My Dinner with Dale

One of the highlights of my trip to the UK was a dinner I had with Dale Herigstad, the chief creative officer for Schematic, the global interactive agency. But Dale also seems to be almost everybody's favorite TV designer. Pretty much everyone I've ever talked to loves Dale. Really. I'm not kidding. It's hard to get people to say bad things about him. And what's not to like?

Dale's probably most famous for his contribution to the gesture-based user interface (UI) in Steven Spielberg's 2002 movie Minority Report. Just this year Wired magazine called him "Gesture Man" because he is so famous for this, but we can't forget that Dale has also been designing for TV and interactive TV for about as long as it's been around.

Dale and I had dinner at a restaurant called Frontline near Paddington Station. It describes itself as a "media club that uniquely combines eating, drinking and thinking." The exposed brick walls are covered with large photojournalism prints from some of the most terrible and terribly happy moments in news history.

 

                             Frontline Restaurant (Picture: Dale Herigstad)

Instantly the conversation went deep into a discussion of tools. This makes perfect sense because Dale, like many designers today, is beginning to build experiences on TV screens that are unlike anything we have seen before. This isn't the interactive TV or Web TV UI's you saw in the past, this is something different. These new TV experiences pull from multiple inspirations, not just TV but PC's, mobile phone, the Internet and game consoles. It's these UI's that will make TV more personal and social.

My conversation with Dale made me realize that we have reached an interesting point in the nuts-and-bolts development of TV. The conversation about these TV experiences is no longer theoretical. We are no longer having philosophical conversations about if people will want this or how they will use it. This isn't the stuff of Minority Report or science fiction. At Intel we have been working on these platforms for nearly seven years. For five years before that we were envisioning, researching and developing the vision for this future. But today designers and companies are actually figuring out how to actually build these TV experiences and deploy them to millions of people. This is new. This is great.

"But there is a big problem," Dale said with a sly smile. "We're still living and designing under the tyranny of Tiresias."

What is Tiresias, you might ask? Tiresias is a font, a typeface that was specifically designed to make letters and numbers on a screen easy to read. Readability is good, but Dale went on to explain that for some time now many TV designers have been forced to use only a single font when designing these TV experiences. This is dictated by the capabilities of the software and hardware.

"It's crazy," Dale continued. "Imagine seeing all this wonderful creative from a company; really lovely branding and innovative print and Web designs. So of course you want to incorporate this great work into the TV experience, but no--you can't. Sure you can use the colors and general design, but you can only use Tiresias. For a designer this is crazy! Imagine going to Photoshop or Word, and when you went to the font drop-down menu, you had only one font to choose from. You'd totally get rid of that software! 

"The problem with everyone designing with what they thought was the ideal font for readability--Tiresias--is that fonts are a big part of how companies brand themselves. Tiresias was invented and pushed because it's readable, but my big issue is that it doesn't allow brands to use their own unique look and feel. It's a fractured experience. Sure it's a readable experience but it's fractured from a branding standpoint.    

"But it doesn't stop there," Dale tapped the table three times with his finger. "Most set-top boxes (STB) and TV's have a big problem. They can't really address vector graphics..."

 

                                    Inside Frontline (Photo: Dale Herigstad)

I'm going to pause here for a little explanation because I think Dale is making a really important point. Simply stated, the world of graphics can be split down the middle. On one side you have vector graphics and on the other side you have raster graphics or bitmaps. Now UI elements and graphics that are bitmaps are great because they have a really small file size. This means that the games and applications on our TV's that use bitmaps can zip along really quickly. However, one of the problems from a designer's point of view is that a bitmap doesn't scale, meaning you can't make it bigger without remaking the entire graphic element. Vector graphics can scale. They can get bigger and they won't get fuzzy or break apart. The problem is that they are larger, more complex files. I asked Dale why this mattered to him and designers.

"Because many STB's and TV's can't handle vector graphics, we have to make all of the UI elements as bitmaps, including the type," Dale explained. "We break our designs into a mess of small bitmap images. If we want to make something as simple as a font change, that creates a huge amount of effort. And if we have to make scale changes, it's almost like starting over again.

"TV experiences are about animation and movement," Dale shook his head. "I know this may not mean much to people who aren't designers, but we need better tools to build these experiences. We have the capability to use multiple fonts and advanced graphics on other devices...why can't we have them on the TV? We need the freedom to do branded design for all our screens."

Dale isn't the only person passionate about the possibility of these new TV experiences. I had a conversation with David Poltrack in Screen Future. He's the chief research officer for CBS and president of CBS Vision. I asked him what he was most excited about with the future of TV.


DAVID POLTRACK: I'm excited about expanding the potential of the medium to go beyond its current creative boundaries. That could be interactivity or 3D or further creative enhancements. I'm interested in the ability of the integration of social networking with content to increase the amount of engagement with that content. I think that we no longer have to look at each TV program as something that's going to occupy 30 minutes and 60 minutes of the consumer's time. You can see those programs going beyond that. As we talk about these advancements it's not just for TV entertainment. It also applies to things like sports and news. If you look at the core product that we have [at CBS], I'm excited about the extension of that product into all these different areas. They are all enhancements of our basic creative product and can expand the boundaries within which we work today.

Excerpt from Screen Future
Chapter 5: Your TV Won't Change but Everything Else Will
A Conversation with David Poltrack


I'm writing this on the plane back from London to the US. The next stop on the tour is one that I'm incredibly excited about. It should be completely different than anything we've done yet: new people, fresh perspectives and a completely different state of mind. It's going to be like being on a completely different planet. Where are we going that's so special? We're going to Comic-Con!!

 

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The future is Brian David Johnson's business. As a Consumer Experience Architect he develops future products for Intel Corporation, a global microprocessor manufacturer.

Along with reinventing TV, Johnson has been pioneering development in artificial intelligence, robotics, and using science fiction as a design tool.

He speaks and writes extensively about future technologies in articles and scientific papers as well as science fiction short stories and novels (Fake Plastic Love, Nebulous Mechanisms: The Dr. Simon Egerton Stories and the forthcoming This Is Planet Earth). He has directed two feature films and is an illustrator and commissioned painter.