Category Archives: Final Project

Interpreting the Evolution of Google Glass in the Concept Framework of Modularity

Tianyi Cheng


Google Glass is not an “invention” that came from nowhere. By looking at its modular structure, the last several steps of Google Glass’s “evolution” can be depicted. After understanding the more detailed process of design evolution on the levels of symbols selection and syntax use, a logical system of Google Glass can be discussed. Further, this found can be brought to a broader context to talk about the semantics of Google Glass. Two approaches are utilized. Firstly, the framework of affordances is used to understand the human-computer interface; secondly, the epistemology from software studies is borrowed to talk about Google Glass’s human-computer-culture interface.

1. Introduction:

Google Glass has been available to ordinary consumers since April, 15th, 2014. It is a wearable computer with an optical head-mounted display(OHMD) developed by Google (Miller, 2013). Some people might think Google Glass as a radical technology. However, it is not an “invention” that came from nowhere. To explain the existence of Google Glass, evolution is a powerful concept. The term of evolution does not necessarily mean that Darwinism should be applied to the field of technology. However, Similar to the explanation of the biological evolution, it is crucial to firstly realizing the “family relationship” between Google Glass and many other technologies by discovering their common assemblies. Then we can get basic units to talk about its evolution mechanisms. But unlike the Genetic evolution, a natural phenomenon that is usually treated as a value free process, the Design evolution is intertwined with human will, the value of which is usually interpreted and evaluated within certain context.

Combination might be a key to figuring out realistic mechanisms of the invention and evolution of technology (Arthur, 2009). The evolution of Google Glass can be also viewed as such a process of structural deepening. In this article, I will try examining the last few steps of the evolution that made it become Google Glass and understanding the meanings behind the evolution.

To unite the aforementioned words (assembles, mechanisms, combination, etc.) into one conceptual system, the General Definition of Information (GDI) can be adopted as an operational standard. According to GDI, information is entity that made of data with certain rules, or information is equal to data or symbols plus the syntax, and should comply the semantics of chosen system (Floridi, 2010).

The stack of General Information Theory

The stack of General Information Theory

I think there are at least two advantages of General Information Theory that makes it suitable to study the material practice of design. Firstly, it doesn’t strip information and symbols from its material carrier, which is suitable to study the material practice of design. In a general term, the following definition of symbol is proposed: A symbol is an energy evoking and directing agent (Campbell, 2002). In this term, Google Glass can be analyzed as symbols that are composited by syntax at different levels. Secondly, it can help us to clarify the narrative. Google Glass can be de-blackboxed and studied from the three different levels:

  • The basic symbols that come up with the modules: selected components and the source of variations of the evolution.
  • The syntax that makes new design structure to achieve the evolution: the selection mechanisms and the operators that change the structure(Baldwin & Clark, 2000).
  • The semantic aspect about how we can possibly evaluate and interpret Google Glass: The selection criterion, the affordances of this technology and other social implication.

Lev Manovich points out a new media object has the same modular structure throughout (Manovich, 2001). The concept of modularity contains two basic principles of technology: combination and recursiveness that Arthur brings up in his The Nature of Technology (Arthur, 2009). He also mentioned that a technology and its assemblies should all supply a functionality and are executable (Arthur, 2009).

In Google Glass, elements are assembled into larger-scale objects but they continue to maintain their separate identity (Manovich, 2001). We can rephrase it that the symbols on different levels are packaged as objects and manipulated by new syntax.

The modular structure in the language of General Information Theory

The modular structure in the language of General Information Theory

2. The stage of symbols selection

The design is not fully from the minds of designer, but also largely confined by the design parameters that can be chosen among. What’s inside the design structure of Google Glass? Baldwin and Clark built an effective framework to answer this question from different aspects. There are three categories we can use to fully address the design information: architecture, interfaces, the protocols and standards (Baldwin & Clark, 2000). Now let us teardown Google Glass to see what symbols, or modular, are utilized.

Screen Shot 2014-05-10 at 10.24.14 AM


2.1 Architecture

Architecture indicates that what modules will be part of the system, and what their roles will be (Baldwin & Clark, 2000). Google Glass is not a single-tiered system that directly formed by evenly distributed small units. By looking closer to Google Glass, we found that it is made up of many assembles that are relatively independent. On the first level of hardware teardown, we found it involves these basic assemblies: main logic board, display assembly, battery, speaker, touchpad, etc. These assemblies are themselves technologies, whose functions are distinguished from the adjacent assemblies.

The general architecture of Google Glass

The general architecture of Google Glass

We can easily find that most of these assemblies are not just created for Google Glass. Almost all of them have existed around us widely for a long time. The microphone is produced by Wolfsen, which has been equipped into smart phone; The touchpad is produced by Synaptics, which is similar to the touchpads for laptop computers; On the main logic board, the Wifi/Bluetooth Modules are ordinary modules that supplied by Universal Scientific Industrial Corp. If we go further to see into core chips, there is also nothing novel. For example, ROM is provided by Sandisk, RAM is provided by Eplida Memory, as many other digital devices.

However, the display assembly is one exception that looks novel to me. I continue to open up this part. This assembly is also combined with more subassemblies, creating a recursive structure from the macroscopic levels to microscopic levels. I found the gyro censors, the gravity censors and accelerometers that supplied by InvenSense Inc, and the light sensor, supplied by LITE-ON IT. They are all mature fittings that exist in the market for a long time.

The structure of the optic in Google Glass

The structure of the optic in Google Glass

The most unique part in display assembly is the head-mounted display(OHMD), which uses a PBS. PBS is a partially reflecting mirror beam splitter. It allows the information displayed on LEDs be reflected to a partially reflective mirror. Through this mirror, users can see the real scene and the computer-generated information at the same time. A very similar technology called head-up display (HUD) has been developed in the field of military for a long time. Similar optical device can even be traced back before World War II. Now this technology is becoming common with aircraft and several business jets to present to the pilot a picture that overlays the outside world (Norris, Homas, Wagner, &  Forbes Smith, 2005). The most similar use of OHMD to Google Glass is the iOptik, which is developed by US Department of Defence and Innovega for military use (Anthony, 2012). These two organizations cooperated to successfully make the OHMD into a very small size.

2.2 Interfaces

The interfaces are defined as information generated between different modules. They are largely determined by the architecture descripted above. By looking between these selected units, the detailed descriptions of how the different modules will interact can be found (Baldwin & Clark, 2000).

A sketch of some interfaces in Google Glass

A sketch of some interfaces in Google Glass

In contrast to the view that to define the whole information provided by certain device, the practices of studying interfaces among various modules give us a more specific depict of “remediation”. The interfaces reflect the activities of translating, refashioning and reforming other information, both on the levels of content and form (Bolter & Grusin, 1999). We can find that in Google Glass, the functions and arrangements of interfaces share many common features with smart phone. Generally speaking, the designers of Google Glass didn’t introduce substantial variation to the old information exchange pattern. In other term, the various forms of media in Google Glass have been already hybridized by smart phone before.

The main differences are the interfaces inside the display assembly, as we described above. By combining and re-arranging this modular, designers realize their intentions of providing new experience of human-computer interaction, which has an influence on the affordances that will be discussed later.

2.3 Integration protocols and testing standards

The examination of the interfaces naturally leads to the next questions: How is the information between those interfaces transferred? What are the protocols and standards that allow designers to assemble the system?

A sketch of standards and protocols related to Google Glass

A sketch of standards and protocols related to Google Glass

Standards are utilized on each interface of all the modules. To name a few: the Advanced Audio Coding (AAC) that established by ISO and IEC, conducts the audio transmission; the Transmission Control Protocol/ Internet Protocol (TCP/IP), which implemented on the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET), links Google Glass into the backbone of the Internet; the 802.11 standard, proposed by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), makes the information exchange between different devices wireless.

All these standards and protocols are embodied with rich history. Their developments are molded by countless technological, cultural and social forces, which create the infosphere of all the actors related to Google Glass. We can find that almost all of these standards have been applied on Google’s smart phone, which implicates that Google Glass is placed into a similar design space with smart phone. The study of standards and protocols unfolds the view of how a technology can work as a node of a network linking different social systems, which will be discussed later.

3. The stage of syntax use:

The structural fact, modularity, separates technologies into functional groupings, also simplifies the process of design. But how is the modularity achieved? It is a question related to syntax, which manipulated the symbols abstracted from the subsystems. The structural similarity of technologies implicates that Google Glass can be viewed as having “family relationship” with smart phone and other technologies. Google Glass, as a hybrid with descent of other technologies, is not made by loosely connecting these technologies. The precedent technologies are hybridized in a deeper way. In hybrid media, what come together are the languages of previously distinct media (Manovich, 2013). New syntax appears to exchange properties and create new structures.

Baldwin and Clark categorize the means to create the new modular structure into six modular operators. In complex adaptive systems, operators are actions that change existing structures into new structures in well-defined ways (Baldwin & Clark, 2000). We have been aware of the close connection between smart phone and Google Glass. Although there are influences from other technologies, for the sake of analyzing convenience, the task structure of smart phone will be chosen as an old structure, based on which the operators manipulate.

These following modular operators (Baldwin & Clark, 2000) are implemented to achieve the new task structure of Google Glass:

  • Augmenting—adding a new module to system:

As Arthur claims, a technology is usually organized around a central principle or essential idea that allows it to work; In practice this means that a technology consists of a main assembly: an overall backbone of the device that executes its base principle (Arthur, 2009). One of the most apparent new module added to the old structure is the display assembly. In this sense, augmenting of the display assembly creates the key feature of Google Glass.

  • Splitting a design (and its tasks) into modules:

The display assembly is expected to run complicated functions. In order to achieving that, it should be further split into subsystems, with the independent goals to sensing the ambience, or to overlapping the computer generated information on the real scene. To achieve the later goal, the function of optics can be further divided into illumination region and viewing region (Wiki, 2014).

  • Substituting one module design for another:

The display assembly can also be viewed as a substitution of the smart phone display. We will discuss how the action of this substitution influences the technology’s affordances.

  • Excluding a module from the system:

The smart phone uses keyboard or touchscreen to achieve input capabilities. However, the frame of Google Glass doesn’t have enough space to contain them, whose existence would impact the balance of the frame. The keyboard and touchscreen has to be excluded from the system. (But a touchpad is added to the system to make up part of the defect.)

  • Porting a module to another system:

Designers want the Google Glass to provide functions based on the users’ locations. However, for certain reasons, they didn’t add the GPS module into Google Glass, but porting it to the linked smart phone. This porting creates a special relationship between Google Glass and cellphone, which will be elaborated later.

  • Inverting to create new design rules:

This operator describes the action of taking previously hidden information and “moving it up” the design hierarchy. However, in the case of Google Glass, I didn’t find any once hidden modules become visible.

