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Things I'm working on and thinking about

I’ve said for a long time that WWE has been ahead of the curve in the television and digital industries. That’s one of the reasons I decided to work at WWE Digital last summer instead of a corporate PR firm. Because of their unique brand position, perhaps it’s easier for them to shift into new business models. They finally announced the long-awaited WWE Network last night (via YouTube live stream) and it seems like an awesome deal for the fans.

The WWE Network has been in development for years. Initially it was to be a traditional cable channel, but given how WWE has embraced pushing out digital content, it’s not surprising that they’ve moved the “network” concept to a digital-only platform. Regular RAW viewers know how WWE has been pushing (to put it mildly) adoption of the WWE app and the social media accounts. They’ve now firmly bet that the audience is comfortable enough with using devices other than the cable box to watch WWE.

Considering the sheer volume of content (by the way, I hate the word “content,” but I feel it’s accurate here) WWE has amassed over the years, an online outlet makes more sense than a traditional cable channel. It appears that, in addition to the 24/7 streaming videos, WWE will make a library available to subscribers. That’s all great.

Here’s the part that surprised me in a good way:

All pay-per-views (including Wrestlemania) are included. For about 10 bucks a month. The mind-boggling thing about this is that each PPV is currently priced around $45. This leads me to believe a few things:

1. At the current price point, the PPVs aren’t providing more revenue than the traditional cable deals with NBC Uni.

2. PPV piracy is a problem worth addressing.

3. WWE is betting on casting a wider net at a smaller price point, rather than ask for exorbitant fees from a smaller group of super fans. Supposedly they’ll need around a million subscribers to make this profitable. There’s an international roll-out planned and I suspect a good chunk of the necessary fan base will come from overseas. (Think of how WWE Network programming could be tailored to specific international audiences…)

4. WWE can use the network to develop more mainstream, non-match content that can be repackaged and sold to traditional cable nets (i.e. launching more Total Divas-like series, such as “Legends House”).

Most mainstream TV biz articles I’ve read are emphasizing that WWE is investing in cord cutters. While that’s true, WWE is still raking in a ton of money from their deal with USA (and I assume) Syfy. I don’t envision WWE fully departing the traditional TV broadcast in the near future (although I suspect that will come eventually). If WWE can get their audience to join them online now, they’re setting the table for a cable-less future.

I think this less about total cord cutting and more about the fact that an interactive VOD-style setup works much better when your brand has a huge archive. (Keep in mind that WWE has purchased the archives of other promotions and obviously owns the WCW material as well.) Offering paid on-demand content may also help the satisfy the fans who crave more hardcore content, since the current broadcast offerings are PG-only. The network will allow WWE to expand in all directions under one brand. I could easily see a dedicated WWE Kids channel in the future, along with a WWE Hardcore channel (where they can at least attempt to filter out young users).

The network should also give current performers a platform to showcase their personalities (if they have them). WWE has already started doing this on their app and website, but the network will help build this up. It’s cheap enough to do these short form reality-style shows (in or out of kayfabe), and there are a number of wrestlers who already shine on social media (*cough*Big E. Langston *cough cough*).

I’d love to see WWE take their sports entertainment concept even further with a tongue-in-cheek version of SportsCenter. Having a more news-based show would help them focus their story lines better than just replaying clip packages ad nauseam on RAW. Get a couple funny, quick-on-their feet “anchors” in there? Yes please.

While we’re at it, how about more Legends’ roundtables (rather than wacky Real World-style hi-jinks?) A more polished version of Colt Cabana’s show? An expansion of NXT programming? These are all no-brainers and inexpensive prospects.

Again, per month, this is about a quarter of the price of a typical PPV. Anyone who was pirating PPVs or NXT episodes now has no reason to do so. Anyone who just skipped PPVs because of the expense will now likely fork over a bit of cash to watch them. WWE has figured out a way to encourage fans to access content for a seriously modest fee. Unlike HBO Go, you don’t need to be a cable subscriber to do it. Seems fair to me.

I’m not sure what other company could do this. There aren’t too many other brands that own all the rights to everything they’ve done, have 30+ years of content in the can, and don’t already have a dedicated cable channel. Hardly anyone else is even in the PPV game (which now seems over). If WWE Network does succeed, I bet some niche companies will at least take a closer look into the independent subscription model.

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EDIT: Jeremy Meyers adds the following insight: “They’re about to renegotiate their cable broadcast deals which will bring in a ton of new revenue, so maybe they’re trying to realign their revenue channels to not need as much from PPV.” He also thinks the number of PPVs (currently 12) will drop now, and I definitely agree.

 

 

 

Something rather interesting happened last night on the annual “Old School” edition of WWE’s flagship show, Raw. It was as if USA Network executives spontaneous changed their programming to a combination of Hoosiers, Field of Dreams, and Mike and the Mechanics’ “The Living Years.”

