Bill Westerman is cofounder of research and digital design firm Create with Context.

For years, technology innovation has been drawing audiences away from broadcast media, siphoning attention off into a land of free and non-monetizable content. But the advent of the iPad holds the promise to redefine how the world produces and consumes media, and may just bring us all back under the wings of the major media houses. Through parallel storytelling, shared experiences, and new social interactions around media, the iPad — and ideally many new devices to follow — can give broadcasters rich new ways to engage us, our friends, and our families in their media events.

Parallel storytelling

Take a look at the media we consume today: nearly all of it is in the form of a single stream of content. Stories told among friends, books, movies, and broadcast media are all constructed from a series of vignettes that combine to tell a story. However, reality is much more messy: multiple things are going on at once; there are subtexts and back stories. Even when movies explore time shifting (Pulp Fiction) or alternate outcomes (Run, Lola, Run), the underlying format is the same: a string of events. However, people have a thirst for multiple streams of information: think record album liner notes, DVD extras and director’s notes, and the 1990s hit “Pop-Up Video” television show on VH-1, which visually overlaid little snippets of information on top of music videos.

With the advent of the iPad, media producers will be able to capture this thirst for additional information and explore new realms in parallel storytelling. Rather than just sitting back and passively watching a TV show, for instance, people will be able to simultaneously explore the back story. Imagine leafing through coffee-stained pages of the CIA dossier on Jason Bourne while he hides in the Caribbean, or training a virtual spycam on Godot to see what the heck he was up to while Vladimir and Estragon were endlessly waiting. And this doesn’t necessarily have to all happen on the iPad itself; we’ll see the rise of simulcast media, watching the main story on satellite or cable on the big screen in the living room and interacting with this sidecar content on our iPad from the comfort of the sofa.

Shared experiences

Generations ago, media consumption was a shared experience: consider the town crier, Norman Rockwell-esque neighbors gathered around a crackling radio, and the family watching the Thursday night sitcoms on television. But media consumption has become a solitary act, in no small part due to the single-user nature of mouse-driven windowed interfaces and the physical design of the computers on which they run. During in-home customer research for our clients, we’ve repeatedly seen it: an entire family sitting in the family room, each one of them involved with their own laptop or mobile phone, with the TV bleating forlornly in the background.

The iPad is redefining how people gather around their media, creating shared experiences where they did not exist before. The social stigma of disappearing from the family unit and burying yourself in the laptop disappears. When someone is consuming media on an iPad, it is a shared experience by default: just ask anyone who has tried to get 10 uninterrupted minutes using their iPad at an airport, but instead has fielded a steady stream of oohs, aahs, and questions for passersby. With the form factor of a tablet, a small group of friends can all watch a video at the same time, laughing along in unison, instead of passing a cumbersome and fragile laptop around the room from person to person.

At the same time, the iPad invites interaction from multiple people at once. While there have been wonderful multiuser iPhone games (Air Hockey) for quite a while, the physical form factor has been limiting. When apps (Cliffed XL) begin to take full advantage of the larger screen, two or more people will be able to simultaneously interact with the media: one swept up in the fate of Leonardo DiCaprio, while the other explores the effects of sea water on the remains of the ship off the coast of Nova Scotia. Or, in the spirit of the Choose Your Own Adventure books from the 1980s and 1990s, the kids will be able to watch a story on one end of the screen, as Mom taps and swipes on the other end to assemble the next scenes in real time based on their reactions.

Social interactions

Up until now, the intersections between broadcast content and social media have been few and far between. Sure, there may be an official Facebook page for Glee or Twitter feeds from Ashton and Britney, but there’s little in the way to support communication among fans during the show. As a result, we’re increasingly seeing people bringing their laptops to the living room and chatting with friends, family, and strangers during their shows, like one woman we met in rural Nebraska who pulls up Facebook during The Bachelor to chat with her girlfriends who have moved far from home.

This suggests another area where the iPad is ripe to redefine an industry. Currently, most of this “back channel” conversation is happening through Facebook, Twitter, Skype, instant messenger, and fan websites; content providers have very little insight into what is being said or ability to participate in the discussion. By providing compelling iPad experiences around their content, providers will be able to rejoin these conversations and build a stronger bond with their audience. We’ll use the iPad to watch news reports on a disaster halfway around the world, while simultaneously spreading the word to our friends, donating money, and coordinating a local relief effort — all within one tailor-made news app. Or we’ll watch American Idol on the big screen while using our iPads to chat with friends, read what others are saying, upload video comments and “I can do it better” karaoke sing-alongs, and influence the judges in real time — with the happy side effect for content providers that we won’t want to TiVo it for later, lest we miss out on the social part of the show.

Beyond the iPad

Despite Microsoft abandoning Courier and HP retrenching in its tablet efforts, the iPad still isn’t the final word on tablet computing. At its core, the iPad simply reuses many of the paradigms that we’ve seen all along: a single user, single-threaded media, and standalone apps.

There’s still significant opportunity for content providers, social media platforms, and even other tablet manufacturers to create an ecosystem for shared, socially-aware media. Just imagine:

* A tablet app that makes it easy, intuitive, and fun to navigate across multiple streams of live content while watching 24, and to share interesting bits with friends
* A creative tablet app that lets fans create shared content — like fake (de)motivational posters, which are voted on and then digitally inserted, in real-time, onto the walls of The Office
* A social platform built by HBO that incorporates Facebook, Twitter, and fan sites into a “heads-up” display of community content around Entourage, both real-time while live on the air, and on-demand afterwards
* Touch interfaces built from the ground up for multiple, simultaneous users interacting with a piece of media
* And a synchronization infrastructure that aligns content being viewed on the tablet with that on other platforms.

The iPad is causing people to rethink the basics of how we interact with computing devices, media, and the Internet. However, many of the old paradigms around media consumption still stand — and it’s up to us to take the platform that has been handed to us and expand it into a world of parallel storytelling, shared experiences, and new social interactions around media.

Bill Westerman is cofounder and Evangelist at Create with Context, a strategic research and design firm focused on innovation for the digital world. Bill has nearly 20 years of experience in technology innovation and user experience strategy with companies across the US, Asia, Latin America, and Europe. Previously, he was head of R&D at Accenture Technology Labs in Silicon Valley, Director of Integrated Strategy at Sapient, and an Enterprise Architect at Andersen Consulting. Bill also writes on technology, design, and personal productivity on his personal site at utilware.com.