One Step Beyond

The ancient Greek ruler Phalaris wasn’t an easy man to work for. He was known as Phalaris the Tyrant of Agrigentum (and no one ever says of people with Tyrant in their name, “Great guy! I’m always better off for having seen him.”). He wasn’t content with the state of the art of torture and execution, e.g., boiling, flaying, burning, sawing in half—you know, the classics. It was good technology that got the job done, but Phalaris was a man who pushed his employees, constantly asking the question, “What’s next?” Under his firm and visionary leadership, the brass worker Perilaus of Athens developed what would become the next big thing in execution—and entertainment—for a decade or more. Known as the Brazen Bull, it was a large, hollow brass chamber in the form of, as you might guess, a bull (think the Wall Street bull, only without the tourists posing next to its metal genitalia) with a lockable access door. Horrible to be trapped inside, of course. Even more horrible should someone light a fire underneath it, which, this being the rule of Phalaris the Tyrant, they did without fail.

But if that was the extent of Perilaus’ invention, a glorified decorative roasting chamber, Phalaris would surely have screamed, “That’s it?! Get the hell out of my office and stop wasting my time. Doris, call Kevin in security and have him remove this guy. Oh, and tell Kevin to draw and quarter him. And then feed the parts to the ravens. Thanks, Doris. Oh, and I’ll be lunching off the back of a slave today.” Ah, but there was more. Perilaus also included a clever system of tubes and horns that would convert the victim’s screams into the sounds of a bellowing bull. Phalaris was so pleased that, to thank Perilaus, rather than just buy him a case of steaks or give him the rest of the afternoon off, he tricked him into getting inside his own invention and lit the fire. Then in a rare moment of mercy, he ordered Perilaus removed before he roasted to death. Then he had him thrown off a cliff. (Again, a good leader, but a mercurial temperament on the guy.)

I raise this because now, even though we stand at the threshold of the next big thing—Blu-ray 3D—we need to know what’s next. What will become the next big thing, and how should we plan for it? More importantly, and perhaps a touch morbidly, how in the world did they clean out the Brazen Bull? And who was dumb enough to be the first guy to climb into it with a bucket and a sponge? I mean, what jealous coworker could possibly pass up the opportunity to play a cruel joke on you by slamming the door and roasting you to death? None of us is that strong.

Anyway, back to the subject. Isn’t it greedy to ask what’s next when it could be years before 3D even takes hold with the public, if it ever will? Perhaps, but things progress rapidly, and they seem to be accelerating. We’re strapped into Doc Brown’s DeLorean, the flux capacitor is fired up, and we’re hurtling into the future. Consider that the LP format took hold in the late 1940s and lasted well into the ’80s. (Yes, I know, they’re still around and going strong with a small but highly committed group of people, mostly hipsters and baby boomers, making that and a love of unattractive beards the only two things they have in common.) The rock-solid dominance of CD was much more short-lived. (Yes, I know that CDs still outsell digital downloads, but the trend toward downloads is clear. Once the fervor for Susan Boyle and Josh Groban begins to wane, sales of CDs will slip even more precipitously.) VHS had a good 20-year run, which is impressive considering that in its early years it seemed that the only title available in the format was The Beastmaster. By contrast, Blu-ray challenged DVD’s preeminence after a much briefer period, and Blu-ray, well, it seems we were unwrapping our first title when the next format was announced.

3D may seem to be the logical progression. This is the way things go. Current technology is improved upon, sometimes incrementally, sometimes hugely (in the case of, say, indoor plumbing or the discovery of barbecued ribs). But are we missing something else by not thinking bigger, or just differently? It’s like when MP3 seemed to sneak up on the record industry and take it by surprise (and mind you, they had ample warning—digital recordings go back to the mid-’70s, but they probably missed it because half the industry was face down in a Scarface-sized pile of cocaine). Is there something out there, some mode of presentation or delivery that could leap right over 3D? I ask this simply as a moderately educated consumer, not as any kind of modern-day Perilaus, the guy who could really deliver the goods.

How might this new technology, this next big thing look? I don’t know. My powers of prognostication are very weak. I’m still dumping money into Pets.com and have picked the Kansas City Royals to go all the way for at least the last decade. But as we stand gazing into a horizon filled with limitless possibilities, it’s still fun to speculate, even if those speculations turn out to be as wrongheaded as those Popular Science “We’ll all be eating food made from sawdust and flying to work in our own personal helicopters by 1972”–type misfires. 

So will it be evolutionary—flatter flat screens, more surround channels, higher bit rates, etc.—or will it be revolutionary? Let’s keep our fingers crossed that it’s huge, decorative, made of brass, and has an elaborate series of tubes. You know, metaphorically speaking only, and without all the nasty roasting to death.

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