American Film Institute Closes Digital Content Lab

The American Film Institute (AFI) informed its supporters late last week that it will put its Digital Content Lab on hiatus, effectively ending a long-running program that matched up broadcasters and studios with software and device vendors, as well as designers and UI experts, to develop prototypes for online television and other forms of digital media. AFI Senior Vice President of Media & Technology Nick DeMartino told me during a phone conversation that the institute was forced to this step due to a lack of funding.
AFI will still hold another DigiFest in November of 2010, and DeMartino told me that he is committed to bringing back the Digital Content Lab at some time in the future. However, it most likely won’t be quite the same as it was, as different approaches to technology will force AFI to adopt as well. Said DeMartino about the Lab: “It was a moment in time that doesn’t fit the world anymore.”
The Digital Content Lab was originally founded as the Enhanced TV Workshop to explore the possibilities of interactive television. The Lab adopted a unique approach to R&D that combined designers with developers and content producers with technologists to dive into a specific project under the guide of an experienced mentor.
Reuters (s TOC) teamed up with Microsoft (s MSFT) as well as various outside designers to develop a mobile news client, AOL (s AOL) played with the idea of a live talk show production environment within its AIM client and Bravo (s DIS) got together with Cisco (s CSCO) and Ogilvy Interactive to develop ideas for viral advertising¬† in the age of the DVR. All of these projects would be developed in a time frame of three to six months, after which the result was presented to the public, even if it still was an early-stage prototype. All in all, more than 90 of these prototypes were built during the Lab’s twelve years of existence.
As a reporter covering this space, I have to admit that I’ve long had a soft spot for the Digital Content Lab. One of the very first stories I wrote for NewTeeVee in early 2007 was about a showcase of the Lab’s projects that included a brilliant extension of PBS’s Design: e2 series onto the cell phones, web browsers and TIVOs (s TIVO). I was later invited to an internal design roundtable event to give a team working on a different PBS project some feedback on its ideas and wire frames, and I always enjoyed the fact that representatives of different companies would work together on these ideas without expecting any immediate pay-off.
Of course, the fact that most of these projects never saw the light of day may also have made it harder to win sponsors. “There’s always been the tension between the blue sky and the deployable,” admitted DeMartino, who founded the Lab in 1998. However, he also defended the approach as appropriate to get both Hollywood and Silicon Valley to participate. “The distance between mainstream filmmaking and technology was pretty large,” DeMartino said about the early days of the Lab, adding: “That’s not true anymore.”
The same goes for the willingness to experiment. The idea of open prototyping was fairly novel when the Digital Content Lab started, but nowadays even studio-owned video platforms like Hulu have their prototype playgrounds to try out new things. Of course, something like Hulu Labs is much more about actually commercial deployment, and less inclusive towards other companies in the industry.
So how do you keep the spirit of cooperation going while securing new avenues of funding? DeMartino told me that one possibility currently under consideration is a more academic model. How that could look like isn’t entirely clear yet, but one thing is: “The Lab will return,” DeMartino promised, adding that the AFI is still committed to technological innovation.
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