Anti-Communications Devices, On the Go


The fellow was sitting in the middle seat, across the aisle from me, on an American Airlines flight to Miami. He was watching a boxing movie.

This I could tell without looking at his screen. I could hear it.

He had decided to watch his DVD player without donning headphones of any type. Apparently, he was being “kind” to the passenger in the window seat, who wanted to view along. Never mind that the rest of the plane had no interest in watching — or listening to — their show.

It was a grating reminder that mobile entertainment is not something that is about to happen. It’s in swing and the only debates to play out now are over how many different devices will get adopted widely and what content will drive viewership. Or listenership.

The outcome will radically reshape thinking about what constitutes television, whether it takes a cable or anything resembling a “channel” to deliver it and what it will take to succeed on the big, small, and really small screen (see “Overheard,’’ next page), on the go.

Forget for a moment the video-enabled iPod, which captured so much attention this month. As the self-absorbed breach of modern mobile etiquette that occurred in Row 31 the other night so baldly sets out, the DVD player is already more than adequately feeding the beast within us all that, I suppose, exists to carry around our home theater wherever we go. We screen-agers will want to watch our personal entertainment files whenever and wherever we want. Heaven forbid we should ever be alone with our thoughts. Or let anyone else be alone with theirs.

Last year, 20 million of those puppies got sold, according to the Consumer Electronics Association. All told, more than 50 million will be moving about airplanes, cars, and public conveyances of all types this coming year.

And it’s only going to get worse. Or better, if you’re trying to deliver programming to this gotta-have-it-when-I-want-it audience.

From this seat, the most intriguing video playback device that came to market this month was the PocketDish, a so-called “portable media companion.’’

Hook this puppy up to the digital video recorder or set-top box in your home and you won’t be limited to watching Desperate Housewives or Lost. You can, in effect, download any show you want off your satellite or cable service and carry around up to 40 hours of programming, to play back on a 7-inch wide screen. No shackles.

The “place shifting” has only just begun. Next month, a startup called Orb Networks starts offering a service that lets you throw any stream of content you want from your home computer to the Internet device of your choice. That can be your laptop to a Web phone to a handheld computer. So, very quickly, mind-sets will start changing, at least among Orb users.

Instead of thinking about the portable entertainment machine as being a playback unit, it will become that and a TV as well, with access to all basic and paid tiers of programming that a person subscribes to.

How? By putting a card into the PC that acts as a television tuner. Then, the Orb software will let a consumer view live TV, anywhere, any time; and archived TV, as well. There will be no worries about the size of the hard drive a person carries around in a pocket or on a hip holster. The only hard drive that will matter is the one at home — or, for the really serious mobile viewer — what’s on the chain of hard drives.

Some of this will be possible by year-end without a personal computer. Another fairly high-profile startup, Sling Media Inc., says it will begin marketing a $249 machine that attaches to your television and can send programming to the computer you’re taking with you, whenever you want. The keyboard lets you choose your channel; the screen, of course, is your display.

Some combination of these technologies will push along mobile entertainment into a market that, hopefully, will be worth tens of billions of dollars to programmers and service providers, over time.

But the societal impact may well be more and more isolation of individuals, even when they’re close together. Like cell phones before them, these actually will be anti-communication devices, in public spaces. The message is: Don’t talk to me, I’m busy. And, I don’t particularly mind that I’m disrupting your day, while I’m at it. You don’t exist.

Maybe someday, manufacturers will be forced to make these media companions inoperable, when earphones are not in place. And, in a dream world, cell phones will be agile enough to listen best when a person speaks in a whisper; and turn off, above whatever sound level projects more than two feet away.

In the meantime, if we don’t modify mobile electronics, then we’ll have try something even more difficult. Like behavior modification.

While there’s no reason not to profit by having people entertain themselves wherever they go, let’s also give peace a chance.