From a humanities perspective, the design of digital objects is a cultural practice (Murray, 2011). But the cultural practice cannot be understood fully without firstly treating the design as a material practice. The using of modular operators is a process of realizing task structure, which is a list of tasks that need to be done to make a new technology. Task structure is isomorphic with design structure, which comprises a list of design choices (Baldwin & Clark, 2000). After seizing these design choices, we can continue to analyze the selection criteria and the goals of the designers that reflected by them.

4. The stage of semantics creating

Now we have answered the question that how the changes of the structures are made. However, it is just a starting point to examine the design evolution by talking about the combinations of various physical units. The next questions can be: how is Google Glass designed to become meaningful in human society? Who gave it the syntax of evolution?

Very often in the world of technology, changes at one level must be accommodated by changes at a different level (Arthur, 2009). In this section, we can get a glance of how cultural practice of design and the material practice of design correspond. By operating the design parameters that preexist, the functions of precedent media are mediated. I will try discussing how Google Glass adds new semantics in our environment with two aspects.

4.1. Affordances: about the human-computer interface

By making the choices of design parameters and operators, Google Glass is placed into a design space closed to the smart phone. What is the positional relation of Google Glass and the smart phone in the design space? Does Google Glass exploit any property than old technologies? This question can be studied by introducing the concept of four affordances. Affordances can be simplified as “action possibilities” Donald Norman defined it as the perceived and actual properties of the thing, primarily those fundamental properties that determine just how the thing could possibly be used (Norman, 2002).

4.1.1. Procedural Affordance

The procedural affordance is used to measure the technology’s ability to represent and execute conditional behaviors (Murray, 2011). It is hard to compare the procedural affordance between Google Glass and smart phone in their whole range. However, by de-blackboxing them according to the modular structure, multiple systems can be examined separately in the term of whether or not they contribute to exploit the affordance. The adding of touchpad obviously contributes the procedural affordance, because on some conditions that the voice command device can’t provide effective functions, the touchpad can be used to make clearer executable instructions.

4.1.2. Encyclopedia Affordance:

The encyclopedia affordance reflects a technology’s ability to contain and transmit information. As mentioned in the section that discusses modular operators, if we treat smart phone as an old design structure, the exclusion of cellphone touchscreen makes Google Glass has inferior encyclopedia affordance, since currently the display on the Glass cannot present extensive media formats and genres. It is an apparent shortcoming of Google Glass. In addition, its limited capacity of storage also impairs the encyclopedia affordance. However, since Google Glass is usually used with the aid of smart phone. If we treat them as a whole system, the introduction of Google Glass actually enhances the procedural and encyclopedia affordances of the whole system. In addition, “In the wild”, a technology rarely is fixed. It constantly changes its architecture, adapts and reconfigures as purposes change and improvements occur (Arthur, 2009). As many other technologies, to enhance the display function and expand storage is the direction of the continuous design evolution of Google Glass.

4.1.3. Participatory Affordance:

The digital media is participatory in allowing an interactor to manipulate, contribute to, and have an effect upon digital content and computer processing (Murray, 2011).The concept of the participatory affordance is closely related to two values of interface design, intuitive and transparent.

  • Intuitive:

Most ordinary users don’t ask for the things that they want to own before seeing them, as babies cannot describe their needs but can immediately point to something they want when the object comes into view. Technology is supposed to achieve this kind of unconscious expectations.

Google Glass doesn’t provide wordy guidance to teach users how to use its various functions. Look at the menu that Google Glass displays. All the options are provided with simple icons. Google Glass presents users some functions that they seem to naturally understand how to use. Murray said the designer must script both sides so that the actions of humans and machines are meaningful to one another (Murray, 2011). However, this script is not only provided by designers. Since Intuitions about the world are often based on repeated experience (Murray, 2011), people had been adapted to understand many symbols long before the designers of Google Glass use that.


On the menu, some icons imitate the appearance of old media that we have rich experience with, such as camera and clock. They let users expect to take photos and check the time with them. And some intuitions can be more recently built, such as users’ interpretation of the icon of a magnifier. It doesn’t provide higher magnification, but means “looking up”. Similarly, although the symbol of “64°” might mean measurement of angles or other things in different context, users of Google Glass usually only connect it to the weather. These connections happen so naturally, because users are already familiar to these metaphors when using other digital devices, especially smart phones. We are already habitants of the infosphere in which Google Glass just entered. Although Google Glass is unconventional to a certain sense, it still inherits established conventions to a large extent to build effective human-computer interaction.

  • Transparent

The aforementioned examples also implicate another related design value that Google Glass achieves–transparent. One example can be utilized to illustrate that the addition of display assembly can promote the participatory affordance.


The pre-mentioned head-mounted display (OHMD) allows users to see information provided by computers without looking away from their usual viewpoints. We all know that the compass application in smart phone remains the image of a compass, but Google Glass erases that image and only preserves the concept of a compass. When opening the Google Compass on the Glass, users can see two short red lines in the middle of the screen, and they will notice some characters pass through between them when they turn around their heads. This minimalism design is informative enough to users. As we explained before, the most of us have already owned the knowledge of a precedent medium, the compass; we can naturally imagine that we stand at the origin of a rectangular coordinate, as what is presented on an ordinary compass. And the red lines straightforwardly tell us the relationship of the direction we face and the coordinate built inside our cognitive system.

Similarly, Google Glass takes the functions of clock, camera, thermometer and many other media we use for information exchange but erase their physical bodies. Highly related to the augmenting of display assembly, Google Glass’s another advantages is the display reduces the access time of information. When the time between cognition and action is very small, we hardly recognize the media between the environment and us. We feel the interface is an extension of the self.

4.1.4. Spatial Affordance:

I think the spatial affordance is closely related to the participatory affordance, because the sense of space is a kind of mental model based on the relationship of users’ cognitive system and what the media present. This mental model helps us to make sense of the world. The computer interface acts as a code, which provides its own model of the world, its own logical system, or ideology (Manovich, 2001). What is the logical system of space that Google Glass provides?

Gibson’s affordances capture a fundamental aspect of human perception and cognition, that is, the fact that much information needed for perception and action is in the environment as invariants that can be picked up directly (Zhang & Patel, 2006). The direct collection and processing of information in our environment provide human’s sense of “real space”. Google Glass’s semitransparent display provides the possibility to let users gain a feeling of picking up computer processing data from the real scene. To give the pre-mentioned example of Google Compass, the letter “N” will always appear in front of the person when she faces the North. And the “N” will gradually move to the right when she turns her head to the west. For users, it seems that the “N” is an invariant existing beside us.2332 Another example is the Turn-by-Turn Directions that provided by Google Navigation. If the users follow it to the same destination every time, the same visual direction will always appear at the same corner. These spatial metaphors create interaction patterns that are consistent with the real environment, which leads the users into an augmented reality. In Google Glass’s spatial logic, computer generated information is mapped out into the real world.

4.2 Software epistemology of Google Glass: about the human-computer-culture interface

Manovich use the term “cultural interfaces” to describe human-computer-culture interface: the ways in which computers present and allows us to interact with cultural data. (Manovich, 2001)

He also provides the following five principles of new media as general tendencies of a cultural undergoing computerization (Manovich, 2001). The first two principles are on material level: numeric coding and modular organization. They can be studied by discussing the symbols and syntax of design structure. The third and the forth principles are automation and variability, which can be achieved based on the first two priciples. I think automation and variability are highly related to the design affordances that we have also talked about before. The last, fifth principle of cultural transcoding aims to describe the most substantial consequence of media’s computerization. (Manovich, 2001) He thinks in general, new media can be thought of as consisting from two distinct layers: the ”cultural layer” and the “computer layer”. These two layers are being composited together. Manovich encouraged a “conceptural transfer” from computer world to culture. I think the practice of de-blackboxing Google Glass provides such a view of examining cultural categories and concepts from computer’s ontology.

We started by looking at the different modules and their interrelationships, then understood the genres of data created and transferred among them, further, we can begin to see the cultural, social, and economic forces that shapes each modular.

People gradually agree that “all intellectual work is now ‘software study’.” (Manovich, 2001). The software is used to create and access media objects and environments, which enables the whole global information society. The design evolution of Google Glass not only translates the functions of precedent media, but also mediates other cultural forms in a larger scope. The agency of many social institutions are also involved into the design and use of Google Glass.

By opening up Google Glass, we gained a glance of the assemblies on the first several layers, together with the protocols and standards utilized to combine them and transfer data.  We can get a good sight to count Google’s partners and subsidiaries that make those semi-finished products; we also come to know the organizations and institutions that related to the standards and protocals.

I think that the design value of transparent can also be used to explain these social institution’s hiding from us. We do not need to buy applications from different suppliers and connect them into other hardware by ourselves any more, as playing video games using hard drive. Looking at the modular structure of Google Glass, we can notice that the activities of different suppliers are also packaged to hide from us in a similar pattern of modular structure. Also, the protocols and standards are hidden after the various remediated information.

Being aware of Google Glass’s modular structure has another inspiration to us. With this new vision unfolded, we can easily find that Google Glass accesses the similar established system with Google’s smart phone. Google keeps partnerships of many companies who produce fittings or provide services to its smart phone. Google Glass, as an actor, borrowed the network already linked by Google’s smart phone to a great extent. In other word, by borrowing the existing physical design parameters, Google Glass not only inherits many features from smart phone, but the networks it locates.

Especially considering there is no GPS module in Google Glass and it has to rely on smart phone to access and distribute the information related to location, Google Glass and smart phone are like conjoined twin babies in some sense. In the network, smart phone has already built close relationships with third parties, including social media websites, news organizations, education institutions, etc. Many of them, such as Facebook or the New York Times, have easily transplanted their applications from smart phone to Google Glass.

Google Glass is locked into the space of the software universe already exists. From this view, it is more like a node that link other actors and agencies than an independent tool that can only deal with information with fixed methods. But Google Glass, as a new comer into the network, still brings a few more complexity to the layer that mediates all areas of contemporary societies. Google might prove its potential to increasingly enhance our “interfacing” to various cultural data, it might also create some surprising impacts in the network, such as influencing the education or legal systems. As an actor in the software universe, it will also carry on the ambitious missions in this network, to carry on the new media revolution, the shift of all of our culture to computer-mediated forms of communication (Manovich, 2001).

5. Conclusion

Google Glass, as other technologies, is descended from earlier technologies, the mechanism of “heredity” is worthy to be studied, which is some detailed connection that links the present to the past (Arthur, 2009).

I think unfolding a technology with the framework of its modular structure is a good approach to talk about the evolution of the technology. By opening up Google Glass and examining the functional components hidden from the novel-looking appearance, we have been provided a structural fact of the Google Glass. The modular structure can serve as clues to interpret and evaluate Google Glass. Because of the complexity of Google Glass, it is more practical to assess the change of affordances based on the addition or exclusion of particular modules. Also, the relationships among different modules further reflect the social networks linked by Google Glass in the software universe.


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What Experience is More Real: That of a Virtual Museum or an Institutional Museum? The Google Art Project and the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao.

