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08 November 2007

Virtual talking heads

The circulation of the survey instrument for Mercyhurst’s new research study on video format delivery of finished intelligence has occasioned no small measure of debate among participating professionals within the community. While we are glad to see the research being conducted to advance the understanding of the field, we have some serious questions about the wider implications of the use of video for product delivery. Its historical applications have occasionally resulted in unique value – particularly for certain high level consumers, such as its famous use as part of President Reagan’s daily briefing. However, for routine production it imposes burdens on development, editing and coordination, archival processes, and technology / connectivity requirements that create issues far beyond the initial considerations of communications efficacy.

The entire discussion also reminds us of the earlier attempts to re-create intelligence briefings into virtual formats through automated processes. First popularized in response to Web 1.0 start-ups such as the virtual news readers such as Anna Nova, the concept never moved beyond research and development phases precisely for some of the same reasons. The removal of the human briefing element also created a disconnect between attention and pacing, which alienated many consumers whose areas of interest diverged from the set piece delivery – but who may have been more productively engaged by a dynamic briefer. There is also the subtle but very real impact of the uncanny valley – the noticeable aspects of the artificial in “too human” like virtual entities. (We wish to note one of our close colleagues’ wise but whimsical suggestion to replace a human virtual briefer with an object of classic children’s theatre. If nothing else, we would love to have such a product on hand to inject a bit of levity into meetings in which the participants take themselves too seriously.)

Set piece delivery tends to work best in environments where the consumer can devote only partial attention to the product – such as audio delivery of briefing or lecture materials, designed for those who are looking for cognitive engagement during other routine tasks such as driving, physical exercise, or the like. We have not yet seen an environment in which video delivery could meet this same niche – particularly for products which demand a higher degree of attention than watching CNN with the sound turned down in the typical watch center fashion. Virtual talking heads suffered the same problem.

There also remains the serious question of the longer term impacts of removing one of the few opportunities for direct interaction between consumers and intelligence professionals, where the intangibles of human relationships are nowhere as easily quantified. Perhaps there are some aspects of intelligence that simply ought not be automated, to the ultimate benefit of consumer outcomes.

Nonetheless, we will be interested to see the results of the study, and happy to see the literature of intelligence advanced in this area. We can only hope other academic studies will continue to build understanding of the nature of intelligence communication.

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