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May 11, 2009, 9 a.m.

The New York Times envisions version 2.0 of the newspaper

The New York Times Co.’s research and development group has some of the best views in their midtown skyscraper — 24 floors above the newsrooms, higher even than the executives’ suites. Developers in the core R&D group — with titles like “lead creative technologist” and, my favorite, “futurist-in-residence” — are charged by the brass 14 floors below them with anticipating how news will next be consumed.

Among their hunches: in the living room.

Josh and I visited the R&D group last week, and this week we’ll be running five videos showing how they’re looking at the future of news. Today we begin with design integration editor Nick Bilton, who runs through their thinking on e-reader devices, news consumption outside the web browser, and interactive advertising.

You’ll notice there’s a marketing or advertising component to nearly all of what the group is working on. While this is the first time much of the lab has been seen publicly, they’ve given similar tours to more than a hundred advertisers and agencies, Bilton told us. And keep in mind the company has an interest in appearing ahead of the curve to investors.

They drink better coffee in the R&D group, not the burnt stuff chugged by reporters on deadline. Maybe that’s because they have time to let the grinds brew: what they’re envisioning won’t reach anyone’s living room for at least two years — if at all.

Up there on the 28th floor, the group’s toys — e-readers torn apart, touchscreen displays, netbooks that bend in every direction — can feel a touch presumptuous for a company surviving debt payment to debt payment. It was just this winter when Michael Hirschorn loudly suggested in The Atlantic that the Times Co. could go out of business, “like, this May.” The Times will endure, in one form or another, and the R&D group is the beta version of the company’s future.

You’ll find the details of what Bilton and his colleagues are thinking about in each of the five videos, and I’ll address some of their key ideas as the week progresses. (Note: In today’s video, Bilton demos an Adobe AIR application that’s very similar to Times Reader 2.0, which is set for release this week.) There’s a full transcript of the video after the jump, and be sure to come back each day this week for more from our visit.

Nick Bilton: This is the core R&D group, and these are just some of the projects we’re working on. This is what we call the newspaper 2.0 table, and it’s looking at these next generation of reader devices and really trying to stay ahead of the curve with these devices.

There’s two things that we are doing here. One is trying to educate the company on where these devices are going, but the other thing is actually prototyping content on them. So this is an E Ink development kit that actually was broken in transit from Vegas last week. It’s a little chipped, but this was a device that we got from E Ink where we prototyped what content would look like on an E-Ink device that didn’t exist yet. And so we have the full layout with the typography and different user interactions that we can experiment with. And so this is really trying to prototype and understand where these devices are before they even exist and what our content will look like and how it will translate.

This is just some flexible e-ink. There is a big push for flexible displays and devices and where they’ll be. There’s been some breakthroughs in the past six months that will allow devices to become more flexible with the PCBs being more flexible, the chips are going to start to become more flexible over the next few years. And that’s really going to change these devices. The one question is: How do you tell someone that it’s bendable but not foldable? So.

Josh Benton: Gotta educate the customer.

Bilton: Gotta educate the customer. And then, you know, a lot of it is just trying to understand the user interaction and really trying to work with the manufacturers. We work with Sony and Kindle and all these guys. We work with this guy Rob Samuels, who is the project manager at for these devices, and we’re trying to work with all the device manufacturers to say, you know, this is how our content should work and how it should follow through.

Another big thing that we always explore are the netbooks. These put a whole different generation of people online, and we’ve been looking at how you tell stories on these machines. You know, some of them have foldable screens, some of the are touchscreen, they’re all different sizes, and we really have to understand how our content, the stories are told on there.

An interesting technology that is going to affect the e-book reader industry in the next year or so is the screen from the One Laptop Per Child. Mary Lou Jepsen came from One Laptop Per Child. She invented the screen, which is actually called Pixel Qi — Pixel Q-I. It’s based off the E-Ink technology and LCD, and it’s mashed together, and it creates a color version of E-Ink that you can actually switch between this LCD with full movement to E-Ink in low-light situations and low power and things like that. So she’s going to be shipping those devices, the screens in November or so which means that we’ll probably start seeing them in the market place in the next year or year and a half, which should be really interesting.

We talk a bit about making the paper more interactive and adding functionality. This is just a tikitag RFID chip, and so here is an ad for Chanel. So if I could put this on my computer, it will go off and get the appropriate ad that goes along with that. So it automatically knows because it’s RFID, it’s connected that it’s Chanel ad that goes along with this experience.

So it’s just really trying to explore and understand where RFIDs — there’s this company in Boston that’s starting to explore printing RFID in paper at a penny to five cents a piece, which could really open up different areas for advertising.  

As far as working with reporters, these are different GPS devices that we’ve been playing around with. We’ve given some to some reporters, and it actually automatically geocodes where they are, and whenever the time stamp of the story is uploaded. It then cross-correlates it and says, this is where this story or this photo has been filed from, or this photo, and it automatically puts it on the map.  And it’s a whole different method of story-telling that nobody is really required to get involved with. It does it automatically. So we did this with the Frugal Traveler and a couple of other reporters, and it’s been pretty interesting to see that happen.

Another application, going back to these news reader devices is, I mean, we’re looking at touchscreen constantly. [Dialog box appears on screen.] Thank you, Windows. [Laughter] This is the International Herald Tribune Reader that we’ve been working on with Adobe, and it’s built on Adobe AIR. And one of the really interesting features of it is that it can reformat and re-lay itself out accordingly depending on what size display it’s in. So if I’m on a screen this big, it will format and lay itself out. If I’m on a screen the size of one of those little notebooks it will, it’ll re-lay itself out that way. It does the same thing on the article level if I want to resize the font, I can go smaller and it reformats itself and fits in that thing.  

You’ve got the crossword that you can do. It’s got all the features from the web and even more sit-back experiences — like we have the news in video and the news in pictures that can become full screen. I can navigate through this way. And then another interesting feature is this browse feature where it sits back and it says, let me navigate the content just by flicking through, and I can go from section to section and article to article, and then just jump right in.  So it’s a really interesting visual way of navigating this content.

Benton: What do you think — there’s so much inertia and momentum in the old, the traditional web browser, and that’s how most people get their news electronicaly now. What do you think it’s going to take to get people to move to something like this? To step out of the browser and have an Adobe AIR application, or have a dedicated device, or interact in a different way. What’s the tipping point?

Bilton: Well it’s, you know, if I constantly — I mean, look at Twitter. If I kept going to, and it turned out that it was a much easier experience for me to download an AIR application or Tweetie or something like that and just have it running constantly on my desktop. So why couldn’t I have this experience? I still go to sometimes, so this is just an alternate for that. And this is also looking at devices. This is all offline reading. This is, you know, if I want to put this on a tablet PC and read it on the subway, then I can do that and it formats and fits for that experience.

You know, I personally think that the browser — there’s too much going on on there. I mean, what buttons do you use other than the back button and to actually type in a URL? So it could be a full-screen experience, it could be a desktop application. There should be a blur between those lines I think.

POSTED     May 11, 2009, 9 a.m.
PART OF A SERIES     The New York Times R&D Lab
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