“The Art Museum invites criticism of each of the expressions of the world it brings together; and a query as to what they have in common.  To the “delight of the eye” there has been added… an awareness of art´s impassioned quest, its age-old struggle to remold the scheme of things.  Indeed an art gallery is one of the places which show man at his noblest.” (15)

André Malraux. The Voices of Silence (1951)


Deriving from my readings of Jean Baudrillard´s Simulacra and Simulation, Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin´s Remediation: Understanding New Media, Marc Augé´s Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity, and Emily Magnuson´s article “Virtual Museums” I aim to elucidate what experience is considered to be more “real,” visiting a virtual museum or a physical museum.  Using as case studies the Google Art Project and the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, I postulate that both are considered to be what Augé´s calls non-places, that is to say, non-anthropological spaces.  Moreover, Bolter and Grusin regard non-places (physical and cybernetic) as hypermediated spaces.  Converging these concepts, I propose that virtual users and active participants of the Google Art Project and the Guggenheim Bilbao are who, in their personal engagement with the piece of art in these highly remediated spaces, are responsible for creating the real.  In the era of the hyperreal as defended by Baudrillard, by evoking an immediate and authentic emotional response as proposed by Bolter and Grusin, the visitor achieves a sense of reality.  This is a gateway to establish an open dialogue with the work of art, participating in a distributed global agency and art network system.


Walter Benjamin in his important essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”[i] questions the loss of the aura in the work of art and its authenticity as a result of reproducing the photographic image.  For Benjamin, the uniqueness of the work of art is bounded to the fabric of tradition (4).  However, as he states, there are two fundamental reasons that explain the decay of the aura.  On the one hand, for the contemporary masses it is important to bring things closer spatially and humanly as provided by reproducibility, accepting the loss of its original aura.  On the other hand, to destroy the aura of a piece of art is the mark of perception that points out the “sense of the universal equality of things.”  Therefore, reproducibility promotes the extraction of its uniqueness and impacts how it is conceived and perceived in reality.  In consequence, the adjustment of reality to the masses and the masses to reality is a process of constant readjustment and with unlimited scope as Benjamin foresaw (4).

Some years later André Malraux, as President Charles de Gaulle’s Minister of Culture, used the photographic image as the way to engage art and cultural history in his book The Voices of Silence (1951).  He deducted that Western Culture was governed by an imaginary museum, that is to say, a conceptual museum that was structured as an abstract projection of an ideal “cultural encyclopedia” of specific works of art used as models (Irvine Malraux 1).  Malraux also postulated the role of the postmodern museum as a collector of diverse cultures and histories presenting them in unity and establishing an open dialogue with a specific collection or exhibition from its predecessors and its contemporaries.  He asserted “By the mere fact of its birth every great art modifies what arose before it” (ctd in Irvine 3).  Also, Brian Arthur in his book The Nature of Technology defends, in a technological context, the importance of the contribution of the prior art in the creation of new art, “an invention is a new combination of prior art” (9).  So it has been clearly established that a work of art is in a constant negotiation with the world of art, the history of art, and its materiality as well as being a good that carries cultural, social, and symbolic value.

For Malraux the museum was a medium to promote democratic and nationalist cultural identity, and it was instantiating the idea of an imaginary museum where the museum functions as the interface of the cultural encyclopedia (3).  As Martin Irvine asserts, the museum function does not work as a neutral or pre- or non-technological state, but as a network of functions and meditations implemented in a historical continuum of technical systems that also include the architectural design of the museum (Irvine The Work of Art 2).  With the Google Art Project, Malraux´s concept of the “Imaginary museum” or the “Museum without walls” has been put into practice on a virtual / technological large scale.  At the same time, Malraux’s emphasis on the institutional museum as a carrier of cultural identity and history is still nowadays an extremely relevant component on the construction and location of a museum as seen in the case of the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao.


The Google Art project brings in the democratizing idea of opening a virtual museum that would allow the global audience to visit some of the most prestigious museums in the world while eradicating the elitism and nationalism that normally accompanies the institutional museum.  On the other hand, a museum such as the Guggenheim in Bilbao promotes an experience that goes beyond the museum’s physical limits thus extending the museum function to the entire city of Bilbao.  Therefore, is the experience of visiting an institutional museum more real than seeing it in Google Art Project?  Emily Magnuson argues in her article “Virtual Museums” that, despite the original concern about the role of the Google Art Project as a potential competitor of the physical museum and besides being an excellent project, it still does not respond to a larger question introduced by Malraux:  Does the advent, and now exploitation, of the reproducible image make our ability to apprehend art any more, or less, real?  What do we really gain or lose in this virtual reality?”  Along the lines of Magnuson´s question, the purpose of my essay is to explore what makes the experience of the virtual user while navigating the Google Art Project as well as the visitor who experiences a visit to the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao more or less real.  Using the postmodern theories of Jean Baudrillard and Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin, I propose that due to the fact that there is not a referential and empirical reality but multiple realities, that is to say the hyperreal as Baudrillard defends, the real becomes what the viewer / visitor experiences as immediate, authentic, and emotionally attaching, as Bolter and Grusin postulate.

According to Jean Baudrillard in his book Simulacra and Simulation (1981), the real is no longer referential and empirical but the result of miniaturized cells, matrices, and memory banks that can replicate it an unlimited amount of times:  “The real is produced from miniaturized cells, matrices, and memory banks, models of control – and it can be reproduced an indefinite number of times from these.  It no longer needs to be rational because it no longer measures itself against either an ideal or negative instance.  It is no longer anything but operational.  In fact, it is no longer really the real, because no imaginary envelops it anymore.  It is the hyperreal, produced from the radiating synthesis of combinatory models in a hyperspace without atmosphere” (2).  Therefore, for Baudrillard there is not one code of the real but a multiple production of the real.  Reality is not based on a previous referential model to simulate.

In opposition to Baudrillard, Bolter and Grusin in their book Remediation argue in relationship to hypermedia and transparent media that these two are opposite manifestations of the same desire:  the desire to get past the limits of representation and to achieve the real.  Instead, the real is defined in terms of the viewer´s experience; it is that which would evoke an immediate (and therefore authentic) emotional response (53).

The Guggenheim as a Cultural and Social Hypermediated Non-Place

As Martin Irvine defends, the museum is an institution that is a social construction (an abstract implementable function) in a physical space that serves as a medium for cultural transmission.  Therefore, cultural institutions are always nodes in systems of mediations, validating and validated by media technologies and other institutions, social classes, and the political economy of culture (Irvine 2).  As representative of a cultural institution with a wide global network and distributed agency, the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao opened its doors in 1997, rapidly becoming an architectural symbol of a worldwide globalized design due to its innovative use of curves that captured the light of the Nervion River.  The building was designed by Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry under the auspices of the Basque Government and the Salomon R. Guggenheim Foundation.  The Guggenheim Foundation also has with museums in Venice, its most emblematic museum in New York City´s Upper East Side, and its latest project in Abu Dhabi.  As French anthropologist Marc Augé has asserted in his book Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity, there is an intrinsic relationship between globalization and its architectural manifestation:  “Leading architects have become international stars, and when a town aspires to feature in the world network it commissions one of them to produce an edifice that will stand as a monument, a testimony providing its presence in the world, in the sense of being wired into the system.” (15)

Frank Ghery affirmed that the reminiscence of the curves of fish in his innovative museum design were thought to capture the light, contributing in this way to integrate the Nervión river and the city of Bilbao into the building:  “the randomness of the curves are designed to catch the light” (Wikipedia).  The arrival of the museum revitalized this northern city in the Basque Country which had a long tradition in steel manufacturing and shipbuilding and had suffered from decay in its local economy.  The Guggenheim provided the city of Bilbao with symbolic capital expanding its museum function as a cultural interface and its culturally remediated space[ii] function throughout the city.  According to Pierre Bordieu, “symbolic capital” is to be understood as economic or political capital that is… recognized and legitimate, a credit which under certain conditions, and in the long run, guarantees “economic” profit (The Production of Belief 262).  This symbolic capital was also translated into “economic profit” as to promote the city to the status of a cultural and global center for Modern Art as part of the Guggenheim Foundation Art Museums.  It also promoted an Urban Renaissance with the restoration of several renowned buildings in Bilbao.  The construction of a new walking boulevard next to the river opened the city to the Guggenheim and the museum to the urban space where people can gaze at the river, the city, and the Basque mountains.  Basque culture, gastronomy, and identity were internationally represented through the reflection of the Guggenheim.  Then, the museum function of the Guggenheim was implemented by what Bordieu calls “the objectified state” becoming the holder and owner of cultural goods objectified in material objects and media, such as paintings and monuments, that could also be conducted as economic capital for the Basque government and the city of Bilbao.  (Bordieu Forms of Capital 243-6)

Integrating Bilbao in a global network of museums and promoting Basque and Spanish artists in the museum also encouraged that the international artwork exhibited in the museum mediated the global into the local and vice versa.  While enjoying the worldwide permanent exhibitions of Richard Serra among many others, visitors can go to the museum restaurant and enjoy some delicious Basque Txakoli white wine and some “pintxos,” the local equivalent of one-person Spanish tapas.  Marc Augé affirms that these architectural projects refer, in principle, to the historical or geographical context.  However, they are quickly captured by worldwide consumption:  the influx of tourists who come from all over the world to sanction their success, making of this large-scale projects (Tschumi at La Villette, Pei at the Louvre, and Ghery in Bilbao…) have their own particular local and historical justifications, but in the final analysis having their prestige coming from worldwide recognition (15-6).

Using Linda Kelly´s description of a “connected museum,” the Guggenheim could be considered a connected museum because it offers physical, mobile, and online spaces that offer the visitors a flexible, mobile, vibrant, and changing environment providing them with the instruments to have a personalized experience of the museum.  By placing the visitor in the center of the museum visit, the visitors are no longer passive recipients of information but active participants of the museum’s extensive function (69).   Consequently, in terms of its physicality, the Guggenheim successfully engages in a symbiotic union between the exterior and the interior allowing the visitor to become an actor/ actant[iii] of a larger distributed network of agency that goes beyond the museum and city walls.

The museum has 11,000 m2 of exhibition space distributed in nineteen galleries.  The most well known is the Fish Gallery, 130 meters long and 30 meters wide, which is right underneath the tower thus simulating that the Gallery is embracing the tower and incorporating it into the building.  The grand entrance of the atrium provides the visitor with a monumental feeling that is emphasized by the different volumes of the stone, the curves, the titanium, and the tall crystal walls.  The area is articulated around 300 m2 of space and 50 meters of height.  The outside terrace is accessible from the atrium and has a view of the river and the garden, and it is linked to the monumental tower that integrates the De la Salve Bridge as part of the overall building (Wikiarquitectura).  Augé asserts this type of globalized architecture aims to transmit the illusions of a current dominant ideology and plays part in the aesthetic of transparency and reflection, height and harmony, the aesthetic of distance, which deliberately or not, supports those illusions and expresses the triumph of a system in the main strongholds of the planetary network acquiring a utopian dimension.  This architecture alludes to a planetary society that …aims to be a society of transparency (16-17).  So, how does the Guggenheim provide their visitors in this utopian dimension, this aim for transparency, this interfaceless interface, and this experience of “real” while walking in the museum?  Marc Augé argues that in the era of Supermodernity there are two different kinds of spaces, what he calls “places” and “non-places.”  Places are anthropological spaces that can be defined as relational, historical, and concerned with identity, and the opposite are non-places[iv].  According to Augé a museum would be considered a non-place (62).  Non-places are normally hypermediated spaces where individuals tend to have little interaction with other individuals[v] and therefore interact with the space using written text and narratives (McKay 163).

