NYC Media Lab at Five

Now is a good time to take stock and describe the future

This year NYC Media Lab, a public-private partnership seeded by the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC), celebrates its fifth birthday. A consortium of eighteen member companies and five participating universities- including Columbia, NYU, The New School, CUNY, and Pratt- the primary goal of NYC Media Lab is the same as at its inception. Our goal is to be the platform to provoke and engage the digital media thinkers and makers on New York City’s campuses and their counterparts in industry to encourage innovation, talent development and ultimately job growth and wealth creation.

As we prepare for a busy fall of new projects and programs- including NYC Media Lab’s Annual Summit on September 25th- I want to share my thoughts on NYC Media Lab’s future. Here are the main points:

  1. The world has changed- and New York has changed. Halfway through this decade, New York City’s media and communications industries are in a position of strength; the emergence of the tech sector and a vital entrepreneurship ecosystem will continue to drive growth.
  2. Technology has changed media- but this is only the beginning. The period of technological change that has washed across these industries is far from over. From applications of data science to new immersive media like virtual and augmented reality, innovation will only accelerate over the next decade.
  3. We’ve built a community of practice to explore these opportunities. NYC Media Lab has established a successful program of engagement and collaboration between its 5 participating universities and 18 member companies, and is poised to do more.
  4. Four new NYC Media Lab programs will launch in 2016. The new programs we will announce at the Annual Summit- such as NYC Media Lab Combine, designed to encourage more spinoff and startup activity from NYC’s universities in media and communications- will create new mechanisms for NYC Media Lab to encourage innovation.

That’s the short version. Read on for more detail, and to find out how you can get involved.

The world has changed- and New York City has changed

To think about the future of NYC Media Lab, it’s important to think about the future of the NYC digital media and technology ecosystem.

The idea for NYC Media Lab came out of a scenario planning exercise conducted by NYCEDC called Media.NYC.2020. Many of the industry executives, government officials and other civic leaders that participated in the effort at the beginning of the decade were rightly concerned about the future of a vital sector that employs more than 300,000 New Yorkers. Taken together, the financial crisis, the threat from disruptive West Coast technology companies and emerging competitors in new global media capitals, all signs suggested that New York’s media industry was in for a challenging period of technological and business model disruption, and potentially a net loss of jobs.

Fast forward to 2015- halfway to the 2020 date that the Media.NYC.2020 report tried to imagine- and the industry has certainly been through a great deal of change. Despite bumps in the road, the more optimistic scenario seems to be playing out. Digital is paying off, as consumers and advertisers spend ever more on media and entertainment. Advertising continues to grow, driven by digital. McKinsey recently predicted 2015 to be the year consumer spending on digital media would finally eclipse traditional media, with years of growth ahead. Deloitte predicts that in the US and Canada alone millennials will spend over $62 billion on media content this year.

Scenarios for New York City’s media and communications industry as identified by the Media.NYC.2020 report published in 2010

In this context, a raft of relatively new media companies headquartered in New York are on a hiring tear, from BuzzFeed and Vox to Vice and Major League Baseball Advanced Media. And while the future is not evenly distributed, on the whole technology has created new opportunities for established media companies, who have in many ways adopted the agile practices of the tech industry. Media has ‘staffed up’ to compete in the new world order, with a focus on adopting emerging technologies and acquiring digital talent, particularly with skills in engineering and design.

And New York has changed. The City has completed a remarkable transition since the financial crisis, with tech among the sectors leading the way in employment growth. Media and advertising executives can walk down the street to do business with Google, Facebook, Twitter, IBM and others who have built large operations in the City. The City is exploding with startups, many focused on digital media and communications. Incubators and coworking spaces are full- more than ever before the City feels like one giant campus. A thriving venture capital and investment community- including a variety of new corporate venture activities- supports entrepreneurship, as do the City’s institutions of higher education. Columbia, NYU, CUNY, Cornell Tech and others have all invested in incubators and entrepreneurship programs that are growing rapidly across the campuses.

These developments in the City’s tech and entrepreneurship ecosystem, combined with growing technical literacy across the sector, means the boundary between “media” and “tech” is increasingly blurred. This is good news for New York in the long run. While the West Coast may retain certain advantages in tech, the diversity of industries, consumers, and talents in the City makes NYC an attractive place for companies- new and old- that are comfortably blurring the lines between different verticals.