I don’t want to type out a lot of factual history, but briefly: Jake “The Snake” Roberts returned to WWE after a nearly ten year absence. His appearance was brief, at the closing of the show and was a complete surprise. After years of self-destruction, Jake Roberts’ stint in Diamond Dallas Page’s so-called “Accountability Crib” seems to have paid off, at least in terms of getting him back in much better physical condition and on TV.

I’m interested in how Jake’s new resurrection story plays against his portrayal in the documentary Beyond the Mat and the fictional (but eerily similar) The Wrestler. In The Wrestler, there’s a very specific finality to Randy the Ram. The film suggests that he can only be redeemed (?) by killing himself to entertain. Or maybe it suggests that he had no other choice. Either way, there’s a kind of suicidal bent that seems to dovetail with the persona of workers like Mick Foley.

The theme of bodily sacrifice is a major tenant in professional wrestling. (I liken it to Batman’s attitude in The Dark Knight Rises, where he insists he hasn’t given Gotham everything.) Beyond the Mat problematizes this heroic sacrifice of the body, somewhat, by focusing on Foley’s family during his brutal match with The Rock. The Wrestler cuts hopelessly to Marisa Tomei’s character several times during the final scene, but there’s definitely more of a feeling of inevitability there. The film couldn’t end any other way.

Jake Roberts could have died at basically any point in the last couple decades and I suspect no one would have been shocked. For now, he’s rewritten his story with a triumphant new chapter. Granted, He may not be able to do much in the ring ever again.  Last night, he essentially just walked to the ring and stuck a snake in a man’s face, but the appearance was symbolic.  Obviously, this prodigal son-like storyline works out much better for WWE, as The Wrestler really did them no favors. Everyone loves a redemption story and this could be a great one. I wonder if The Wrestler could have been more successful with this kind of ending: a redemption story rather than an all-out tragedy. People probably would have proclaimed it “too Hollywood.”

Of course, it is too Hollywood. It just wasn’t produced by Paramount or Universal. It was funded by Page, the thousands of fans who crowd-funded Roberts’ surgery, and (for the final shot) WWE. We don’t know how long the “new” Roberts will last and it’s impossible to maintain a fairytale ending forever. Maybe that makes this one particular moment all the more satisfying. 

Jake Roberts is a strange, massive fan investment. The dividends were paid last night.

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Also, I’d forgotten that Jake Roberts has a seriously 80s-yet-timeless entrance theme. It sounds almost M83-like now.

 

Over the past few days, I’ve had the privilege of teaching groups of adults how to use both the Arduino and Gemma. I worked one-on-one, in a large group, and a small group. There were some really striking common denominators, whether I used the kits that I created or commercially available Arduino kits.

  1. Breadboards are a huge problem. Physically, they are small, meaning the holes are really close together. Those of us who are used to using them really take for granted how tricky it can be to remember how to arrange wires and resistors. It’s also pretty difficult to explain these arrangements. Anticipating this, I blew up some images of breadboards and laminated some old-school style manipulatives. But that didn’t help much when it came to laying the simplest circuit out on the breadboard. In my next iteration, I’ll be doing away with the breadboard totally. I might re-title this project “Thinking Outside the Breadboard.”
  2. ALL the components are small. I never really thought about it, but Arduinos and their accessories are designed for people with slender, nimble fingers and awesome eyesight. The major gripe from all users was the tiny size of the buttons, pots, pins, etc. If it’s true that everyone benefits from Universal Design, maybe we should rethink the design of these ridiculously small components (at least for beginners).
  3. The code wasn’t as challenging as I thought it might be. Simply walking new users through a blink sketch wasn’t too bad. With a little prompting, they were able to figure out how to manipulate some variables and make simple changes. I had been really concerned about asking older folks to use computers, but so far, no really issues with that end of things.
  4. Adults would much rather have one major project to work on and finish rather than a series of little demonstrations, which is what I had structured. I need to find ways to integrate these simple sketches into realized projects for a bigger impact. I’m actually thinking of developing two example projects: one with e-textiles and one more gender neutral (possibly a more sophisticated version of the soil moisture sensor?)
  5. In doing research with older adults, it’s important for me to reassure them that I truly want their honest feedback. It seems like older people are more likely to want to give praise or validation rather than critique.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been busily trying to determine what materials should actually be used in these kits. I’d taken for granted that an Arduino Uno would be involved, but after some feedback from my research group, I started to consider using something more like an ATTiny and essentially making the kit about the hardware, not the programming. But the ATTiny is, obviously, super tiny and I worried about how difficult it might be for some seniors to work with small chips.

I explored a little bit and found that Adafruit now makes their own version of the Lilypad and, along with it, a tiny version called Gemma. The main advantage of the wearable microcontrollers is that you can solder snaps to the pins. I’m inclined to believe that snaps would be easier for new users to see and manipulate, as opposed to the tiny Arduino pins and jumper wires. Another advantage over the ATTiny is that Gemma can be plugged right into the computer for programming. It’s a little trickier to upload sketches than an Arduino (and, annoyingly, requires a hub), but if I wanted to incorporate programming back into the kit, it would at least be possible.

