In 1989's zeitgeist-y "Back to the Future Part II," set in the then-distant year 2015, a teenage Michael J. Fox stares at the giant flat-screen TV on his living room wall, shouts out a few numbers, and almost instantly sees the expanse of the screen populated by tiled boxes of programming from six channels, each blaring for his attention.
This prescient glimpse into the media future seemed wildly excessive in the late '80s, but unlike the hover-cars and robo-waiters that also fleshed out Robert Zemeckis' vision of the American future, it's now basically reality, thanks to a new feature from Cablevision.
AT&T's U-verse has previously let subscribers watch four channels at the same time. Cablevision introduced iO Quick Views in 2009 to let subscribers simultaneously see nine channels, but only in three pre-programmed flavors: kids, news and sports.
Now Cablevision users can personalize a mosaic of up to nine channels to watch at once.
All Cablevision users have to do is skip to channel 600, build and name up to 20 "views" in groups of two, six or nine networks, and enjoy an omniscient view of their favorite shows, toggling the audio around from channel to channel.
This function isn't only intended to be used to preview channels, either -- if your screen is big enough, you could conceivably stay in Quick Views mode and watch all the channels at once at a comfortable size.
So now, though they can't quite shout at the screen to select the channels they want to view in tandem, modern-day cable viewers have just about realized Zemeckis' vision of a completely multitasked television experience.
The implications of a screen containing nine channels of programming are curious. While it could theoretically expose viewers to nine commercials at once, it's more likely to train the next generation of viewers to better tune out anything but programming.
In fact, much like the aging DVR, this technology could be the next tool consumers use to dodge ads, expertly flipping around live TV to catch shows as they return from commercial breaks.
Most of what made Marty McFly Jr. in "Back to the Future Part II" funny was how molten his brain became at the overload of content he dumped into it. That overload seems less ridiculous in 2011, but there is still something outlandish about the notion that one stream of content isn't enough, that our brains can easily process multiple concepts but struggle to comfortably rest on one.
The Quick Views technology likely marks a natural evolution of cable devices' capability, so we can expect more providers to offer similar services. But as we ponder just how much further we can expect the TV "mosaic" to stretch the human attention span, we shouldn't forget the more important question: How about that hover-board?