Despite hosting large numbers of visitors and employees, a museum of large dimensions such as the Guggenheim does not promote social and human interaction and is therefore considered a non-anthropological space.  However, the museum’s interfaceless interface is used as a surface[vi] to transparent media as first encountered in the atrium where tourists are welcomed to use the Zero Space room “Zero Espazioa.” As Alexander R. Galloway affirms, an interface is not something that appears before you but rather a gateway that opens up and allows passage to some place beyond (30).  Consequently, as Galloway states, the Zero Space opens the door to guests to interact with laptops and plasma screens that guide them to the virtual visit of the Guggenheim.  With curated routes to visit the museum as well as detailed information about temporary and permanent exhibitions, the virtual visit opens the window to the “real” visit.  After being informed what are the best ways to explore the space in the digital world, guests are ready to start their journey.

Throughout the museum other forms of media are offered to the visitor:  audio guides, the Guggenheim iPhone app, plasma screens with detailed information about the current exhibitions, multimedia information points, and designated educational spaces where the visitor has educational tools such as panels, interactive software, audiovisuals, audio clips, illustrations, images, and reading rooms.  The focus of each educational space varies from the social to the political, economic, artistic, or architectural perspective with interactive materials available for the users making of this museum a highly hypermediated space (Guggenheim).  As Bolter and Grusin affirm, non-places are sites for experiencing the reality of mediation:  “Frequentation of non-places today provides an experience – without the real historical precedent – of the solitary individual combined with non-human mediation, between the individual and the public authority” (179).  Like the Guggenheim, non-places are hypermediated spaces where the strategies of remediation are put into practice.  Either by using a transparent digital application to get to the real thus denying the fact of mediation or by generating the real by multiplying mediation to create a feeling of fullness and satiety of experience in people, both strategies desire to make individuals evoke it as reality (53).

This evocation to reality is also indebted to the excellent execution of a detailed, remediated, and curated work.  All artwork that integrates the permanent and the temporary collection is displayed in an open negotiation with all other works of art, overcoming the physical boundaries of the Guggenheim and integrating the urban city into the museum space.  This stimulates a synergetic relationship between the architectural limitations and the physical space provided to the visitor.  The museum is a space hypermedia and transparent media and both aim to get past the limits of representation and to achieve the real so the active involvement of the sightseers is necessary.  The permanent collection integrates the eight sculptures ofweathering steel by Richard Serra´s The Matter of Time that allows the visitor to perceive the evolution of a relative simplicity of the double ellipse to the complexity of the spiral (Guggenheim).  The famous Puppy that welcomes visitors at the entrance of the museum as well as the Tulips is by Jeff Koons.  You can also find works by Eduardo Chillida and José Manuel Ballester among others.  The temporary exhibition presently on display includes artwork produced by Yoko Ono and Ernesto Neto.  All artwork exhibited either in the outside area or the inside space becomes part of a larger narrative that incorporates the city and the visitor should incorporate and personalize it.  As Tim Boon asserts, the visitor must construct their own narrative when experiencing the museum:  “Narrative theorists argue that people make sense of their everyday experience by constructing narratives, that is, by linking separate components into connected strings of meaning.  These are often related to stories and narratives that are already familiar to them. (…) It is clear that the kinds of sense making that visitors enter into in museums may also be thought of as the construction of narratives, as they incorporate what they encounter into how they already think” (422).  In consequence, the idea of spatial storytelling defended by Michel de Certeau[vii] is applicable to the act of creating a new narrative when walking in a museum such as the Guggenheim which requires an active visitor to interact and create meaning to the art pieces exposed.  Meaning is created in every encounter between the visitor and the work of art as stated by Roland Barthes[viii], affirming that meaning is not imminent and pre-existing in a cultural product but “instead it is created anew in every encounter between the reader / viewer / listener and text (ctd Boon 421).

So active visitors of the Guggenheim are demanded to create their own meaning of the artwork as well as a narrative with the collections and the inner and outer space.  In this aim, the city of Bilbao conforms an additional factor which emerges as a symbol of a globalized network.  The reality of the experience should be drawn from the viewer´s involvement, practice, and capability to apprehend art in a more or less real way.  According to Baudrillard, we live in the era of the hyperreal so no referential reality exists.  Therefore I believe that the audiences of the Guggenheim would take as real the experience that makes them feel an immediate, authentic, and emotional response with the artwork.  The overall impression of the individual´s reality is a product of what he / she apprehends and engages into open dialogue with and, by extension with the museum and the city, creating, in this way, their own personal narrative.  The Guggenheim´s museum function goes far beyond the limits of the city of Bilbao and positions it in a global network of holders of symbolic value.

The Google Art Project as a Cultural and Social Hypermediated Non-Place

The Google Art Project was first launched in 2011 by the head of the project Amid Sood.  He claimed that he wanted to offer the opportunity to millions of people who do not have direct access to art galleries to experience it on the web.  While growing up in India, he did not have the chance to live near a main urban and cultural center so he wanted to make it possible to upcoming generations.  His idea of a virtual gallery which would grant large masses to experience some of the best art institutions of the world also contributed to broadening the world of art´s spectrum on the Internet.

As claimed by Marshall McLuhan´s Understanding Media, when a new medium is invented, its role is that of a container for previous media format (ctd in Galloway 31).  Since its beginnings, the Google Art Project was a media hybrid[ix] that implemented existing software such as Google Street View, Picassa, and Giga-Pixel high-resolution photographs to create its technical architecture (Wikipedia).  The digitized and high-resolution photographs allow the virtual visitor to zoom in and explore the work of art in great detail.  This fact completely dispossesses the work of art of its original “aura” as stated by Benjamin as well as from its symbolic value (Bourdieu) and nationalistic overtones (Malraux).  The format of the website, as Irvine affirms, removes all sense of scale and historical context since all images are of the same size and presented in a horizontal plane giving the illusion of equality (Irvine 29).  The disposition of the images displays a similar idea of that promulgated by Malraux and “the imaginary museum.”

This imaginary virtual museum does not make distinctions of volume, size, color, time period, or artist creating a visual impact similar to that of a collage.  The “infinite scroll” vertically or horizontally creates the illusion of an invisible interface.  It is also relevant that it also promotes, to my understanding, a feeling of what Russian Formalist Victor Shklovsky calls “defamiliarization.”  For Shklovsky “Art is thinking in images” and therefore the purpose of art is “to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known.”  Art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of the object; the object is not important… Art creates a “vision” of the object instead of serving as a means for knowing it (3-5).  In the case of the Google Art Project, the user is aware of this unfamiliarity produced by placing the work of art in a decontextualized format and, therefore, virtual users are expected to perceive the work of art as a “vision”; a product of their perception.  In consequence, their understanding of what is the “reality” of their experience is based on their ability to capture the artfulness of the art piece and transcend the virtual space as well as being able to evoke an immediate feeling, an authentic emotional response that goes beyond the virtual platform.  Shklovsky affirms that when a work is created “artistically” then its perception is impeded and the greatest possible effect is produced through the slowness of the perception.  As a result of this lingering, the object is perceived not in its extension in space, but, so to speak, in its continuity (5).   Effacing the piece of art as continuity and attaching it some emotional and personal value makes of the virtual perception a path to equate the physical-mental journey undertaken in an institutional museum.

In the spectrum of its meta-museum function, the Google Art Project has recently provided their users with all of the necessary tools to be involved in the piece of art as continuity far beyond the Google Art Project interface.  The portal has made significant changes to improve their main table of contents, allowing the user to tweet, post on Facebook, email, or share in other social interfaces their favorite piece of art as well as their customized art gallery.  Also, their new faster navigation and new search features make it easier to filter data, artworks, and related events.  Adding new partners has contributed to adding 40,000 pieces of art and about 250 museums in more than 40 countries have joined this common project (Lardiois).  With the idea of implementing the museum function far beyond its gateway and placing the work of art in a continuity opened to new dialogues, other educational instruments have been added so direct access to YouTube Videos and Google Art Project Cultural Institute documentaries and videos are available.

An excellent example can be seen when entering into one of their major featured projects, such as the one dedicated to “Women in Culture,” offering the user multiple windows to works of art and museum collections related to the topic all around the world as well as the latest lectures in this case featuring the recently hosted “Profiles in Peace” by the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security.

Bolter and Grusin propose that the cyber space is also a hypermediated non-place as it occurs with physical museum such as the Guggenheim.  The critics maintain that the Internet shares all the characteristics of highly mediated non-places such as museums, airports, or shopping malls, as it fits smoothly into our contemporary networks of transportation, communication, and economic exchange (179).   Moreover, they state that the cyberspace mediates as a digital network as the telegraph and the telephone did before.  As the virtual reality, it remediates visual spaces of painting, film, and television, and as a social space it remediates historical places as cities and parks and as non-places as theme parks and shopping malls (183).  In the specific case of the Google Art Project, this mediates for visual spaces, above all for the art gallery function, becoming a meta-museum, but also as a space for remediated television or film platforms used as extensive educational instruments (posting related videos and documentaries).  It also remediates the involvement of a social space in relationship to urban places, pointing out at the same time that the city is a media space as seen with Google Street View and non-places throughout the incorporation of social interfaces such as Facebook and Tweeter on their platform.  In this manner, The Google Art Project is an entryway to a virtual reality that the user would consider as belonging to the hyperreal and therefore not being referential of the code of the real.  On the contrary, as a hypermediated non-place refashions earlier media and extends its continuity embedded in material and social environments as defended by Bolter and Grusin, granting the virtual participant with the ability to decide what evokes in his interface with the work of art an emotional response that would be considered as “real.”


My aim in my essay has been to analyze what makes the experience of a virtual user while navigating the Google Art Project and an active participant engaging in the visit of the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao more or less real.  The final word is given to the user and visitor as to decide the effects that the work of art has produced in the establishment of an open conversation with the piece of art and its extended network.  For Baudrillard, we inhabit the era of the hyperreal where there is not a factual reality and therefore we are subjected to experience the hyperreal.  However, for Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin, in the virtual world the real becomes what the viewer / visitor experiences as immediate, authentic, and emotionally attaching.

