resulting in more nuanced forms of production. The avid time-shifter or online video viewer, for example, produces his or her own televisual flow in a manner that consistently and instantly avoids undesirable elements of the programmed flow. Through tightened and networked feedback loops, acts of televisual consumption also produce new patterns of viewing for both the individual viewer and those participating in the same network. That is, my TiVo habits can become your TiVo suggestions, and YouTube videos soar in viewership when linked to, rated highly, or ranked into the “most viewed” lists. Going beyond the surface of the screen, televisual display devices increasingly move both within and outside of the home, producing media spaces out of offices, commutes, parks, and coffee shops. And, of course, certain new television technologies allow for the sharing of self-produced content alongside programming traditionally considered televisual.

But the actual functioning of control is more complex than a blind focus on time-shifting or remixing suggests. These celebrations of viewer control display a marked historical shortsightedness, reveal a familiar deployment of gendered discourse, and raise questions about inequality of access in a rapidly tiering television environment. Moreover, the emphasis on viewer control masks the preponderance of control exercised by the media conglomerates that own the broadcast networks, cable and satellite channels, television production companies, and financial interests in the primary new television-related companies. While the number of programs, channels, and modes of viewing may be multiplying, the source for a large part of the content – and certainly that programming which commands the majority of viewer attention – is still controlled by a small number of large corporations. On the one hand, this means that the benefits of time- and place-shifting should be understood as still working largely with the programming supplied by the recognized gatekeepers of television. It is well and good to watch a commercial-free episode of Lost in a cabin over the weekend, but we should not pretend that this act represents a wholesale transfer of control from Disney to viewers. On the other hand, these same interests exert a significant amount of control over most emergent televisual developments. TiVo, for example, counts America Online (Time Warner), DirecTV (News Corp.), NBC, Sony, CBS, and Disney among its equity investors. Google-owned YouTube has partnership deals with CBS, BBC, and NBC, among others, and competitor Joost has announced both content and financing deals with Viacom and CBS. Even in those examples where a major new player enters the market – like Apple selling television programs through its iTunes store or Google serving up both commercial television and user-generated video – the influence and control of the entrenched television distributors remains paramount.

TiVo Remote

TiVo Remote

Beyond the contradictions between viewer and distributor control, emergent televisual hardware incorporates control into new registers of power. Most of the latest technologies are inherently underwritten by surveillance, as in most cases it is required for a technology to function appropriately. Compare broadcast television with digital cable and a DVR. In the earlier mode, the broadcast station sent its signal out but had no sure means of knowing who was receiving it. The digital cable operator, on the other hand, is expected to respond to user requests – made through the interface – and thus has more data on user viewing habits than it knows what to do with. Not only does its set top box provide a premium user experience, it also has the capability to capture user preferences and viewing patterns. The ability to track and measure user behavior is now the foundation of TiVo’s current business model, and the TiVo-to-go system, like the iTunes Store, relies on digital rights management software that tracks which devices are authorized to access purchased content. Such hardware and the programming code that drives them set limits on what viewers can do, monitor actual behavior, and potentially induce surveillance-aware behavior patterns. Enter the control society.

The surveillant nature of such systems and devices suggests that control is the organizing logic of power whenever and wherever the flexibility and mobility of television interfaces are connected to a network. Data is gathered every time someone downloads a video to a mobile phone, rates a program using a digital video recorder, or visits an even moderately sophisticated website. As beloved companies like Google, Apple, and TiVo continue to roll out new services customized to individual user’s preferences, they further become information warehouses. Taken at their word, such vast stores of data will be used to improve technology, services, and the user experience, but this massive centralization of data should be noted by anyone concerned with privacy rights. To judge by the millions of mobile phone, digital cable, and digital video recorder users, the tradeoff of privacy for perceived empowerment is worth making at most any level.

Image Credits:
1. Slingbox screen shot from Sling Media US home page

2. TiVo remote control from TiVo accessories page

Links
Complete control
DVR Death Match
Logitech Universal Remote Control
Gain control over your entertainment experience
Watch and control your living room TV from anywhere
Jason Mittell column describing watching Veronica Mars via bittorrent in a week
YouTube most played list
TiVo Equity Partners
Ray Cha column on network and web-based television

Please feel free to comment.