Children and Families, Media and Play: The Five Minute Futurist

At last week's Children's Media Conference in Sheffield, England, I was asked to play the "five minute futurist" - to project ten coming trends or developments for children and families (this being the 10th annual CMC, everything was "top tens"). The night before the panel, I told someone my role and he said, "ten years ago, would you have predicted the iPad?" So, no pressure.

Television: You Down with O.T.T.?

The coming years will look like the late '90s TV "gold rush," when companies staked out channel space in the expanding multi-channel universe. This time, though, the prospectors will mine distinctive content that can woo audiences in the "over the top" TV market.

Traditional TV talks about "cord cutters"; the new players prefer "broadband only." Both could agree and call them "parents." Families are heavy early adopters of OTT, because kids don't care where it comes from; they want what they want, when they want it and as often as they want. Families will pay for that certainty, plus no advertising.

I predict (and hope) that competition for unique content will lead program buyers to shows that can't find a home on TV (say, entries to the PRIX JEUNESSE international children's TV festival). These shows could draw "long tail" audiences to digital libraries that have unlimited "shelf space."

Mobile: Embedded Tropes

Thus far, mobile media has been used mostly to draw users' focus into devices, but now mobile device users will connect more to the world beyond the screen, through augmented reality and GPS. The world will be "tagged" and searchable for educational and informational uses, but play, fantasy and storytelling will also extend into merged physical/virtual spaces.

Games: Little Console-ation

Console games sales are dropping. Maybe people are waiting for this fall's new devices, but more likely it's tied to developer and consumer economics, plus improvements in mobile devices that give them near-console features and game play.

A developer can roll the dice on one multi-million dollar title or spread the risk among a slate of casual games. The same is true for consumers. Casual games may offer only a few hours of play, but you can buy dozens for the cost for a packaged game, so there's little downside if your kids don't like it.

Toys: Mom, Can I Print Myself a Toy?

In almost every industry involving kids and families - media, clothing, food, books - mass customization is the norm. Soon, dropping cost and rising quality of 3D printers will make waiting obsolete; in Hong Kong, ToysRUs already experimented with immediate gratification via in-store 3D printing.

Transmedia: Maybe You Had to Be There?

If you search for images using the term "transmedia," you'll find a bewildering array of charts and graphs - pundits' differing visions for interweaving narrative across platforms. This suggests that the term is still fungible; creators use personal definitions. In the near future, however, a more clear understanding should emerge as kids who grew up with disconnected multi-media become producers themselves, armed with the tools they've invented to create the connected stories they imagined.

Play: Can We Build It? Yes We Can!

The Maker movement is growing. Building things feels wholesome and a little retro to families, it fosters togetherness, and they believe it has learning benefits and builds skills. I expect we will see more (and increasingly immersive) virtual construction games like Minecraft or the new Toca Builders and maker toys that use digital components (like Makey Makey or Little Bits). We should also expect physical maker projects supported by media (akin to the long tradition of DIY TV series).

Gatekeepers: Those Who Rate Will Set Your Fate

New "gatekeepers" are entering the children's media landscape, but with broadband video services emerging daily, and an estimated 48,000 developers producing children's apps, can we scale up to meet the market? Several years ago - in fact, at a previous CMC - I suggested that owners of electronic program guides held massive power over content success or failure. The same will hold true going forward: what becomes a hit, and what's never seen, will be shaped by those who set search algorithms and by trusted content reviewers or "tastemakers."

eLearning: Take Two Tablets...

Schools are buying tablets, but that's the starting line in eLearning, not the finish. Educators need strong content or the technology is useless (remember "interactive whiteboards"), but teachers haven't the time or training to know which among the 150,000 apps in Apple's education store are truly effective, nor can they use them well in a vacuum. Smart developers will step into that void by creating "learning environments," not just apps. As tech expert Daniel Donahoo wrote recently, "It will not be enough to simply make tools, developers need to work with the people who are using their technology to...create whole new learning environments and connections."

Family Media Ecology: That (a)Sync-ing Feeling

Media and families have long had a push-me/pull-you relationship, changing with the economy, available technology, social zeitgeist and more. The '90s multi-channel cable boom and cheap, small TVs atomized families; the rise of big-screens and immersive video games plus a recession brought them back together in '00s. Going forward, individual but interconnected mobile devices will prompt a hybrid model, what the Joan Ganz Cooney Center calls "joint media engagement." Families will engage in asynchronous play together (think "Words With Friends"), share stories at a distance or at separate times, and always be in touch but seldom be in one place.

The Children's Media Industries: Are We There? Nyet.

The 2013 Children's Media Conference theme was "Are We There Yet." Of course we're not; there is no "there." Kids and families evolve and so must children's media. But, human development is a constant - today's children traverse the ages and stages they always have; it's the context that changes...radically. So, I'll forecast - and hope - that all content creators will connect deeply with children and childhood, learning and play, by pursuing best practices and measures of success based in core developmental principles.