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July 2014
Issue: June 1, 2012

Higher Learning: Supply-side creative technology in the post-modern world

By: Dr. Robin Bargar
We are in the bootstrapping phase of a new learning cycle in film and commercial production. New media formats and platforms present opportunity and risk that the film industry cannot avoid. So far, only the front-end risk shows as audiences change habits and story forms follow. 

In the long-term, a collective consumer tipping point will trigger new devices designed to compete in the platform market by expanding the varieties of media experiences. Movies are the jumping off point, but how does the industry follow audiences into the jump? 

Today’s DIY culture is solving this problem by creating alternate media formats. Industry newbies are developing new cinematic and gameplay languages. Industry veterans need to wake up — the flight of profitability to blockbusters does not mean other stories are not being sold to eager audiences, it means the film industry cannot track the potential value of alternate story forms. 

If the industry wants new audiences, it needs to exert influence on the platform and channel development process. Today, platform designers leave content solutions to the cloud. Story forms should have some impact on the design of delivery platforms, if they are going to succeed. The post industry should be driving, not second-guessing. Engaging platform developers requires case studies that content producers cannot sell to investors as profitable projects, and post margins for R&D are dedicated to next-gen tools for existing platforms. 


SCHOOLS NEED TO ADJUST

Universities have largely missed their calling as ideal partners for the film industry — but they can be the best allies. Columbia offers students several programs within the School of Media Arts to meet this need, including, Audio Arts and Acoustics, Film and Video, Interactive Arts and Media, Interdisciplinary Arts, Radio and Television, and many more.

We produce next-generation creative technologists and invest in partner-based projects testing new formats and alternative channel deployment. Storytelling can influence platform and channel development in a sector that is often hostile to what is seen as distributors’ competing interest. 

The “Big Risk” lies beyond current issues,  such as image resolution or wireless streaming. Smart Media is getting smarter and faster. Cloud delivery with smart players will sense viewer responses. Some post decisions will no longer be made in the edit suite, but will be molded by engines at point of delivery. Final program content will be unique to individual living rooms or mobiles as stories are navigated and shared not streamed. The road will be rocky unless the industry manages experimentation and development of new standards and takes a place at the table with platform makers. Columbia College Chicago is setting a place at the table. 

The hedge against smart media is simple: smart people. Today’s secret kitchens are home to geniuses who became bored with science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and found their way into media’s foyer. This is not a steady source for the industry. Universities should rethink their attitudes about STEM and recognize media as a driver of the next STEM applications, and key player in STEM learning. 

The UK’s Livingstone-Hope report and the US National Academy of Engineering identify crises in STEM preparation. Both fields trace leaky talent pools to primary schooling. Nobody is surprised that STEM learning performance improves with interactive instructional media. Connecting the dots may help create a sustainable learning platform where digital media is generated to train STEM students who grow up to produce digital media.

Columbia College is leveraging a flip in the media-technology cost-to-market ratio. Starting with BSc programming degrees for mobile apps and games, we are expanding to address new models of production pipelines and distribution channels, including cloud and distributed creative team infrastructures and data-driven synthesis of media content. A key factor to scalable talent training is side-by-side creative technologists and storytellers making projects under deadlines where they must learn to talk together and hack platforms and tools to deliver the content they envision. 

Columbia’s goal is to develop models to bypass assumptions that educational margins cannot compete with the high cost of production at commercial scale. The true margins of education are measured in the ratio of cost to learning, not merely transactions of tuition vs. license upgrades. New media is more than an entertainment platform; it is the sketchpad of new science and engineering. The production of instructional materials and development of new storytelling platforms can advance the learning environments for tomorrow’s scientists and engineers. 

To inspire a new way of teaching media production, Columbia built a Media Production Center featuring two soundstages, a mocap studio, digital labs, animation suites, and more. It is designed to foster cross-disciplinary collaboration.

Dr. Robin Bargar is Dean of the School of Media Arts and Professor in the Interactive Arts and Media Department at Columbia College Chicago (www.colum.edu).