For many the cyberspace is the product of the hyperreal while for others it is just the product of a series of remediation of previous media.  Nevertheless, in my opinion what accounts to be relevant is how the active participant of this larger network becomes a new node in this major distributed system of the art world.  By conforming its own narrative after a visit to theGuggenheim or to the Google Art Project a sense of the emotional attachment to a specific piece of art, an entire collection or even a major topic (as seen in the example given above with “Women in Culture”) becomes part of the code of the real, of the individual perception of what is real.  As for me, this “real” involvement started some years ago with Claude Monet´s “Argenteuil Basin with a Single Sailboat” (1874) hosted at the National Gallery of Ireland.  During my time studying at Trinity College Dublin, I would often visit this breathtaking painting, sit down in front of it, and initiate a dialogue that has continued through the years.


[i] In Walter Benjamin, Illuminations (1969).

[ii] Augé affirms that real cities and towns are themselves media spaces (Bolter and Grusin 173)

[iii] I use the term under the scope of Bruno Latour´s “Actor-Network Theory.”

[iv] Augé also considers non-places spaces such as airports, theme parks, grocery stores, shopping malls, stadiums etc.

[v]  See A. McKay article: “Affective Communication: Towards the Personalization of a Museum Exhibition” Co Design 3.1 (2007): 163-173.  He affirms that people in a non-place are a collection of solitary individuals (as opposed to a social group) each of who typically interacts with the non-place using written text and narratives (163).

[vi] I borrow the term from Alexander R. Galloway The Interface Effect. Cambridge-UK, Malden-MA: Polity, 2012. p. 30.

[vii] For more detailed information, please see: Tim Boon “A Walk in the Museum with Michel de Certeau: A Conceptual Helping Hand for Museum Practitioners” Curator The Museum Journal 54.4 (2011): 419-29. pp. 424-26.

[viii] Please see Roland Barthes.  S/Z. New York: Hill and Wang, 1974.

[ix] I borrow the term from Lev Manovich´s book chapter: “Hybridization.” Software Takes Command. London-New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013. p.163.

Works Cited

Arthur, Brian. The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves. NY: Free Press, 2009.

Augé, Marc. Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity. London-New York: Verso, 1995.

Baudrillard, Jean. “The Precession of Simulacra.” Media Theory and Cognitive Techonologies. Georgetown U. 2005-2014. Web. 29 April 2014.

Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Illuminations. New York: Schoken Books, 1969.

Bolter, Jay David and Richard Grusin. Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge-MA, London-England: The MIT Press, 2000.

Boon, Tim. “A Walk in the Museum with Michel de Certeau: A Conceptual Helping Hand for Museum Practitioners.” Curator The Museum Journal 54.4 (2011): 419-429.

Bourdieu, Pierre. “The Production of Belief: Contribution to an Economy of Symbolic goods.” Media, Culture and Society 2 (1980): 261-293.

—. “The Forms of Capital.” Ökonomisches Kapital, kulturelles Kapital, soziales Kapital.” in Soziale Ungleichheiten (Soziale Welt, Sonderheft 2). Ed, Reinhard Kreckel. Goettingen: Otto Schartz & Co. 1983.183-98.

Galloway, Alexander R. The Interface Effect. Cambridge-UK, Malden-MA: Polity, 2012.

Google Cultural Institute.  Google Art Project. 2014. Web. 28 Apr. 2014.

Google Art Project-YouTube. Art Project-Teaser. 3 Apr. 2012. Web. 28 Apr. 2014.

Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. The Salomon R. Guggenheim Foundation (SRGF), 2014. Web. 28 Apr. 2014.

Irvine, Martin. “The Work of Art in the Age of Technical Reproducibility.” Media Theory and Cognitive Technologies Georgetown U. 2005-2014. Web. 22 April 2014.

—. “Maulrax and The Musée Imaginaire.” Mediation, Image, and Institution in Benjamin and Malraux. Media Theory and Cognitive Technologies Georgetown U. 2005-2014. Web. 30 Apr. 2014.

Kelly, Lynda. “The Connected Museum in the World of Social Media.” Museum Communication and Social Media: The Connected Museum. Ed. Kirsten Drotner and Kim Christian Schrøder. New York-London: Routledge, 2013. 54-71.

Lardinois, Frederic. “Google Art Project Gets a Redesign With Improved Navigation And Search Tools.” Technical Crunch. 10 June 2013. Web. 13 Apr. 2014.

Latour, Bruno. “The Trouble with Actor-Network Theory.” Media Theory and Cognitive Technologies Georgetown U. 2005-2014. Web. 30 Apr. 2014.

Magnuson, Emily. “Virtual Museums.” Media Theory and Cognitive Techonologies. Georgetown U. 2005-2014. Web. 25 Mar. 2014.

Malraux, André. The Voices of Silence. Garden City-New York: Doubleday, 1953.

Manovich, Lev. Software Takes Command. London-New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013.

McKay, Alison. “Affective Communication: Towards the Personalization of a Museum Exhibition” Co Design 3.1 (2007): 163-173.

Slovsky, Victor. “Art as a Technique.” Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays. Trans. and ed. Lee T. Lemon and Maron J. Reis. Lincoln –Nebraska, 1995. 5-22.

Steves, Rick. “Basque Country: Bilbao and the Guggenheim Museum.” YouTube. 12 Jan. 2011. Web. 30 Apr. 2014.

Sood, Amit. “Building a Museum of Museums on the Web.” TED. March 2011. Web. 30 Apr. 2014.

Wikipedia Contributors. “Google Art Project.” Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. 3 May 2014. Web. 29 Apr. 2014.

—. “Guggenheim Museum Bilbao.” Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. 29 April 2014. Web. 29 Apr. 2014.

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FINAL PROJECT: Netflix and Video Streaming: The remediation of the video rental store into the consumer’s home.

 Alvaro Espiritu Santo Raba


This paper ventures to explain the impact that video streaming technology and how the video streaming service offered by Netflix have made an impact in today’s consumers as well as the entertainment industry (television and movies).

By taking Netflix as a case study I seek to understand how the technology works and how it has turned into such a success among users.  The service offered by this website has re-shaped the way users consume media as well as how the entertainment industry approaches its intended market.

How does Netflix acquire new content for its website?  Is anyone responsible for regulating the service?  How is this affecting the user, is the offer of Spatial and Platform Mobility really benefiting our lives or is it just turning us into isolated beings that are willing to sacrifice social experiences in order to watch content in a smaller screen?


Video Streaming and broadband connections help users around the globe download and watch large video files from the comfort of their homes.  Taking advantage of this technology, the American company Netflix launched a video streaming website on 2009 where users could watch the most recent Television episodes and Hollywood Blockbusters.   Netflix changed content consumption models in the entertainment industry and led to the disappearance of the mainstream video rental store in North America.

For today’s audiences it’s all about immediacy and mobility, the content they are looking for must be just a click away to fit their needs.  Now everything is possible.  Maybe you want to watch an episode of your favorite show when you are traveling, or maybe each member of your family wants to watch something different in a separate room of the house.

All of these demands are being fulfilled with the help of video streaming as well as the proliferation of devices that gives the user access to it.  Now if you want to play movies, music or watch an episode of your favorite TV show you can easily do it wherever you may be.

If we want to fully understand the impact of video streaming in society and the entertainment industry we must first look at the technological advancements that paved the road so companies and services like Netflix, ITunes or Hulu could become successful.

  1. – From Dial Up to Broadband: Internet Video

In the early stages of the Internet, a Dial-Up connection was necessary in order to start browsing the web.  The user would use a telephone network to establish a connection with the Internet Service Provider.  A modem attached to the user’s computer would encode and decode information.  However, downloading a large data file would be nearly impossible, as a three-minute video would probably take a few hours to download.  When users ventured onto the Internet to watch moving pictures they would encounter a tiny matchbook sized image that, should the try to enlarge it would become severely pixelated (broken up unto mosaic like titles).  (Klinger, 196)

Video and sound wouldn’t match up most of the time as data had to be streamed through an unstable connection.  By the second half of the 1990’s, Apple, Real Networks and Microsoft produced streaming video players entitled, respectively, QuickTime, Real Video and Windows Media Player, enabling moving images to materialize on individual computers almost simultaneously with their transmission (Klinger, 197).   Using the same compression technologies designed for music, video players compressed and decompressed video information in real time, solving the problem of large data files.  Now users wouldn’t have to wait for a file to be downloaded in order to start watching it.

With the appearance of computers and broadband technologies, the Internet started to acquire status as a place where you could find more and more videos.  And while Internet is a place where users may find lots of content, Hollywood has been reluctant to fully adopt it out of piracy concerns and the amount of information that proliferates on cyberspace.

Broadband solutions such as DSL and cable modems provide greater speed and volume; as a result we are presented with faster and clearer transmission.  With high-speed Internet connections, audio and video are largely free of interference, a huge leap away from the dialup connection era.  (Klinger, 197)

The internet has become a communications platform that is arguable as pervasive, if not more pervasive, than any of our traditional mass media platforms, and its relative ease of access (i.e., very low barriers to entry), individual Internet users stand on closer to equal footing with the traditional institutional communicators in terms of their access to the media. (Napoli, 166)

Some people might point out that the Internet is breaking paradigms and re-shaping the existing media business.   These people are pointing out the growing cascade of information and how hyperlinks are a way of dealing with it. Links to the right information can be extremely valuable –especially to companies that know how to use those links to their advantage. (Rose, 111)

Video and entertainment content now streams from websites and services like YouTube or Netflix, whatever TV show or movie show you are looking for the odds of finding it on the web are getting higher every day.

2. – Streaming video: Connections in the digital age.

Streaming Video accelerates everything.  Now movies are released on streaming services just a few months after their release on theaters.  A whole season for a TV show can be found on the web and binged watched in just one weekend.  With his new service, users now have a voracious appetite for new content.

The media industry much like the print industry when e-books first appeared has to adapt to this new consumption model. Long gone are the days where movie enthusiasts started a DVD or VHS collection and showed it proudly to visitors.  With streaming technology and online movies when you buy something you don’t really own it. Now everything resides within a cloud storage service where we have a false sense of belonging. (Dixon, 8)

UnknownThe first live streaming event occurred in 1995 when ESPN Sports Zone streamed a live radio broadcast of a baseball game between the Seattle Mariners and the New York Yankees using technology developed by a company named Progressive Networks.  A few years later the company would change its name to Real Networks.  (Zambelli, History of Media Streaming) Users would become familiar with the name while using the “Real Audio Player”.   And while the Real Player was a revolutionary technology more would follow.  Names like Adobe Flash, Apple QuickTime, Microsoft Windows Media and Silverlight would soon offer streaming services.

a)      Real Player

By 2000, more than 85% of streaming content on the Internet was in Real Format.  Despite the success, problems started because Real’s primary business model depended upon the sale of servers, while Windows Media and QuickTime were giving those products way.

Consumers started complaining at the intrusiveness of the free Real Player, which installed multiple background processes and made itself the default player for all multimedia content while constantly asking the user for upgrades.

b)      Windows Media

Microsoft dominated the computer landscape, giving the Windows Media Player a dominant share of available desktops and notebooks, and from the early 2000 to around 2007, Windows Media was the most widely used format on the Internet and in most company intranets.

c)       Flash

Web site design transitioned from HTML to Flash, which offered much greater interactivity and design flexibility. Though Flash had a video component, the initial codecs offered poor video quality and sketchy audio/video synchronization.