This all takes place against the backdrop of global growth in the media sector. By 2025, PricewaterhouseCoopers projects there will be a 16% increase in employment in media and entertainment in the top 30 global cities, reaching a cumulative 6.8 million jobs. New York will continue to compete in this context: presently NYC is the only developed city among the 10 that Pricewaterhouse believes will see employment growth in media, reflecting the Big Apple’s generally strong employment outlook. And New York’s media industry will inevitably continue to look abroad for growth: the demographics and rapid digital adoption in emerging markets will see the the companies headquartered here continue to invest heavily in building global businesses.

Technology has changed media- but this is only the beginning

If the past decade brought dramatic technological change, the next decade will see even more, as the digital media convergence pitched by consultants for twenty years becomes real. New technologies- on the smartphone and beyond- will take us further towards media immersion, both in storytelling and the communication of information in our daily lives. The power of immersive media will be pursued by media companies, by brands across many industries, and by individuals as the tools to tell stories and share information become ever more enchanting.

While not a comprehensive list, the following technology areas (many of which intersect) will drive media and communications innovation in the next decade:

Data sciences

Big data, analytics, machine learning, artificial intelligence, natural language processing- no matter the flavor, data is changing media and communications, as it is every other human endeavor. From the scale of data generated by social networks to next generation personalization and recommendation systems, data sciences will continue to change the way media understand audiences, create content, streamline business processes and identify new products and services.

Augmented and virtual reality

A new age of augmented and virtual reality technologies is upon us. From Oculus Rift to Magic Leap to Jaunt to Microsoft’s Hololens, a new market for devices that enable new kinds of media experiences is ramping up. Experts agree the potential for such devices is only barely understood. Media and entertainment companies will soon go beyond headsets to create more fully immersive experiences.

Future network technologies

From the promise of 5G to software defined network technologies, the future of media will be driven in part by what is possible on broadband and mobile networks. 5G, for instance, promises to drive down data costs and radically increase the ability to transmit large media files across networks. Software defined networking promises the possibility that existing infrastructure can be dramatically optimized.

The Internet of Things

Drawing on multiple sources, the consultancy Deloitte has predicted that 2015 will see one billion wireless Internet of Things (IoT) units shipped, up 60% from 2014. The connected environment will change how, when and where humans interact with media and information. Huge resources will go into both consumer and enterprise solutions for the connected world.

We’ve built a community of practice to explore these opportunities

So where is NYC Media Lab in all of this? At its fifth birthday, NYC Media Lab continues to grow its role in advancing New York City as the media capital of the 21st century. Funded by an initial contribution from Time Warner Cable, NYC Media Lab is now supported by corporate membership. Entering its third year operating on the corporate membership model, the Lab has grown to 18 member companies. In the past year, the Lab has welcomed a first new set of participating universities since the formation of the consortium, as the City University of New York, The New School and Pratt Institute joined the fold.

We’ve built a community of thousands of executives, faculty and students that participate in demo sessions, conferences and roundtables on subjects ranging from data science to the future of video to future interfaces. This year, we’ll host our second annual pan-university Annual Summit, featuring more than one hundred demos, prototypes and research posters from students and faculty at nearly a dozen schools across New York.

Core to its mission, the Lab has run numerous experiments in seed project engagements between member companies and participating universities, from prototyping new apps to issuing technology challenges across a range of disciplines. Working closely with our corporate members and university partners, we’ve established a range of seed project models to encourage collaboration across disciplines ranging from design to engineering.