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After some frustrations, I was able to get the Gemma working with a button on a breadboard and with a PIR sensor. Today I’m going to take the plunge and attempt to solder a snap onto one of the pins (and solder the other half of the snap to a wire).

One reason I like this direction for the project is that it’s (I think) a new use of a wearable microcontroller. Arduino kits are everywhere, but the Lilypad and Flora are pretty much geared only towards e-textile folks. I think they might actually be easier to use (in some ways) than the traditional Arduino.

The focus of my project has changed a bit in the last several months. I’m now working on a physical computing kit specifically for senior citizens. Although I’ll probably write a separate post about why I made this change, I will say that there are some really interesting studies on technology and participatory design with older adults, but nearly all of them express the need for more studies and research done with this community.

So far, I haven’t found a single paper on introducing older folks to basic physical computing as a form of lifelong learning. I’m venturing into new territory!

The basic idea is that people who are used to, literally, doing things “by hand” (especially hand crafts or hobby projects) will be better able to understand computing basics through making physical programmable objects, as opposed to interactions that are only screen-and-software-based. Physical computing is a really great blend of creative expression and ingenuity and problem solving and practical application. It might make more sense to people than Facebook does. While I wouldn’t expect every senior to start building robots, I do believe that a construction kit would appeal to people who like making things, but simply aren’t interested in using only a screen and a mouse.

THE KIT

I’m making a kit that can be used in a group setting or by an individual. The goal is to produce  a self-monitoring system to use with a potted plant, using a moisture sensor as an input and an LED as an output. From there, the project can get more complex, with materials and ideas for expansion.

Why gardening? There are already many well-documented Arduino-gardening projects, so there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. I just need to simplify a project to its basic elements. Working with plants scales well. You can use a single potted plant, or adapt a design to multiple plants or a garden. Plants and pots are relatively inexpensive and even people who aren’t avid gardeners can participate. Essentially, the simple gardening device is a platform for exploratory learning. I think this setup is flexible enough to incorporate some soft circuits if necessary.

I’m testing out some soil moisture sensors now and working on the modifications that should make the kit user-friendly for folks who might struggle with the tiny components in most Arduino kits.

 

Today I got a little bored waiting for an enormous file to upload and I decided to take apart one of the many old game controllers that I scavenged from Jeremy’s childhood stuff. Whenever I open these things up, I’m surprised at how simple and handmade they look inside. For some reason, I expect that I’ll see totally unfamiliar components, but it’s usually just a bunch of switches and buttons and capacitors and resistors. NOT MAGIC.

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The other cool thing is that you can see how the slight resistance of the buttons is created with little pieces of rubber underneath the buttons.

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Not sure what I’ll do with these yet, although I really dig the buttons and control pad.

My excellent boyfriend got me this nifty kit from Bleep Labs for my birthday and I’m super-excited to put it together and start annoying him with noise!

My advisor has suggested doing some kind of sound input for this project, instead of switches or potentiometers. I’m not totally sold on this because I think anything with sound runs the risk of getting lumped into the “sonification ghetto.” I also had some ideas that ran in a completely different direction.  On the other hand, our visit to the Moog factory last month really made me want to work more with sound, so it’s definitely something that has some potential. Plus, I think something easily controllable, like music, could make for a more compelling demo.

Today, I’m exploring some ways to set up audio as an input and I found this really nice instructable.

One idea that I can’t quite get out of my head is to hack a Walkman. It’s one of those cheap electronic devices that people are tossing and I really think there’s a lot of potential in the revolving parts. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen any tutorials that do what I’m envisioning, although this thing is kind of cool.

 

It occurred to me recently that I haven’t tweeted in a long time. Actually I haven’t LOOKED at Twitter regularly for about a year. Every so often I’ll hop on, but I’m not invested in it the way I was when I sat at a desk at a television museum.

Since I’m in the midst of a graduate degree in digital media, you’d think I’d be increasing my Twitter usage rather than dropping off the face of the Twittersphere. But honestly, the only time I really enjoy Twitter is in the middle of a massive live/shared event when witty Tweets come fast and furious. I just don’t find Twitter useful for keeping up with folks or sharing links. I’ve found that if you’re not tuned in all day, keeping up with any kind of stream seems like a annoying task.

Plus, I enjoy NOT being tethered to a screen when I don’t have to. Over the past year, I’ve come to the realization that screens are not that great. They are not necessarily the best way to interact with technology, they hurt your eyes, and they cause you to ignore the world around you. So the idea of continually monitoring a never-ending stream of links that I’ll never have time to explore just doesn’t work so well for me anymore. This is one of the reasons I’ve been pursuing physical computing.

My plan is to cull my twitter list so it’s less overwhelming. I want to actually CLICK on the quality links that people send, especially the original content they’ve written. In that spirit, I’ll be tweeting out links to my own blog posts (caution: they are mostly related to my projects or wrestling). I do think Twitter is a great platform. I’ll just be using it in a way that actually works for me.