Monday, July 30, 2007

Surface computing could change newsrooms

Who said broadsheet layout was dead?

Fayrouz sent me a link and said she wants a surface computer for her birthday. I told her we need to wait until next year (at $10K, I probably need to win the Lotto first).

It's a new form of computer by Microsoft code-named "Milan." See the Popular Mechanics presentation.

This table-sized unit incorporates an array of infrared cameras to identify a multi-touch interface with a large, high-resolution tabletop screen. Rather than the standard one or two input locations associated with mouse and electrostatic interfaces, this allows each finger touchpoint to track unique coordinates.

This also allows interaction with objects on the surface because the cameras recognize the objects and interface with them. Furthermore, the surface computer allows content to be wirelessly transferred between these objects by dragging the information across the table.

While it looks cool as the "must have" gamer table, it has major real-world applications for newspapers.

If a newspaper invests in a few of these and places them strategically at universities, bookstores and trendy, all-night coffee shops, they could generate significant income.

Brand recognition / subscriptions
Traditionally, newspapers include logos on the sides of the tables to embed brand recognition. It should still be done, however it's now more of a secondary function. Somewhere on the table would be a permanent interactive form to order a subscription to the newspaper as well. Although this is interactive, it's again a minor piece of the puzzle.

What makes this really rock is programming the table to automatically display a fully-integrated broadsheet newspaper edition. It could be programmed to always refresh to the newspaper every few minutes (keep those wandering eyes on the paper).

This way, the tables could be known for the newspaper and could be called "The XYZ News" table (if publishers jump fast enough). This is precisely what publishers want.

Editorial applications
Because the table is large enough, it could easily hold the entire (two page) broadsheet layout. Additionally, the extra computing horsepower would allow the paper to directly download high-res (but protected) versions of all content including layout, images and videos that would play in real-time with original resolution (ja-la-peño, ja-la-peño, ja-la-peño).

Viewers can turn pages with a touch, enlarge images, view videos and read stories - at whatever size they desire. Because it's linked directly to the paper, the layout would be "live" and change as news happens. Breaking news could create an alert, and the paper could change. Videos could be displayed in areas where a still frame would normally go (just like in Harry Potter).

When readers touch the jump link, they're taken directly to the page and the jump headline could flash a few times to identify the correct story. This helps readers stay focused on the story when they might have gotten lost at the jump in traditional pulp papers.

Where the table becomes futuristic is through its interactivity. Some of these suggestions should make traditionalists squirm, but roll with it. The world changed and continues to change faster than we particularly desire.

Most online outlets have moved toward a "good enough" approach. Information is processed until it's "good enough" to present. Then, it's displayed on the Web until the final version is ready and replaces the original post. This approach can lead to errors and wasted time, but it's important from a branding and revenue point of view.

In blunt terms, scoops still matter and are measured in seconds (and ad dollars) rather than days now.

The best way to know what's happening around town is to enlist readers to interact with the newsroom. This must be done in realistic terms rather than mere lip service. When a newspaper reader reports (legitimate) news, action must be taken. Sometimes, the action may be citizen-generated content.

The table itself communicates with digital cameras, cell phones, laptops and other digital devices through infrared technology. As such, a citizen might see a fire and shoot it with a cell phone. Then, they'll know to go to the bookstore (or wherever) to instantly and wirelessly download it to the local paper.

Although this may sound like it's eliminating PJs, it's not. It's actually allowing us to cover the news as it happens rather than rushing to get "anything" onto the Web and missing the actual dramatic moments. Because the paper gets the CJ images first, they have "something" for the Web while we get to work the event for the best image.

Later, the CJ image is replaced by pro images. The paper had "something" before everyone else. The CJ had a moment of glory. The PJ got to work the scene without transmitting and missing the key moments. The readers get immediate information followed by quality information. The finished, historical product hits doorsteps with the best of everything. Everybody wins. The biggest winner is the advertising department, but we'll get to that in a moment.

Additionally, podcasts and freebie MP3s from local bands can be wirelessly copied from the newspaper to iPods, phones and other portable players.

Involve readers
Let's talk a little more about this interactivity. The goal of the table is to compel readers to interact with the newspaper in real ways. They can suggest changes and see the results.

The retired teachers, librarians and professional know-it-alls can point out grammatical and factual errors all day. These can be changed on the fly (when warranted). The end result is a higher quality product for the pulp readers.

Likewise, the readers could interact with reporters before the story goes to print to include unexpected interviews. Anyone sitting at the table can interact with the newsroom.