NYC Media Lab Member Companies

The best way to understand how seed projects work is to look at a few examples. Here are just a few of the projects we’ve completed in the past few months that demonstrate different outcomes:

The Lenses team meeting at Columbia’s Brown Institute for Media Innovation
  1. Lenses is an open-source toolkit for journalists to create data visualizations. It is also extensible, meaning that additional features can be added by its users, and the potential of the tool grows as more people use it. Each data visualization created in Lenses preserves the steps taken to create it, enabling new users to learn how to make sophisticated graphs by seeing how more advanced users have produced visualizations. For this project, engineers from News Corp, headed by Kareem Amin, VP of Product, collaborated with two programs: Columbia Journalism School and NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering. The NYU graduate engineering students, led by Luke DuBois, co-director of the Integrated Digital Media program, coded components for the project. The graduate journalism students from Columbia, led by Mark Hansen, director of the Brown Institute for Media Innovation, user-tested the components and experimented with producing visualizations with the tool. On July 22, The Knight Foundation announced Lenses is a Prototype Fund Winner of the Knight News Challenge. The funding from this grant will further the software engineering, user testing and community-building effort for Lenses and support it into 2016. We’re also pleased to see interest in this project from other members- our partners at the Associated Press have agreed to help advance this project.
  2. MLB Advanced Media’s Automatic Video Annotation Challenge marked the first time NYC Media Lab collaborated with universities from across the country, not just those in NYC. For this project, Joe Inzerillo, CTO at MLBAM and Dirk Van Dall, VP of Multimedia and Technology Development, wanted to focus on exposing the company’s technology challenges to faculty and students in computer vision, video processing and machine learning. NYC Media Lab structured an open innovation competition that challenged faculty and students nationwide to automatically annotate video metadata from archival videos that MLBAM made available. NYC Media Lab reached out to more than 65 universities across the U.S. and ultimately selected four winning submissions. The winners of the competition will be announced at the NYC Media Lab Annual Summit September 25th.
Billy Shaw Susanto and Chris Aston present an early prototype for Pundit at Hearst

3. The Hearst Fellows program was Hearst’s seed project in Fall 2014. The company challenged students across NYC’s campuses to build prototypes of personalized news applications. Five students were chosen from NYU, SVA, and Parsons the New School for Design to participate in the program. The fellows met weekly with Hearst executives and NYC Media Lab team members over the course of an eight week period to refine and progress their prototype ideas. The fellowship culminated in a final presentation of functional prototypes and user feedback to Hearst management. Pundit is a startup that originated as one of the prototypes from the fellowship. Founders Billy Shaw Susanto and Chris Aston are both class of 2015 graduates from NYU’s College of Arts and Sciences. Following graduation, the team continued to seek funding opportunities to get the company off the ground. In July 2015, Techstars announced that Pundit was selected for its Disney Accelerator. Today the team is building a platform for ‘ask me anything’ style conversations with a twist- the answers come in personal voice replies. (For a taste, check out this recent Pundit AMA with TechStars’ Alex Iskold).

Recent NYC Media Lab Seed Projects

Not every project is a success. Sometimes the scope is wrong, or there is a mismatch between the goals of the parties. But there are a number of reasons these projects, on the whole, are working:

  • Media companies are now in perpetual experiment mode, tinkering with new technologies and the commercial possibilities they create. The technologists and executives leading these experiments now speak some version of the language of the scientific method; often they call it agile.
  • Today’s digital technologies make it possible to do meaningful R&D projects in shorter time frames. From open source libraries to new prototyping tools, progress can be made in short sprints.
  • Working with young people has never been more important for companies that need talent and fresh ideas. As Venrock’s David Pakman recently noted, “the behaviour of the young is predictive of the future.”
  • Finally, everyone seems to get- once and for all- that you can’t learn anything new if you don’t try new things.

We’re encouraged by the creative ways our members are using these opportunities, but we still have plenty of work to do in order to perfect the seed project program. In the coming year, we’ll push for more collaboration between member companies on areas of common interest. And we hope to see more projects lead to outcomes that are critically valuable to our partners.

Four new NYC Media Lab programs will launch in 2016

Building on these dynamics, starting this fall we will develop and test four new programs for the coming year:

  • NYC Media Lab Combine: A new media technology commercialization program
  • NYC Media Lab International Connect: An international membership program to attract the most innovative media companies abroad to participate in NYC Media Lab and its community
  • NYC Media Lab Startup Connect: Creating connections between innovative startup companies and NYC Media Lab member companies
  • NYC Media Lab 35: Fostering a student-driven community of media technologists and entrepreneurs to connect and encourage emerging talent in engineering, data science and design across the City’s campuses

More details on each of these programs will be released at NYC Media Lab’s Annual Summit on September 25th, but here are the basics:

1. NYC Media Lab Combine

NYC Media Lab has a unique opportunity to build on the community of faculty, startups and media executives and technologists it has created to build a ‘spinoff engine’ focused on commercializing media technologies from universities.

