In the past we sat on the couch to watch TV, drove to a theater to see a movie, picked up a controller to play a video game and opened up a specific website or app to connect with friends online.
Now, the lines between these activities are blurring—we can do all those things just on our smartphones. But 25 years from now, the distinctions between, say, watching a movie and playing a game will blur.
Over the past few months of talking with industry experts and futurists about what to expect over the next quarter century, it became clear that today's delineations between different media will soon look archaic. Why? New technology is bringing powerful and over-arching trends making media and entertainment more immersive, interactive and customized.
(Sorta) being there: Immersive virtual experiences
A cutting-edge "4-DX" Regal Theater in Los Angeles gives us a window into just how immersive moviegoing could become. This theater's chairs rock and jerk with the movement on the screen, while moviegoers are surprised by smoke, bubbles, bursts of air designed to evoke a tornado or a gentle breeze, and spurts of water to make you feel like you're dodging a rainstorm. Plus, there are a range of smells—burning rubber for car-chase scenes and a waft of perfume when a dolled-up actress walks across the screen.
Cinema technology firm Barco has developed screens that arc around you—filling your peripheral vision so the screens disappear, and all moviegoers see is the scenery and characters around them.
"Going forward 25 years you don't just go to the movies, you go IN the movies, you are actually part of the experience," said Barco "CinemaVangelist" and futurist Ted Schilowitz. "You're completely immersed in it. [It'll be] hard to make the separation between 'I'm in a fantasy world' versus a real world."
For a hint of how immersive gaming will get, look at the Oculus and Morpheus headsets. Put them on and you feel like you're literally inside another world.
That's exactly why Facebook bought Oculus.
"With virtual reality, people can put on goggles and transport themselves into a stadium. If you're in a classroom you might transport to the pyramids as you're learning about that topic. If you're thinking about traveling you can transport yourself into a hotel room to see what it looks like before you book it," said Dan Rose, VP of business development at Facebook.
"So many things that are core to Facebook—communication, entertainment, media, games—all of these things that are happening today in 2-D on your phone and your computer we think will move into 3-D with virtual reality," Rose said.
Futurist Geoffrey Long, at the Annenberg Innovation Lab, said eventually we may not even need headsets: "There are some experiments happening now with contact lenses where you can get simple visual feedback in contacts, so it's entirely possible in 25 years that our game systems are things you put directly in your eyes."
Big data for custom, personalized interactions
What's more, these immersive experiences will become entirely tailored to each of us. For example: A movie theater could measure heart rate and muscle tension, and based on that data change the outcome of the film in accord with what the audience, on average, wants to see. (Or if you're watching on a headset, or in a contact lens, it would customize it just for you.)
"The system will look at our biases and see how we respond and change the narrative to a movie," said Forrester analyst James McQuivey. "Maybe we could sit in the same movie theater and I would see someone use a cross bow and you would see someone use a slingshot because of our individual preferences and choices."
And TV—or short form video—will adapt to our reactions as well. "It's the you channel, and it's constantly adapting," McQuivey said. "Are you paying attention? Are you liking it? Is your heart rate going up the way we expected? And when it's not we'll start changing the channel, or maybe even changing the narrative, to make that secondary character more interesting."
Who's on the cutting edge of custom 'TV' content now? Look to YouTube, a platform for a universe of such diverse, niche content, that people can already find virtually anything. One successful YouTube creator, Bernie Su of Pebmerly Digital, imagines building worlds in which users can come *into* the content. "It's immersion. They're coming into a giant world that will be playing on screen," Su said. "You enter that world and can lean back and can watch the main character story, but say you like one particular character, you can learn more and follow that character."
Lean forward: Interacting with content
Wearable brain and muscle sensors are providing new tools for all sorts of media companies—from games that allow you to control what happens with your mind, to social networks that can share what you're feeling with friends, strangers and, of course, marketers, without you having to send a text, tweet or status update.
"If you start measuring feelings and emotions and health signals, that data is much richer," said Stanley Yang, CEO of NeuroSky, a biosensor company that makes a low cost electroencephalogram headset that measures brainwaves to unlock a potential treasure trove of data.
Meanwhile, competitor Emotiv has a headset that allows you to control what's happening on a computer screen just by thinking about it. It measures your "resting" brain state, then asks you to imagine the flower growing to measure the "active" state. When you shift into the "active" state you can—with your brain—command the flower on the screen to grow. (I tried it and it works.)
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Headsets that monitor brain waves will increasingly be used to detect if gamers are relaxed, frustrated or engaged. All that information may even change the look on an avatar's face, or can be interpreted to make a game more challenging or easier, or to change the outcome of a game.