Who knows, a criminal might be dumb enough to admit something via the comment section. Reporters can get an exclusive interview until the cops arrive. ;-}

Moreover, there could even be a special section just for these coffee table interactions. Reporters could solicit comments and story ideas. Readers could post photos and videos. It could be a community-based porthole into the newsroom. Not only would the newsroom benefit from the interactions, the community could feel an "ownership" of the newspaper's content. This alone could translate into higher circulation and ad rates.

Cool, but how's it paid for?
Simple, each table is located at a specific location and has a specific niche of clients. The university table has the most-coveted male demographic. The bookstore captures a large percentage of the upwardly mobile. A trendy all-night coffee shop caters to both of the above.

This is valuable information for advertisers. They know Page 4A was opened 25 times an hour at the bookstore. So, their ad was seen 25 times. How much is that worth? A buck each? Sure.

For those doing the math, that's $25 per hour times the number of display ads on the page. Even if there are only two ads, that's $1,200 per day. The table is paid off in less than 10 days. More likely, one new table could be purchased per day simply from "temporary ads."

Here's where it gets interesting. Each ad is also interactive. If a reader wants to enlarge an ad, they touch it and stretch it to whatever size they choose. What's that worth? Another two bucks, maybe three?

OK, that's penny and nickel stuff. Where's the real cash? Fine. Let's say the reader wants to purchase the advertised item right there, right then. They whip out their debit card, lay it on the table or swipe it under the table, confirm their info and the advertiser just sold a $5,000 bedroom set. What's that worth? Oh, now we see.

Even if they simply order a pizza to be delivered to the table because they found a coupon, the information about the ad itself is priceless to advertisers.

Let's say the newspaper only got $5 for each sale (although a small percentage plus transaction fees would be a better operating procedure). Either way, the advertiser got a confirmed sale from a reader in a specific location at a specific time.

This is what both businesses want. Advertisers want sales and publishers want advertisers to make those sales. This table gives newspapers the ability to deliver what advertisers have wanted all along. Advertisers will pay for this.

Wise publishers can reinvest this income (easily doubling each month) into more tables until there's enough scattered throughout the city. After the tables are paid off, maintenance and service fees continue, but the rest is profit.

Another option is temporary, targeted ads sent to specific tables. These would also cost advertisers a premium fee and might have a limited number of coupons at a specific (higher) price per coupon. The ad would be replaced with a house ad once all the coupons are claimed.

This could involve including some receipt printing mechanism for only these coupon ads. Again, this is a very powerful computer. It can handle minor functions such as printing receipts.

Newsroom applications
While papers below 50K probably couldn't save enough time to justify the expense of these tables, the 50K+ dailies could.

The most obvious application would be in composition. With the ability to manually manipulate text and graphic elements, layout designers could rapidly design pages and make changes. This would save time and allow for more frequent updates.

Online production
Online producers must coordinate all online content simultaneously. Using a traditional screen is fine to check the user interface, but more organizational space surely would help. This table is perfect for the job.

Baskets track incoming alerts, stories (wire and staff), images, videos and CJ/reader input. The producers can use both hands to make changes, piece together content, package it for the Web. Major changes would only take seconds.

Ready or not, news gathering is heading toward "live." These tables speed along the process, preparation, delivery and interaction.

Advertising department
The ad department needs a table as well to see how their products look. This table can't be connected to the stat counter for obvious reasons. However, it would also make paste-up simple and easy as other departments. As video ads are becoming more important (and lucrative), these tables make sorting and editing fast and painless for both the ad side and the newsroom.

Photo desk
At very large metro papers, the photo desk could use the table to edit multiple contact sheets (PhotoMechanic) simultaneously. More importantly, an interactive map would let assignment editors know the locations of all on-duty shooters. Cop shop reporters (and/or alert services) could report the locations of breaking news.

These alerts could appear on an interactive map and allow assignment editors to send two or three of the closest shooters to the location. Simply press the PJ's location icon and the cell phone is dialed. If the PJ isn't sure how to get to the location, the map is handy and large enough to provide turn-by-turn directions.

VJs could also rapidly edit videos on these tables. Manual cropping tools and ability to display clips like the old slide sorters would make editing fun again. Scoop the video together, add an end tag and post. Yeah baby. :-)

Enough for now,


Phlip said...

WOW! I'm an Apple fan, but Microsoft has a big cool factor here!

I hope we see these around SETX. Your ideas about how the papers could use them sound great. Hell, put them in bars too. :P

Hang on . . . me + friends + beers + cameras + surface computer beggin' us to upload = ???

Mark M. Hancock said...

Good point. No bars. :-)

I don't expect it to happen soon here because of the cost, but they have surprised me before.

The video never mentions sound. I'm hoping there are speakers on the side of the unit. If so, who controls the volume?