Via VP6, Macromedia (and then Adobe, who acquired Macromedia in 2005), could match Microsoft’s video quality in a brand able player that could be integrated with the rest of a Flash-based site, and was truly cross platform and near ubiquitous.

d)      HTML

HTML5 is the latest specification of HTML (hypertext markup language), the language used to create websites.  For HTML5 video to function, the user must have an HTML5-compatible browser, and that browser must support the codec used to compress the file. By the start of 2011, only about half of the installed base of browsers was HTML5 compatible. Though that will change with the release of Internet Explorer 9, HTML5 won’t achieve the 96% penetration enjoyed by Flash for many years to come.

All of these technologies have similar components in their solutions.  They include a player, a defined file format or formats that the player will play and a server component for digital and live streaming.  To make large video files accessible, streaming technologies use compression to shrink the size of the audio and video files so they can be retrieved and played by remote viewers in real time. (Ozer, J.  What is streaming?)

These technologies have been widely accepted by audiences, their high penetration on the consumer market have made watching movies on the Web easier and increasingly attractive. And while much of the traffic in streaming video was illegal –called: “Torrenting”- illegal file sharing is now going out of favor, Netflix and other legal content providers are gaining the upper hand.  (Dixon, 57)

3. – A new way to tell stories

Whenever a new technology is introduced in the market, both industries and consumers make changes in order to adapt to it.  Digital delivery of movies has affected the way we watch movies by transforming the living room into our own personal movie theatre.  Social Media now influences how we promote, discuss or share our thoughts on the media industry new releases. (Tryon, 16)

Now the screen has become mobile, individual spectators are now capable of watching their personal library of films, television shows and videos wherever they wish, from crowded subway trains to treadmills at the gym. (Tryon, 59)  We are entering an era of platform mobility where content can be accessed with a smart phone or tablet as long as wireless connection is

There are certainly “evangelists” that have embraced digital delivery with ease. They would probable list the benefits of this technology as mobility, flexibility and even convenience. [Tryon, 59]   Being able to do most of your tasks or chores with the help of mobile devices makes things relatively easier, but how does this affect everything else?

Movies are shifting from a social experience to a mean to fill time in public spaces, to alleviate the boredom of waiting for time to pass, easing the potential discomfort of being alone in public.  Are we perhaps sacrificing social interaction in order to consume more content?  After all, it’s not an odd sight to see people glued to the screen of mobile devices and wearing headphones.  This digitization of the moving image has radically changed cinema, and that the characteristics of this transformation leave open an entirely new field of usual figuration.  (Dixon, 1)

This shift we are witnessing can be referred as an “Inter-media fragmentation”.  We are seeing the growth of new delivery platforms.  These new delivery platforms not only facilitate the delivery of additional content options, but also multiply the platforms in which any piece of content can be accessed. (Napoli, 55)

XboxSmartGlass590Unlike the early days of media where there was only a single dominant platform, we are witnessing the proliferation of platforms, devices and strategies. (Tryon, 20)  Content is always available and accessible, so the urgency of seeing a movie on the big screen diminishes, particularly if there is no compelling reason to do so. (Tryon, 10)   Technologies are becoming defensive in nature, trying to preserve shrinking shares of audience attention in an environment in which outlets for this attention are ever expanding (Napoli, 67)

Nowadays, much media content can be stored and distributed digitally, reducing costs associated with making a wide range of content options available to consumers, increasing the incentives for providing such material. Because so much media content can today be stored and distributed digitally, the incentives for providing such material increase. (Napoli, 58)

With all this available content are consumers just turning into isolated beings?  After all, mobile device technologies are associated with the production of fragmented, often deeply individualized media consumers. (Tryon, 11)

4. – The Audience

For some people, activities online have become more important that their “offline” lives; constant status updates and tweets seem to come first than other daily activities.  We appear to be plugged-in; we are becoming more and more technological dependent as time goes by.  The truth is that a life online is no life at all. It is merely an informative stream – a content stream- manipulated as any media offering, no matter what the format.  (Dixon, 92)

Netflix-on-TVWe may think that technology offers more options and even freedom of choice, but the increased amount of mediated interaction seems to threaten the sanctity of our personal relationships.  When they are new, technologies affect how we see the world, our communities, our relationships and ourselves.  They lead to cultural reorganization and reflection.  (Baym, 2)

People seem willing to sacrifice social interaction when they have a new digital alternative. After all, if you can order a hit movie on your cable system or through the web, why would you patronize a theater?  (Dixon, 65)

By doing so, you don’t wait to buy tickets at the box-office.  You don’t have to drive all the way to the theater or even sit behind someone who is talking all the way through the movie. For today’s audiences, everything has to be instant, and everything has to be now or never. (Dixon, 3)Mobile_Barcode_Closeup1

Despite continued perception of threats to movie going as a practice, such as television, home theater systems, and movie piracy, fans continue to attend movies particularly when that movie is promoted as an “event” that must be experienced in a theater. (Tryon, 63)

Take for instance, the recent release of the super-hero movie “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” a recent release by Walt Disney Studios.  According to the entertainment website Newsarama “The Winter Soldier…” did in fact post the largest April opening weekend of all time, pulling in an estimated $96.2 million at the box office, beating the record held by Fast Five by a full 10 million dollars. The film also already passed $207 million in overseas gross.

So even though audiences are transforming and changing, we can certainly say that box office receipts are not diminishing if the movie released is worth the attention.  Moviegoers who own or subscribe to four or more home entertainment technologies are far more likely to be frequent moviegoers than those who do not, attending 10.5 movies per year, while those with fewer than four attend approximately seven movies per year in theaters. (Tryon, 87)

The entertainment industry is always adapting to the audience’s needs.  Every so often a new video entertainment format will be released so movies can seek additional revenue after their theater-run.   Who can forget flops like the laser disc or even the High Definition VHS? They were removed just a few months after being replaced with better products.   Apparently, the entertainment industry seems to struggle to find a product that will attract contemporary audiences.

As of today, audiences have become more and more autonomous.  They have control over when, where, and how the consume media; and now they also have the power to affect the content they consume and to become producers and distributors in their own right. (Napoli, 77)

A great example of this contribution culture is; where one of the most successful cases in crowd funding in recent years was the Veronica Mars movie.  Based on a teen noir drama in the CW network, it was prematurely cancelled after its third season in 2007.  Even though fans were outraged, the cancellation was final.

veronica-mars-kickstarterAfter years of behind the scenes chatter about a “Veronica Mars” movie, director Rob Thomas started a Kick Starter project last year aimed to collect 2 million dollars in pledges in a month.  The goal was far exceeded in its first day.  By 8:30 am, the tally stood at $2.5 m: the fans had spoken. (Holpuch, Veronica Mars’s movie halfway to $2m goal)

Kick Starter and the Veronica Mars movie are clear examples that “Audience Autonomy” not only blurs the boundary between audiences and content producer (also affecting the monetization of audiences accordingly) –it also undermines established audience information systems while simultaneously providing the foundation for alternative audience information systems. (Napoli, 84)

People are now multi-tasking to meet the demands of today’s world.  They are now playing many roles and existing in many different worlds. (Baym 107)   And it doesn’t stop there; people are now being bombarded by more content than ever before.  Watching a movie is now being turned into a process with multiple services to choose from.   Now that the consumer is faced with decisions of an ever-expanding array of content options, it’s understandable that they must feel confident in order to navigate this complex media environment. (Napoli, 60)

In order to navigate the complex media environment, users need to be equipped with the necessary tools so any extra expense associated with receiving these additional content options provide genuine value.

We see these tools in the new video streaming services like Hulu, the ITunes Store and Netflix. These tools may go from peer recommendations, site-generated recommendations, and robust, multidimensional search features.  The user is just looking for an interface that makes things easier and rewarding in this environment of increased content abundance.  (Napoli, 60)   This is how the digital audience uses streaming services and consumes additional content.

Furthermore, the digital environment has raised some questions by those who had access to previous forms of entertainment. The biggest concern raised by people against “platform mobility” is that new generations may become “platform agnostic”.  This refers to people who consume media no matter the size or quality of the image.  For them, there is no difference at all between watching a film on a big screen or staying home and watching a movie in a tablet or smartphone as long as they can find the movie they are looking for. (Tryon, 83)

Are the digital delivery and movie streaming services just lowering our standards as an audience?  Is this content abundance just making us less demanding as an audience?

5. – New Media for new generations

Six years ago, when the Apple IPhone was gaining momentum; there was an advertisement called “Calamari”.   In the ad, the narrator explains how easy it is to make the transition from watching Pirates of the Caribbean on this mobile device to looking for seafood restaurant options.  (Tryon, 91)


The advertisement’s intention was to explain audiences how easy it is to navigate through content when you have the appropriate tool, and audiences really listened to this message.  The idea here, for instance, is that people will watch more DVD’s when offered the easily searchable cornucopia of Netflix than when confronted with the more limited, and more difficult to navigate, selection at a video store. (Napoli, 62)

This content cap is referred, as the “Bandwagon Effect” where consumers will gravitate to content they know is popular. (Napoli, 64)  The most popular items are shown first, so they are the most likely to be accessed.  So popular content becomes even more popular and niche content becomes harder to find. (Napoli, 65)

One can only wonder if our consumption decisions are becoming automatized? Is the whole process shortening audience’s attention spam?  Today’s movie watching ritual may include pausing movies to take phone calls and then send e-mail while hearing some music.   Content abundance and Digital Delivery may be affecting us in ways deeper than we think of.

Digital Delivery is not an entirely new phenomenon.  Video On-Demand and Pay-per View events you could order using a telephone line preceded streaming. The truth is that new technologies are providing audiences with more choice and control in terms of when, where and how they consume their media; now audiences have opportunities to interact with their media, to provide feedback and to influence outcomes. (Napoli, 54)

Content libraries such as Netflix and Hulu provide users with access to numerous titles, changing how movies and television shows are distributed by altering the speed with which content is made available for repeat or catch up viewing. (Tryon, 26)

HouseofCardsNETFLIX_large_verge_medium_landscapeTake for instance Netflix’s original programming.  Hit television series like “House of Cards”, “Orange is the New Black” and “Hemlock Grove” have become popular with viewers because the whole season (12-13 episodes) for each series is released at a time.  That completely challenges the model built by other networks where a season is longer (24 episodes) and is released on a weekly basis for months.

