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Midwestern New Media

Ball State University’s Center for Media Design is grappling with quantifying and commercializing digital media usage.
March 29, 2006

As a Midwesterner, I find myself constantly defending the region to my colleagues on the East and West coasts. It’s an area rich in history and filled with diversity. And, while I’ve been gone from it now for 11 years, it’s quietly turning into a place where fascinating research on digital media is happening.

Two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to spend time at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana – a school sometimes best known as talkshow superstar David Letterman’s alma mater. The school is much more than that, though, and thanks to two rather large grants and a series of partnerships with corporate sponsors, they have build an impressive program called the Center for Media Design, an institution that looks to spin out viable businesses, while also doing loads of research on eye-tracking, interactive television, content creation, and integrated new media properties.

(I should clarify that I have been friends with the people who put this new center together, and find myself taking “vacations” from my work at Technology Review to spend time on the Ball State campus. There is even some talk that we might work together on a cooperative venture in the near future. So take what comes next with a grain of salt, if you want.)

One of the most impressive aspects of the school is the “house” they’ve built to conduct usability tests. It has a complete living room, dining room, exercise room, bedroom, and bathroom that are fully wired (and wireless) with computers and camera recording equipment, along with 2 terabytes of storage onsite to record test takers.

With a variety of off-the-shelf software technology and specialized equipment hacked at BSU, researchers and students can literally track every eye moment, mouse and remote-control click, and movement that someone makes while interacting on a computer or a television in a controlled environment that closely mirrors real-life situations.

While it may sound a bit simplistic, anyone working on interactivity – be it on television or a website – can tell you that creating content and displaying it on a screen so that millions of people have a rich experience without introducing clutter is a monumental task, which can drive even the smartest designers a bit batty.

The usability house, though, is only one component of the center’s greater philosophy: to understand how integrated media is created and consumed.

The telecommunications department, which does some work with the CMD, is an award-winning program where students work in a fully-integrated news room, with television, radio, print, and online cooperating on daily productions, which are delivered to a nine-county radius, complete with podcasting, interactive news programs (starting in April), and multi-media components. I’ve traveled around a bit over the last 11 years – including a two-year stop at the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley – and I’ve not seen a journalism and media program that is this immersive.

There are even year-long courses where computer scientists, graphic designers, filmmakers, and journalists work together to write, produce, create, and distribute media to all forms of screens: theaters, televisions, PCs, and handhelds.

I had the opportunity to speak with students over the course of the two days I was there, and without hesitation all of them said that, regardless of their discipline, they wished they had more time to spend with the other groups, because the experience had been invaluable in shaping how they thought about their jobs (and at BSU, make no mistake, students treat their news production like jobs).

I’ve spent the last seven years knee-deep in new media, mostly as an editor, but increasingly as someone who oversees new media departments, and the biggest challenge that I’ve faced – and I think my colleagues in the new media industry would agree – is finding people who can work across multiple disciplines, because, increasingly, the world is moving away from the single-focus worker, at least in media – and increasingly the media sphere is moving far beyond journalism, to include nearly every aspect of business in the country.

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