The two final frontiers before we reach “Peak Attention”

First your car, then your world

You may have heard of the phrase “peak attention” or “peak content” before — likely from the many media and research organizations that have been pointing toward this phenomenon for some time now.

Based on eMarketer’s most recent study, growth in time spent with media will decline to just 0.1% YOY by 2018. This is a long way off of the steady growth of the mid-2000s, driven primarily by the introduction of smartphones — those pesky time-sucks whose pop-up notifications fit oh-so-nicely into the micromoments of our day (/s).

A cursory glance at the trends might lead one to believe that eMarketer’s next forecast could show complete stagnation in this metric, or even a slight decline. If you look to your own media habits, and those of your peers, doesn’t it seem that every possibly moment of leisure (to a reasonable extent) is occupied? Every opportunity for second-screening taken? I say that we’re not quite there yet.

I see two primary opportunities for expansion here before our media diets are truly saturated — for better or worse — based on two technologies that are not yet in the mainstream: autonomous vehicles and augmented reality.

Get ready for drivers to swap the dial for the screen

I should say that I am a big believer in the idea that there is a purpose for every format. That’s why, for all of the hand-wringing over print’s demise, print still exists — and in some cases, is thriving. The problem with newspapers wasn’t with format, it was with their business model. The same issue has started to hit audio media formats — radio, podcasts, etc. — and the introduction of autonomous vehicles in the next five to ten years is going to dramatically impact that industry.

For decades, audio-driven media companies have benefited from the single most important attribute of its format: it can be consumed passively, on top of other activities. Keeping it on in the background means that people can take care of manual tasks such as doing the laundry, exercising, or … driving.

Yes, driving: the last bastion of audio-driven attention that media companies could count on for a minimum floor of audience engagement. According to the U.S. Census, the average one-way American commute is approximately 26 minutes, taking up nearly an hour each day. But what happens when audiences don’t need to drive themselves anymore? Will they continue to devote an hour and a half each day, per eMarketer’s estimates, to the audio format? To figure this out, media companies need to grapple with an existential question:

Are radio shows and podcasts popular because they are listened to in the car, or are they “popular” because their audience lacks alternatives?

Given the choice in an autonomous vehicle, will audiences switch to reading or watching news and entertainment instead? Could they even switch to more experiential formats such as virtual reality? Passengers have sought out different forms of media for years — auto manufacturers wouldn’t be building video players into cars otherwise. As a result, the core question takes a binary form: What can media companies provide in an audio format that is appealing to be consumed because it is in an audio format, or should they instead evolve into organizations that produce other types of formats?

I would bet that autonomous vehicles will enable audiences to swap (approximately) an hour of passive attention for an hour of active attention — useful especially in the morning when people may be the most alert and attentive. Freedom from driving will maximize the available time spent around our commutes to do whatever people wish — which, frequently, will be to use some form of media.

Will audio go away entirely? Certainly not — there will always be a use for the format, but it may take a different, more specialized use case than the way it is used today. This isn’t happening tomorrow, or even next year, but the winners in this space will be the ones who experiment and take risks now, rather than waiting for their audiences to leave them behind. That said, this is still a relatively small portion of the average person’s day. The real “final frontier” is far more significant.

Augmented reality, paired with wearables, has the potential to overlay across your entire day

Admit it — you scoffed at Google Glass. It’s okay, most of us did. It was kind of cool at first (if you ever managed to get your hands on one), but quickly lost its luster. Why? Because it was clunky, there wasn’t much to do with it, and for those who weren’t totally turned off to it yet, it was prohibitively expensive. But writing off augmented reality wearables because of Glass would be like writing off personal computers because of the Apple I. It was the first meaningful attempt, but hardly the final goal of what this format can accomplish.

Pokemon Go is a good example of the appetite among audiences for an entertainment format that surrounds them and can seamlessly fit into their daily routine. But it still required people to take out their smartphones and walk around with their heads down to play, which led to plenty of amusing bumps and bruises on release day. Clearly, the game would be more appealing if players could simply use their normal field of vision. Glass was the first attempt to create something useful here, and Snapchat’s Spectacles are perhaps a second (if limited to a single app).

So what does the end-state of AR look like? If you want to take a more dystopian view, maybe something like this:

But this is probably too fantastical — I can’t imagine us getting to this point without a systematic abdication of responsibility from consumer protection organizations and/or a complete breakdown of society. More realistically, augmented reality would layer on top of our day-to-day experience in more subtle, but no less impactful, ways.

The early winners in this space will be utility apps — those that can successfully overlay useful, easily navigable information as we go through our daily routine. Similar to the Hyper-Reality short, this could include anything from straightforward navigation like Google Maps to more easily get from Point A to Point B, or retail reviews as a customer looks through the retail shelf. Eventually there would be more concrete applications for entertainment, in manifestations that are truly unique to the AR format (e.g. games that are location- or action-dependent).

Additionally, it would be the end of screens for many activities — taking most portable devices with them. Why would you use a physical device to watch a video or read an e-book when you could render a virtual screen over your field of vision, all to whatever specifications you wish? In getting rid of those devices, they could be replaced by a more nimble input system — a virtual keyboard like Tap. And cumbersome headsets could eventually be replaced by connected glasses or contact lenses, perhaps even a future-generation version akin to Samsung’s recent patent.

In this environment, people would have few restraints that keep them from accessing media in any form, at any time. Just as you could keep up a screen on the side of your desktop monitor to switch between tasks, you could have a series of tabs or windows up on the edge of your field of vision — able to swap in for immediate accessibility at will.

These two technologies, if implemented to their final end-state, would bring our theoretical amount of time to spend with media (of any format) to its absolute limits — the entirety of our life while we are not asleep (Though I don’t count out the tech industry’s desire to infiltrate our dreams as well). Virtual reality will have its place as well, but I don’t see it increasing the amount of time spent with media, rather just cannibalizing existing time with media.

And I’ll leave the debate over whether any of this is actually desirable or beneficial for people’s sanity and well-being for another article entirely.

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