Netflix-Streaming-XboxNetflix’s instant streaming service over the Internet is witnessing escalating growth.  There are various devices worldwide that can stream content from Netflix instantly. These include the Microsoft Xbox 360, Nintendo Wii and Sony PS3 Consoles; Blu-Ray disc players, Internet-connected TVs, home theater systems, digital video recorders and Internet Video Players; Apple iPhone, iPad and iPod touch, Android devices, as well as Apple TV and Google TV.  Devices such as the iPhone, iPad and iPod touch enable viewers to watch movies and TV shows while on the move.  Netflix’s business model provides customers with the most convenient way to view DVD’s as they are delivered to their addresses and the subscribers can return them through pre-paid envelopes. (Netflix, Inc. SWOT Analysis)

Audiences are now part watching television shows and movies on their own time schedules.  In case you missed an episode of your favorite show you can use your DVR (Digital Video Recorder), Apple TV; Netflix Account or even buy a DVD boxed set to watch it whenever you want to.  It isn’t just television, the time-span between a theatrical release and a DVD release is getting shorter so people don’t have to worry if they missed a movie in the movie theater.

Digital delivery is clearly making changes in the film and television industry. Users are now part of a menu-driven viewing culture where channels have been rendered increasingly irrelevant. (Tryon, 57)  Portable media players like the iPod or smartphones have not served as substitute of the movie going experience but rather they have become supplements, tools where studios can disseminate trailers and other promotional materials associated with a film (Tryon 83)

netflixBeyond merely altering movie-going habits, portable media is frequently discussed in terms of the ways in which it alters -and even threatens- traditional social norms. Conservative commentator George Will, for example, offers an extreme version of this condition, worrying that the video iPod will contribute to a “social autism” in which bored youth become so caught up in their tiny screens that they have no notion of propriety when in the presence of other people, because they are not actually in the presence of other people, even when they are in public”. (Tryon, 89)

Consumers in this digital age are deeply affected by technology.  They are no longer simply “consumers” but they are transformed into “Multipliers”, people who treat the good, service or experience as a starting point. (Jenkins 124)  With this audience, the conversation doesn’t stop after credits roll.  With digital technologies, audiences can boost entertainment products like never before as long as they can get an experience from it.  If products don’t offer anything new, people will surely get their voices noticed and then it’s back to the drawing board.

The popularity of portable media player effects in some ways has led “to the self-sufficient family home.” Portable media players offer the promise of perpetual, privatized entertainment, one that would seem to extend the possibility for further social isolation from a larger community.  This “Anything, Anytime, Anywhere” mantra associated with convergence culture has led film critics around the world to worry about the potential demise of cinema (Tryon, 61)

6. – Netflix: From Red Envelopes to Internet Mogul

netflixqueueIn 1998, Netflix launched its website.  And while it only offered mailing services for DVD copies, the servers reached capacity in about ninety minutes after launch and crashed. In the first four months of service, the company’s vault mailed out and got back twenty thousand rented DVD’s; and Netflix hit $100,000 in revenue becoming in theory a million dollar company. (Keating, 35)

adNetflix is the world’s largest subscription service sending DVD by mail and streaming movies and TV episodes over the Internet with over 40 million subscribers.  The number of customers opting for Netflix over the traditional model is on the rise as it offers greater convenience. (Netflix, Inc. SWOT Analysis)  A Netflix subscriber can choose from more than 100,000 DVD titles, something that may proof impossible for video rental stores, as they cannot stock such a large number of DVDs.

Based in Los Gatos California, Netflix is an online subscription service streaming television shows and movies.  Initially attracting customers by offering a month-free trail, those who decide to subscribe can watch unlimited TV shows and movies streamed over the Internet to their TVs, computer and mobile devices, as well as receive digital versatile discs (DVDs) and Blu-Ray discs, delivered to their homes. (Netflix, Inc. SWOT Analysis)


With Netflix, customers pay a fixed monthly subscription fee, eliminating due dates, late payment fees, shipping fees and pay-per-view fees.  (Netflix, Inc. SWOT Analysis)  This business model has proven clearly beneficial, since it has driven consumers away from video rental stores and into Netflix’s base of subscribers.

Customers stayed home and turned to Netflix for cheap entertainment and got hooked on a growing number of devices that could suddenly stream video-game consoles, cellphones and DVD Players.  The Netflix application was everywhere, and consumers signed up at a rate of then thousand per day in the 2008 and early 2009. (Keating, 229)

Variety lauded 2008 as “the year when global revenues from digital media exceeded revenue generated by movie theaters and home video combined”. (Keating, 231)  The first-ever decline in pay TV subscriptions ignited a debate about whether recession-weary consumers were cancelling their pay TV services to watch videos online via Netflix and other Web-based sources. (Keating, 231)

By 2011, Netflix had 23.6 million subscribers, or more than 7% of all Americans.  It had replaced Apple’s ITunes Store as the top U.S. online seller of movies and T.V. show –its signature subscription service claiming 44% of total online movie business to 32% for Apple (Keating, 255)

NETFLIX, INC. HASTINGSNetflix has consolidated its lead on streaming downloads of films and television programs. Six out every ten digital movies streamed and originated from Netflix. (Keating, 241)  By January 2012, its more than 20 million subscribers in 45 countries worldwide have streamed more than 2 billion hours of TV shows and movies, the average user consuming more than a gigabyte of data per day. (Dixon, 145)

Business is booming for Netflix.  Thousands of users are subscribing daily to the video streaming service. But why is this tech-company on the rise?  What makes it stand out among its competitors?

7. – Original Programming

For Netflix to stand out from the competition, they need to make an additional offer to customers besides renting other people’s content.  In March 2011, Netflix announced plans to begin acquiring original content, beginning with the hour-long political drama House of Cards, which debuted on February 2013.  (Andreeva, Netflix picks up “House of Cards”.)

orange is new black netflix billboard

In late 2011, Netflix picked up two eight-episode seasons of Lilly hammer and a fourth season of Arrested Development.  Other series like Hemlock Grove and the animated series Turbo FAST were up on the production schedule as well.

In November 2013, Netflix and Marvel television announced a five-season deal for four Marvel superheroes: Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Iron Fist, and Luke Cage.  The deal involves the broadcast of four 13-episode seasons that culminate in a mini-series called The Defenders. Broadcasting is planned to commence in 2015. (BBC, Marvel Shows to Debut on Netflix)

house of cards Emmy 2013 billboard

In addition to the Marvel Television deal with Netflix, The Walt Disney Company announced that the television series Star Wars: The Clone Wars would release its sixth and final season exclusively on Netflix, as well as the previous five seasons and the Clone Wars feature film.

This original content is just part of the equation.  This only a piece of what makes Netflix so relevant to today’s audiences and how it has achieved success so far.  But in order to really understand the company, we need to look at everything that has contributed to its success.

8. – The Cine-Match Algorithm

Part of Netflix’s success is “The Cine-Match Algorithm”.  A computer algorithm, Cine-Match gives users movie and television show recommendations.  A recommend system is a prime example of the mainstream applicability of large-scale data mining.  (Amatriain, 1)

netflixRecommendationsBy giving out recommendations, Netflix has personalized the experience as much as possible. Most of the personalization in the site’s interface is spread out in rows, what is included and what order those items are placed in. The system is not only optimizing for accuracy, but also for diversity and awareness.   With all these elements falling into place, the users should be aware that the system is adapting to their tastes.

While building up recommendations, the Netflix system uses different data in order to build up a recommendation that tailors itself to every users needs.  Among the key factors that come into place we may find some of the following: (Princeton,   How does Netflix Recommend)

  1. Film Quality: A fundamental component of all recommendation systems.
  2. Genres & Movie Elements: How much users tend to like or dislike genres and detailed elements of films.
  3. Anchoring:   The idea behind anchoring is that the order a viewer watches movies in also matters. If a viewer watches several movies in a short period of time, the view will anchor his ratings around the first movie he watched.
  4. Movie Fads Movies fluctuate widely in popularity, especially in response to news about the actors in the film or when sequels are released.
  5. Rating If a viewer rates several movies at the same time; the ratings follow significantly different patterns than when movies are rated immediately after each movie is watched.

netflix-wrestlerBy explaining to the user how the system works, it encourages members to give feedback that will result in better recommendations. The system also explains to the user why a certain movie or TV show was recommended.  It all works from the information the user gives out to the company, explicit taste preferences and ratings, viewing history or even friend’s recommendations.  This sense of transparency makes user feel somewhat safe and important, this is clearly a huge leap from asking the video clerk at the video rental store for recommendations.

By openly explaining to the user how the system works, it encourages members to give feedback and that will result in better recommendations. Recommendations are given out by the information Netflix has from the user: your explicit taste preferences and ratings, your viewing history, or even your friend’s recommendations. (Amatriain, 2)  Users may watch more content or rate more movies and TV shows in order to get better recommendations and explore the whole catalog.

The goal of any ranking system is to find the best possible ordering of a set of items for a user, within a specific context, in real-time.  The goal the system wants to accomplish is to find a personalized ranking function that is better than item popularity, so everyone in a subscribing household may feel satisfied.

The algorithm also uses Social Data for personalization features.  You may have noticed your Facebook account linking to your Netflix account.  This set of interactions and information from friends and family improves the recommendation system and takes the conversation into the digital world. (Amatriain, 5)

Cine-Match is an important part of the process.  But this is only one of the elements that make this brand so appealing for consumers.  We have to dig deeper in order to understand what drives people to this website and why many of them choose this as their preferred content platform.

8. – Opening the black box: How Netflix works.

mystery-box-jpegOn March 2007, during a TED talk event director JJ Abrams came up on stage with a small Mystery Box.  He explained to the audience that the box: “Represents infinite potential. It represents hope. It represents possibility. And what I love about this box and what I realize I sort of do in whatever it is that I do, is I find myself drawn to infinite possibility and that sense of potential”. (Rose, 151)

             The same thing happens with technological advancements.  Sometimes we open the box and learn from what others have built, however sometimes we keep the lid close; afraid of awakening the giant.  In this research, we will open the Netflix’s black box.  We will look at how it works in hopes of better understanding video streaming technology and how Netflix has risen in popularity through out the years.

8.1. – Video Streaming: How it works.

To fully understand the Netflix phenomenon we first have to look at the video streaming technology and how it delivers content into the user’s home.  In a streaming session, video content is transferred in two phases: a buffering phase followed by a steady state phase.  (Rao, 2)

a)                           Buffering Phase: the data transfer rate is limited by the end-to-end bandwidth. The video player begins playback when a sufficient amount of data is available in its buffer. Video playback does not wait for the buffering phase to end.

b)                          Steady State: The average download rate is slightly larger than video encoding rate.  We call the ratio of the average download rate during the steady state phase and the video encoding rate the accumulation ratio. The average download rate in the steady phase is achieved by periodically transferring one block of video content.

netflixThese periodic transfers produce cycles on ON-OFF periods.  During each ON period, a block of data is transferred at the end-to-end available bandwidth that can be used by TCP; the TCP connection is idle during the OFF periods.  We call the amount of data transferred in one cycle the block size.

The reduced transfer rate in the steady state phase ensures that the amount of video content does not overwhelm the video player while keeping the amount of buffered data during the buffering phase constant or increasing. The reduced data transfer rate is important for mobile devices, which may not be able to store the entire video.  We observe the following three streaming strategies for Netflix and YouTube videos.  (Rao, 3)

1) No ON-OFF Cycles. For this streaming strategy, all data is transferred during the buffering phase. The video streaming session can be considered as a simple file transfer session. One disadvantage of this strategy is that it can overwhelm the player and cause a large amount of unused bytes if users interrupt the video playback.

