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Anirban Blah dreams of the unstoppable rise of ‘NuMedia’

Flexibility and adaptability need to be encoded in the DNA of media and entertainment companies if they are to keep pace with constant technological change, says Kwan Entertainment's Anirban Blah

Anirban Blah of Kwan Entertainment says augmented reality and virtual reality could completely disrupt the way we consume content. Photo: Mint
Anirban Blah of Kwan Entertainment says augmented reality and virtual reality could completely disrupt the way we consume content. Photo: Mint

The publication you’re reading this article in will probably be dead in 15 years. You will kill it.

If you’re shocked, don’t be. Print circulation and subscription numbers in the West have been declining for years, while the sector’s growth on a global scale has slowed down massively. If emerging economies in Africa, Asia and South America follow the trend—which they eventually always do—then print publications going extinct is not completely unimaginable.

And it’s not just print publications at risk. Other media formats, such as TV and radio, are also headed for the chopping block. Viewership is falling, as is ad revenue. Fewer people consume their daily dose of entertainment and information content through traditional channels. Cord-cutting is now a thing; people who don’t own or have never owned a television set already comprise a significant portion of the overall viewer base, and their numbers only increase with every passing day.

Here’s another thing that will convince you of the imminent demise of traditional media. There is not a single statistic in the preceding 180-odd words to support any of my arguments (even though there are plenty available online.) And yet, as you read them, I suspect you did not doubt what I said. That deep-seated acceptance is proof enough that we, as consumers, have resigned ourselves to the death of traditional media, even if we don’t acknowledge it openly.

There will be no mourning when this demise comes to pass, at least not from the general public. These formats are more than 100 years old (300 years old in the case of newspapers) and—cosmetic alterations aside—have remained unchanged since they first came about. It is about time that they are replaced with something different, something new, something better.

That brings us to the all-important question: what with?

Look Beyond OTT

OTT or “over the top" is the obvious new destination for the entertainment and media domain, but to put all your bets on it would be myopic. There is no doubt that over-the-top content is rapidly becoming popular across the globe, aided by the growing internet and smartphone penetration. Almost a quarter of all Indians are expected to own a smartphone by the end of this year, while the number of internet users is growing at over 11% a year. The convenience, diversity, and anytime accessibility that OTT-based entertainment content offers is also driving its popularity. As a result, the overall OTT user base is growing swiftly and robustly, with significant investments now being made in original web shows across India—in English and Hindi, as well as other regional languages.

But to confine the vibrant and promising space of “NuMedia" to just OTT-based entertainment would be extremely short-sighted. Innovative technologies such as augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) are already ushering in another major transformation in the entertainment and media landscape, and could completely disrupt the way we consume content in the near future.

Recent popular science fiction movies such as Ready Player One, Inception, Avatar, and TRON: Legacy have immersive, interactive forms of entertainment and content consumption as key plot elements. They show how new technology lets us transcend the limitations of traditional media formats and not only give viewers content to consume, but enable them to be an active part of the narrative. The popularity and success that these movies have garnered just goes to show that viewers are excited by the prospect and are more than ready for it in real life.

Our New Immersive Reality

Recent developments in the field of AR/VR technology and its intersection with entertainment have given rise to hope that this paradigm-defining change might be achieved sooner rather than later. Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus in 2014 has given a boost to the Oculus Rift project, even if progress has been a little slower than tech evangelists predicted. HTC is bullish about the HTC Vive virtual reality headgear, while a number of companies are working on developing a full-body virtual suit with haptic feedback—which simulates the sense of touch by applying forces, vibrations or motions on the user—such as the Teslasuit or the Synesthesia suit. Games such as Pokémon GO! have already demonstrated how successfully AR can be used for entertainment purposes. These developments will soon move beyond gaming and will reshape the entertainment domain as a whole.

Sports fans who are unable to attend matches physically, for instance, can just put on their VR headsets and enjoy the in-stadium experience in their living rooms. Geography or stadium size will no longer limit a sports club’s audience or revenue.

It will also redefine how we engage with and consume content. For example, the integration of AR/VR will allow news items to put us at the heart of the action in real time. In a thriller web series like Sacred Games, viewers can be in the protagonists’ shoes, looking for clues and completing tasks to unlock the next bit of content. These will be truly interactive experiences, where your decisions have real consequences for the characters. Entertainment and content is all about the storytelling, and I cannot think of a more powerful way of storytelling than this.

In some ways, all this is already happening. Even in a domain as conservative as print media, publications such as The New Yorker and Elle have experimented with AR-led content. Fiction and non-fiction books too now often come with QR codes that can be scanned to unlock interactive media on mobile apps.

As the technology becomes more affordable and widely used, individual users will begin creating AR/VR-led content on their hand-held devices, much like home videos are being made on smartphones today.

Adapt To Survive

So how do traditional media and entertainment companies adapt to the “NuMedia" paradigm? Letting go of their historical identities would be a good beginning. We’re living in times when labels are considered very important. Everyone is busy classifying themselves under various banners—as a TV broadcaster, a movie producer, a digital content creator—but nobody wants to admit that their field is in trouble.

And that’s alarming. Being on a sinking ship is never good, but not even realizing that you’re on one is even worse. The industry must question everything that is today accepted as a universal truth, be it existing business models, products or ways of thinking.

This is why it is important for industry players to reprioritize and figure out how they are going to survive the growing technological storm. Only once this mental barrier is breached will they realize how critical it is to hire people who are equipped with the skills and mindset needed to navigate the turbulent waters of the next 10-15 years.

The times ahead will be like nothing we’ve faced before, and superficial changes won’t make the cut. The very DNA of media and entertainment companies needs to change. More than that, it needs to be ready for constant, iterative change. It is good that you’ve expanded from making movies to also creating digital content, but are you ready for another major transformation? Can you do it over and over and over again, at short notice? Can you do it without compromising on speed and scale? Flexibility and adaptability will be very important for media and entertainment companies of the future, because the process itself is never going to stop.

Industry players will have to adapt to this emergent dynamic if they are to stay ahead of the curve. Content producers need to invest in not just building but constantly upgrading their technological capabilities to produce and deliver content which is of better quality and is more immersive. They have to become tech-led companies. And they have to start now. It’s the only way they’ll survive and thrive in tomorrow’s digital-first world.

Anirban Blah is the founder and managing director of Kwan Entertainment, a pop culture ‘marketplace’ that serves three worlds: commercial entertainment, commercial sports and commercial brands. Earlier this year, he was picked for ‘Fortune India’s’ 40 under 40 list.

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