In the next media revolution audiences will rediscover their innate dramatic talents and make their own entertainment on a virtual stage, says Sharon Springel.
Ours is an information-obsessed society, where every thought and opinion is shaped by what flows into our awareness through the mass media.
At first glance it appears that the much heralded digital revolution is simply adding to this flow, turning up the volume a 100-fold and threatening to bury us under the onslaught of 500 television channels, thousands of new games and interactive multimedia packages and, worse still, millions of internet websites.
But to imagine a future in which our present model of media consumption is simply magnified to the point of overload is to miss the point. The media of tomorrow will not merely be about watching but about doing. This will transform the experience of media consumption, personalising it and engaging us on a one-to-one human level.
The audience of tomorrow will not be comfortably summarised by the simple, marketing-friendly label of "consumers", passively receiving the product of the one-to-many media paradigm. Instead, we may more accurately be called "participants", actively engaged in charting the new frontier of many-to-many media, a realm where every PC is a potential soapbox, printing press, radio station, web publisher and even motion picture studio.
By convergence, people usually mean the blending of the power of computers, communication networks and the entertainment industries, giving rise to a supposed mega-media, available any time, any place.
But the true potential of convergence may depend as much on individual creativity and social play as it depends on technology.
To glimpse this possibility, forget the old media models and look instead at the patterns that are emerging among the next generation audience themselves, the generation that is increasingly turning away from television as it grows up alongside the earliest prototypes of the new medium.
It is they who are starting to sense something of the true potential of convergence and helping to define it. This journey is already well under way on the internet, which has become the dominant driver of computer sales.
Although predicting the future is as challenging today as it has ever been, the development of the new media will likely be fundamentally tied to a series of monumental transitions sweeping through our culture today - transitions in public perceptions of technology, in the nature of media and in our own roles and abilities in relation to media.
The first of these transitions, already well under way, relates to the common view of what a computer actually is. The popular perception of the computer as a big calculator is giving way to that of the computer as a great engine of simulation. From weather forecast patterns, through medical imaging systems, to virtual reality environments, computers increasingly generate our perceptions of things.
Probably the most significant example of this is the simulation of new forums for social activities, which has given rise to much of the phenomenal expansion of so-called "communities of interest" on the internet, gathering places characterised by intensive text-based person-to-person interaction. More and more people of all ages are getting connected and getting in touch with each other, and this - not the latest clock speed of chips or the data capacity of modems - is the big story, and the reason why many are now calling "chat" the killer application of the web.
The second radical transition affects the very concept of media. Since the Gutenberg press we have had, more or less, a single dominant media model - the one-to-many model. Large professional producers create content and we, the masses, consume it as fully formed products, predetermined in every way.
Although we may now interrogate information by skipping around a CD or clicking on a hyperlink, this is not really very different from the ways that people have been flipping through magazines and newspapers for centuries now. There has never been a directly active role or scope for dialogue with the material open to us - until now. Now, active users are the name of the game. This represents the most fundamental shift in thinking about entertainment formats since the birth of moving images themselves.
As the introduction of the perforated sprocket hole led to the cinema revolution a century ago, the arrival of real-time 3D graphics generation on PCs and games consoles shows the way to the new media of real-time participation.
The internet is the product of its audience. And this is ushering in the third great transition, that of the audience itself, which is beginning to evolve from one of passive consumers to active collaborators.
The concept of a creative entertainment form based on direct individual participation is less far-fetched than it may at first seem, accustomed as we are to prefabricated entertainment. Examples can be found thriving in many guises, from murder mystery weekends, through corporate team-building exercises based on role-playing to historical recreation groups.
There is a growing number of so-called interactive literature gatherings, such as a recent event entitled Shakespeare's Lost Play, which saw 50 participants from all walks of life take on roles from the best-known plays for a weekend of spontaneously generated intertwining plotlines convoluted enough to make the bard himself proud.
This is not really the extraordinary phenomenon it seems. It is a rediscovery of the primary entertainment form that we all enjoyed as children, that of the first-person acting-out of dramatic stories, of creative expression rather than passive consumption.
As we grow up we encounter more and more passive forms of entertainment along with increasing social pressure to curb our natural inclinations towards creative expression and imaginative role-playing.
This urge is suppressed as a result. Social inhibitions conspire to keep this latent dramatic potential under wraps lest we make fools of ourselves in the eyes of adult society. Despite this pressure, our dramatic imaginations are at the very heart of our journey through the human experience, functioning as a key element of our creative intelligence and driving our innate appreciation of most forms of entertainment.
It could be argued that all entertainment is about drama and that through such experiences the viewer is presented with a set of challenges and possibilities not normally encountered in daily life.
The desire to explore such novel experiences is a fundamental aspect of human nature. Participatory media gives us a chance to play, to engage in "safe risk-taking" and to test-drive emotional responses.
Even as traditional media giants rush headlong onto the net, research in such areas as telepresence, virtual reality, motion capture, voice recognition and advanced network capabilities is also progressing rapidly.
At Cambridge University's Centre for Communications Systems Research, we are embarking on an ambitious project that is aimed at stepping to the leading edge of these developments. We are drawing together the necessary technologies for active explorations of dramatic and educational experiences within shared virtual reality spaces.
By combining these emerging technologies with practical models for the design of interactive social experiences, we will develop shared educational events that are created collaboratively by the scenario designers and the learners.
Through such a constructivist approach, we believe that learners will achieve a more thorough and more personal understanding of the issues presented.
Such projects foreshadow the new media paradigm by suggesting future systems that will directly empower individuals, allowing them to make use of their innate creativity by casting them in active roles within unique shared virtual experiences.
Through the possibilities that new forms of participatory media are opening up, we may ultimately find ourselves approaching the final and most profound transition, that of the persona itself, as we begin to explore the possibilities of flexible social expression: a transition from a singular public persona, shut in by pre-existing conditions such as race, gender and physical appearance, to a new level of self-determined, multifaceted social expression.
Sharon Springel is an industrial research fellow, Centre for Communications Systems Research, University of Cambridge.
More information: www.ccsr.cam.ac.uk