Upcoming talk: ‘Converging people before formats’ at Connected TV Brighton

My colleague Steve and I will be speaking at the Connected TV Brighton mini-conference on Friday 21st September as part of the Brighton Digital festival that is going on all this month. We’re looking forward to sharing our perspectives on the opportunities of convergence with other digital, TV, mobile and gaming companies alongside speakers from Relentless, TV App Agency and more to be announced.

You can sign up for the event here, and here’s the synopsis of our talk:

Converging people before formats

Anna and Steve, from digital consultancy NixonMcInnes, will be sharing their experiences of working with Channel 4’s multiplatform team and TV production companies to create interactive digital content for the tellybox.

Their talk will focus on challenges and opportunities inherent not only in converging formats, but also in converging the working practices of people from two vastly different cultures, TV and digital.

They’ll look at the needs and behaviours of both groups, before exploring how they can learn from each other and work together to create truly world class, connected entertainment experiences.
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Sponsored video: Make Bradford British – a twitter visualisation that will tap into our collective consciousness about what makes us British

Channel 4 has created a lovely visualisation of Twitter conversation for their documentary series ‘Make Bradford British’ which airs this Thursday. The series brings together people of different races and backgrounds to see if they can come up with a common notion of the thread that binds them together – what it means to be British.

The Twitter visualisation is a great match for the genre of documentary; which in itself provokes thought, reaction and most of all is based on a basic human curiosity. By exposing others thoughts and reactions you tap into that aroused curiosity – showing what everyone else is thinking.  It’s tracking the hashtag #makesyoubritish and invites people to say what they think makes us British, be it a full English breakfast, sarcasm or our glorious weather.

It’s also very pretty, and very populated prior to the programme airing, which is a bonus. This is always a worry with Twitter visualisations for TV, with marketing sending people to the programme information page prior to transmission and an empty visualisation looking rather lackluster. Although that said, there are currently no tweets referencing the hashtag in Twitter yet, so it’s obviously dummy data, but I think that works in this case as a catalyst and inspiration to get the conversation going.

I also like the element of ‘play along’ provided by the Channel 4 Citizenship test. When pairing up digital experiences with TV genres it’s not often a ‘play along’ style would work with documentaries (rather quiz shows or contests) but the idea of finding out how you would do in the citizenship test works perfectly for this.

I did the test and scored a pretty embarrassing 38% so according to the test I’m not eligible for UK citizenship. The questions are surprisingly hard. Do you know what percentage of the UK’s population lives in Scotland? Or how many years a driving license is granted for if you take your test after 70??

The first episode of Make Bradford British on Channel 4 at 9pm this Thursday (1st March). Here’s the trailer:

(Sponsored post)

Is watching telly about to get all touchy feely?

Imagine a world where you can control your TV with a gesture, a wave of your hand, a nod… ok, that is here already with Kinect (“OLD!” I hear you cry). But how about a world where you don’t need a Kinect, a world in which you can turn any camera device on your phone, laptop or TV into a gesture sensor? And where you can literally plug yourself into your TV using a sensor that recognises your emotions and then changes the course of the story as it is playing out? And where you can choose what you watch by what mood you’re in, not just by genre, channel or time.

At the moment there’s a few technologies bubbling up that could really change the way we interact with our screens, in a physical sense, and how we discover content, in an emotional sense.

Last month at Channel 4’s Fuel4 event, I saw a couple of companies pitching some of these technologies and also got into an interesting discussion with my table about the discovery of content. And it got me to thinking, with all these changes, what might they mean for how content can be shaped to embrace these new technologies? And will people even embrace these new technologies? It’s all so new; out there, Tomorrow’s World-ish to me, so I thought I’d share what I saw and some of the ideas that were discussed.

Omnimotion – Motion control technology

Omnimotion by the company Omnimotec is a patented technology that turns any 2D or 3D webcam on your screen or device into a motion-control sensor.  Niall Austin, Managing Director, demonstrated the technology with his Macbook at the session, playing a few sports simulations such as swimming (rather amusingly in his smart suit) from very close and far away.

Here’s a video demonstration of some of the sporting simulations:

It was pretty impressive to see how responsive it was, even when he stepped a good six metres away from it.  Even more impressive was the openness of the possibilities with it, being that it didn’t require you to own any proprietary hardware (like the Kinect) and worked without any calibration via the camera on the Macbook.

Biosuite – emotional response cinema

Gawain Morrison showed us this short clip of his company Filmtrip’s emotion response technology:

Obviously this is quite an out-there concept to grasp, with many questioning if we even want to influence the course of the story we’re being told, as opposed to being taken on a journey by the storyteller. But that said I think this is fascinating technology, which has implications that are still to be discovered. What would it mean if content makers could analyse datasets of emotional reactions from consumers? What other ways might we want to influence the content we’re watching from our emotional reactions? (I would love advertisers to see that I’ve reached saturation point with their advert, or even see when it makes me cringe for example.)

Discovery of content according to the mood you’re in

Another theme that came up on the Fuel4 day was discovery of content according to mood. At one point everyone on the table I was sat at (a mix of digital and TV producers) was able to recount a project they had been involved in or were working on that involved mood-based discovery.

I myself did a project with Channel 4’s 4oD platform last year, which involved personalised recommendations based on mood and age. 4oDSundays was a campaign to bring more people to the on-demand services rich archive, where we invited people on Twitter to tell us their age and mood for a reply of a personalised recommendation from the archive.