2) Short ON-OFF cycles. We define this streaming strategy as the periodic transfer of blocks of size less than 2.5 MB (called an ON period) followed by an idle period (called the OFF period). The goal of this streaming strategy is to maintain an accumulation ratio, which is slightly larger than one. This is achieved by a periodic transfer of a block of data followed by an OFF period. This strategy ensures that the client is not overwhelmed by the amount of data sent by the server.

3) Long ON-OFF cycles. This streaming strategy produces a traffic pattern that resembles the periodic execution of buffering phases following long idle periods. The primary difference between this strategy and the strategy of short ON-OFF cycles is the amount of data transferred in a cycle. The amount of data transferred during the ON periods for this strategy is larger than 2.5 MB.

8.2. – Creating the online movie experience.

Most people don’t know it, but Netflix only uses its own IP address and hostname for two key functions.

  1. Registration of new user accounts and capture of payment information (credit card or PayPal Account
  2. Redirection of users to or based on whether the user is logged in or not respectively.  (Adhikari, 1)

Netflix_architectureAfter the user signs up or registers a new account Netflix’s system will usually tell the user to start download depending where they are trying to watch movies from. If they are a desktop user, they will have to download Microsoft Silver light; if they are using a mobile device they will have to download an app in order to star streaming.  (Adhikari, 2)

Netflix’s servers are based of the Amazon Cloud technology, where the data encoding/decoding process will begin for those who are trying to watch a movie or a TV show.  So this video streaming website has risen to fame despite working with outsourced resources because it sells the audience and comfort.

Netflix’s content is not stored in one single server, but instead it’s distributed between multiple CDN´s (Content Delivery Networks) or a collection of ¨servers in different points that transfer content to the computer that made that request.   (Adhikari, 3)

The requested content is divided into small chunks by ¨The Dash¨ protocol. The user’s computer will request one chunk at a time, with “The Dash” determining the quality and size of each chunk.  Silver light, the software that Netflix uses for desktop computers will collaborate with the Dash protocol constantly. Silver light will send information about the user’s bandwidth as well as the point of consumption; adapting the content’s streaming.  (Adhikari, 4)

This means that the data transfer process for a mobile phone is very different from the data transfer process for a desktop unit.  (Adhikari, 6)

9. – Content Regulation and the Open Internet

There has been some controversy surrounding Netflix’s success, after all the company uses the network provided by another company in order to provide content to its customers. This constant debate over web content has sparked controversy over “network neutrality” or the “the open internet” a topic you may have heard previously on the news.

The “network neutrality” discourse began in the technologist community in the early 2000’s to describe efficient network design encouraging technological innovation. (Stiegler, 34)  By the mid 2000’s “net neutrality” became and advocacy issue for public interest groups such as Free Press, and it began to take on more political meanings related to freedom of expression, civic argument, and democratic participation.

Much of the conflict in the net neutrality debates, then, has been a struggle between the largest content providers like Google and Amazon and the largest access providers such as Verizon and Comcast over the latter ability to assert more control over the profit extraction from the products of the former (Stiegler, 43)

Many years has the Internet operated as an UN regulated, competitive free market.  That was until residential Internet service providers demanded payment to deliver Netflix traffic to their own customers.  After many months of public debate, Netflix has agreed to the demand of the North Americas largest broadband provider Comcast.  (Gustin, S.)

Apparently, the deal will transform the debate over network neutrality regulation.  Comcast’s deal with Netflix is about interconnection, not traffic discrimination.  Companies’ claim that by making this kind of deals “Net Neutrality” will not be violated.

However, if Netflix gave in to the demands by this Internet service providers, one can only wonder if smaller companies, even independent bloggers or news channels may be forced into a variation of this agreement in the near future.

10- Netflix and content licensing.

One of the biggest investments Netflix does over every year is regarding content licensing. In audiences are to have the most successful movie releases on their home menu, Netflix has to enter into a number of strategic partnerships.

Most recently, Netflix committed to pay an estimated $300 million a year for exclusive rights to stream Walt Disney Co. films after 2016.  This gives the company rights to become exclusive US subscription television service provider for first-run live-action and animated feature films from The Walt Disney Studios.  (Barmes, B.  Netflix Reaches Deal) Beginning with its 2016 theatrically released feature films, new Disney, Walt Disney Animation Studios, Pixar Animation Studios, Marvel Studios and Disney Nature titles will be made available for Netflix members to watch instantly in the pay TV window on multiple platforms.

In February 2013, the company entered into an exclusive licensing agreement with Flavor Unit Entertainment, a production company owned by Queen Latifah and Shakim Compere, for the streaming of Flavor Unit Entertainment’ s movies in the US.  (Netflix Inc, Swot Analysis)

Further, in May 2013, Netflix and The Disney/ABC Television Group entered into a new multi-year licensing agreement, which makes the company an exclusive US subscription TV service for one of the popular shows on Disney Junior: Jake and the Never Land Pirates; and Tron: Uprising

Netflix will also be able to stream complete previous seasons of several Warner Bros.-produced shows, including several that debuted this season, starting a couple of months after each season ends.  The deal is expected to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars, depending on how long each of the included shows stays on the air, a person familiar with the matter said. Netflix will pay more per episode for shows that stay on the air longer. It is the biggest deal struck by Time Warner with Netflix other than a 2011 agreement with the CW network, which is jointly owned by Time Warner and CBS Corp.  (Jannarone, Netflix reaches deal with Time Warner)

Even before that deal was announced, Netflix had $5 billion in streaming content liabilities as of Sept. 30, up from $3.5 billion in 2012.  Deals like these are what makes Netflix an exclusive and important company, the bring out entertainment so users can get most of their subscription service without ever wondering what is happening back-stage.

11. – The Future of Video Streaming

Video streaming doesn’t stop with Netflix.  There are other companies that are trying to get some of the business and subscribers Netflix has built over the years. Hopefully, this competitiveness will drive innovation and better services for users.

a) Aereo

aereo_antenna_array1Aereo is an $8-a-month service that lets you tune in to TV channels that are broadcast over the air, from the comfort of your own laptop or tablet. Anything that’s being broadcast right now, you can watch live (actually, delayed about 6 seconds from real time).  Aereo is basically capturing the networks’ broadcasts for free and then collecting money from us to watch them. Aereo isn’t paying licensing fees for those shows, the way a cable company must.

Aereo disagrees. Aereo says that it’s simply an antenna-renting service. And indeed, it does maintain a separate tiny TV antenna for every single subscriber. The Supreme Court is set to hear the case. (Pogue, Aereo Delivers Great Local TV Service)

b) Amazon Fire TV

Amazon-Fire-TV-Homescreen-002Amazon unveiled new video-streaming hardware, a move that pits it against market leader Roku and Apple TV in a fight to be the entertainment engine in consumers’ living rooms.  The device costs $99 and features 2 gigabytes of RAM, Wi-Fi, a Bluetooth remote, and access to numerous content providers, including Hulu Plus, Watch ESPN, Showtime, MLB, Disney, YouTube, Netflix, and, of course, Amazon Instant Video. (Ytam)

c) XBOX Originals

1398700787000-xboxoriginalsMicrosoft announced that they are planning on releasing Xbox original programming beginning in June to current Xbox owners and Xbox Live subscribers. Lately streaming video services like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon have been increasingly able to dominate cable by creating original programming and offering a huge selection of movies, which is quickly becoming the cornerstone of how most households are receiving their entertainment. (Hillburn)

d) Netflix moves to cable

Netflix just announced it has inked a deal with three cable TV companies to make watching Netflix as easy changing the channel.  Under the agreement, cable companies RCN, Grande Communications, and Atlantic Broadband will offer access to the Netflix service straight from their TV set-top boxes.  Subscribers must have a specific TiVo box provided by the cable companies, and they must have a Netflix account, but once everything is up, the experience should be seamless. (Lapowsky, Netflix is getting its own cable channel)

Video Streaming is here to stay.  The Future of media entertainment is just beginning; more and more options will appear for users who want to enjoy a movie from their own living room.  There is no way to guess how far video streaming technology will go.

12. –Conclusion

Video Streaming is a technology that has completely changed the entertainment industry as well as consumption models among audience members. A lot has changed since that very first Real Player transmission in 1995.  Since then, technology has been constantly improving, making content delivery and access easier no matter the platform trying to access it.

Netflix, Inc. is one of the best examples regarding commercial applications for Video Streaming.  With millions subscribing to the service all over the world, the company has found a way to capitalize it services using it’s title stock and outsourced infrastructure.

Recently, Netflix sparked some debate around the “open internet” topic.  Other companies have complained that Netflix is getting revenue by using Internet services provided by third parties.  And while the discussion appears to be settled, Net Neutrality and Open Internet is now in everybody’s mind.

We have seen some repercussions appear regarding Video Streaming. Film experts fear audiences may be turning “platform agnostic” consuming content regardless the size of the screen or the image quality. Nonetheless, audiences have proven they are willing to return to cinemas if the movie is worth the price of admission.

However, content abundance has made audiences “socially autistic”.  Always connected to a device and somehow always isolated from others.  Apparently audiences are willing to sacrifices social experiences “offline” in sake of personalized content.

With other big players like HBO, Amazon and XBOX starting to produce their own versions of original content and streaming service the competition for audience’s attention is just starting.



Stiegler, Z. (2013). Regulating the Web: Network neutrality and the fate of the open Internet.

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Dixon, W. W. (2013). Streaming: Movies, media, and instant access.

Tryon, C. (2013). On-demand culture: Digital delivery and the future of movies. New Brunswick, N.J: Rutgers University Press

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Annotated Bibliography

Dixon, W. W. (2013). Streaming: Movies, media, and instant access.

This is the most important book consulted during my research for this paper.  As the title suggests this is a book about streaming technology and how it has made an impact on today’s society. Netflix is constantly referenced in the book and important information and numbers about the company are brought up.  Quite certainly, the book is fundamental because of the insights on streaming technology as well as its functionality.

Napoli, P.M. (2011). Audience evolution: New technologies and the transformation of media audiences. New York: Columbia University Press.

If Dixon’s book is about the technology, this book is about the audience and how they are transformed by technologies such as video streaming.  The author clearly explains how audiences change, adapt to the introduction of new technologies in the world.  I think it’s important to look at the human side of things to get the whole perspective.

This book certainly works as a counterpart to “Streaming” as it gives the other side’s perspective.

Tryon, C. (2013). On-demand culture: Digital delivery and the future of movies. New Brunswick, N.J: Rutgers University Press

On-Demand Culture is important as it gives out information about Netflix as a company, it also provides a perspective of “Video-Streaming” as movement and how audiences may use it to their advantage.

Content consumption and production are the main focus here, so I clearly benefit on the authors perspective on how we use and consume video-streaming content on a daily basis.