This concept is best described using an analog: it is iCorps, or perhaps PowerBridge, for media technologies. The goal for the Combine is to match new technologies emerging in university labs and studios with entrepreneurs who will commercialize them. Key to the proposition is mentorship from NYC Media Lab member companies. I’ll describe more about this program at the Annual Summit on September 25th.

2. NYC Media Lab International Connect

A key area of opportunity for NYC Media Lab is to expand the outreach for consortium members beyond New York City and indeed the US to target international media and communications companies. New York City is increasingly a ‘must visit’ tech hub for major digital media and communications companies, even if they do not have a customer base in the United States. International Connect will seek to build an international membership component to NYC Media Lab’s membership.

The program will build relationships and partnerships with media, telecom and technology clusters abroad, and will let international companies that may not have ‘boots on the ground’ in New York City take advantage of the Lab, including conducting seed projects, participating in executive visits to NYC and presence at major events such as the Annual Summit.

3. NYC Media Lab Startup Connect

Along with their desire to forge closer ties to faculty and students on City campuses, a persistent theme among NYC Media Lab member companies is their desire to connect to early stage startups in the media and communications space. More than ever, knowing the startup ecosystem is key to capturing new opportunities, understanding changing consumer behavior and keeping ahead of competitors.

NYC Media Lab has made a point to include startups in its event programming, and has offered an introduction service to member companies specifically to startups in incubators run by participating universities, such as the NYU incubators, the Columbia Startup Lab, the Zahn Center at CUNY, etc. Startup Connect will formalize this activity into a member benefit proposition, focused on helping connect early and mid stage startups to established media companies. The Lab will seek to facilitate connections between member companies and the products, services and executives in the startup community.

4. NYC Media Lab 35

NYC Media Lab 35 is a fellowship program that will be open to thirty five graduate students from any of the City’s universities. It will gather them together at demo nights, skill share workshops and networking activities with corporate members. From computer vision to data journalism, from interaction design to machine learning, this transdisciplinary group will help one another learn about their respective disciplines and advance prototypes, projects and research throughout the year. The NYC Media Lab 35 will be a resource to one another and to member companies, and over time will create a community of alumni dedicated to innovation in new media and technology.

As with our other programs, we will test the value of each of these new initiatives in practice, and adjust the blueprint based on feedback and advice from our stakeholders.

Time to be bold

“Be bold and mighty forces will come to your aid,” someone purportedly said.

The opportunity for NYC media at the middle of the decade is to seize the moment and help solidify the City’s momentum on the global stage. New York is a singular crucible of media, technology and culture; it must focus on continuing to develop and attract the best talent, the most innovative technologies and the smartest companies to ensure the City will remain the media capital of the world. NYC Media Lab can and must play an important role in this effort.

NYC Media Lab’s growing program of corporate membership engagements with our university partners will continue to generate connective tissue between the City’s universities and its companies. We will continue to create meaningful connections between the brilliant faculty, students, technologists and executives that together are shaping the future of media. The new programs described here will drive technology commercialization and company formation, international engagement and connections to disruptive startup companies that will spur the City’s primacy in new technologies and talent.

All of this is made possible by the people who choose to participate in the Lab. We are grateful for the support of our corporate members, who give not only money but also, crucially, their time and advice. We are grateful to our university partners, including the many administrators, faculty and students who have participated in our projects and programs. We are grateful to our partners at NYCEDC, in city government and throughout the civic community. We are grateful to the broad community of participants who bring their enthusiasm and ideas to every one of our events. And I am particularly grateful to the staff, who have made NYC Media Lab what it is.

At its fifth birthday, NYC Media Lab is renewing its challenge to industry leaders- the technologists and executives who are shaping the future of media- to join us in shaping this common platform for exploration and discovery. We need your support, your problems, and your money to build this important engine of innovation in New York City.

Join us at our Annual Summit September 25th at NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts to learn more.

Is your company interested in joining NYC Media Lab, or do you have questions about how you can get involved? Contact Justin Hendrix, Executive Director, at or reach out to us on Twitter.