The campaign was successful in driving more people to watch archive content over the four consecutive Sundays we ran it on, but what struck me most while running the campaign (the personalised recommendations were being found and tweeted by myself and colleagues in my living room!) were the emotional responses we received. By recommending content based on mood, we managed to hit the mark nearly every time, with people being delighted by the choices and surprisingly thankful, nostalgic and some even seemed, well, touched.

For me there’s something really special in the connection this approach creates – it’s almost as if a recognition and understanding of someone’s mood makes them feel more engaged with the broadcaster. And this in turn makes them feel nice; it feels like we are an inching toward a more human interaction between viewer and broadcaster.

Implications

So what are the possible implications of being more emotionally and/or physically engaged when watching television? I can’t help thinking for all involved this could be a good thing. Rather than the dystopian vision of our future of becoming fat, passive blobs and letting our brains shrivel, could getting a bit active in our consumption save us from that gloomy prognosis? Like the worker who feels more engaged with their company if they have a say in major decisions, will we feel more ownership and love for what we’re watching?

And what about the physicality? I think of myself when I’m not looking after myself much, not really doing exercise or eating well, and a symptom I get of this every time is a tendency to fall asleep in front of the telly every evening. What if I was moving about more, more physically engaged – would I see my brain wake up as a result and therefore be more open to what I’m watching? Of course this would be great news for advertisers. Will TV companies start selling to advertisers based on the fact that their audiences are more physically and emotionally engaged?

I’m looking forward to seeing how this all progresses and all the experiments along the way.

– Anna

Connecting the Dots: Is ‘Smart’ TV really that smart?


You’ve probably heard the news; how we are all about to plug our TVs into the internet, linking the living room screen to every website and social network on earth until the traditional way of watching television has drained from us like a digital enema. Sounds painful, huh? Certainly, the times they are a-changing, but in the fog of jargon, bluster and bullshit it’s tricky to know your Zeebox from your TiVo, and your video on-demand from your cloud-based streamed media. Where’s Tomorrow’s World when you need it?

As the UK hurtles towards the end of the digital TV switchover later this year (October 24 to be precise when Northern Ireland will switch off analogue signals), most of us can now access a digital TV platform of some flavour, introducing services such as catch-up TV and internet apps to the small but not smallest screen in the home. But question marks remain over how much consumers actually know about connected TV and, possibly more importantly, whether they actually want it.

Let’s get connected…

So what is connected TV? Well, it is essentially any TV set that is hooked up to the internet, either via a dedicated ‘Smart’ TV from the likes of Samsung or Sony; games consoles such as the Xbox 360, Wii and PS3; IPTV platforms such as BT Vision; or connected set top boxes, such as Freeview HD, Freesat HD and some Blu-Ray players. Virgin Media also offers a rich library of on-demand and ‘connected’ services, particularly via its new platform powered by US DVR giant TiVo, but the cable TV provider is typically viewed as a ‘pay-TV service’, rather than connected TV.

To understand how connected is changing TV consumption, it is best to first look at the platform that made video on-demand a household name. At Christmas 2011, BBC iPlayer celebrated its fourth birthday by racking up its biggest ever month, with a record-breaking 187m programme requests across all platforms where it is available, up 29% on the same period in 2010. The service, which offers catch-up on the BBC’s networks, attracted a staggering total of 1.94bn TV and radio programme requests over the whole of 2011. That’s a lot of Pat Butcher and Jeremy Clarkson…

The computer remains the most popular platform to access iPlayer, accounting for two-thirds of all requests, but December 2011 saw a significant spike in people accessing it on mobile devices, tablet computers and connected TVs. Last month, 7m iPlayer programmes were requested on connected TVs, an increase of more than 1000% year-on-year. As the boss of BBC iPlayer, Daniel Danker, succinctly but rather obviously puts it (he himself admits so), “the best place for television is on the television”.

The Smart revolution?



According to data from Ofcom, there were 1m Smart TVs sold in the UK in 2010, but that figure is expected to be up significantly in 2011. Samsung – the world leader in flat panel TV sales – has said that 70% of its TVs sold last year were Smart. Meanwhile, all the talk at the glittering Consumer Electronics Show this month was about new technology to connect the TV to the web, and beyond. Recent research from Futuresource Consulting has suggested that the US and Japan lead the world with connected TV, at 29% penetration, closely followed by Europe with 24%. Futuresource reckons that 80% of global TV shipments will be connected by 2015. So, TV manufacturers are going to ensure you get connected whether you like it or not, but is this just another false dawn like interactive TV in the late 1990s?

In the early days of the ‘Smart revolution’, figures suggested that only 15% of those who bought TVs with an internet connection actually bothered to plug in the Ethernet cable. Samsung now claims that the rate has risen to 75%, and certainly online video services such as BBC iPlayer, LoveFilm and Netflix are proving a ‘slam dunk’ with TV users. Recent advances in cloud remote storage technology are also allowing users to stream videos, music and even games in high quality on their TV without needing sophisticated local hardware. Debate, however, still rages over how much people are embracing the ‘less obvious’ services. Do we want to update our Facebook status on the TV? Do our internet banking in front of the family? Bid for crap we don’t need on eBay?

Some of the early confusion came from TV manufacturers frantically slapping as many stickers on the box as they could, trying to replicate the success of the mobile apps market. We’ve got maps!, We’ve got stocks! We’ve got porno! (OK, maybe not that last one.) But as Jeff Goldblum’s mathematician Dr Ian Malcolm noted in the movie Jurassic Park, these technical minds were so “preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should”. (Yeah, I just quoted Jurassic Park, wannafightaboutit?) Herein lies the rub – there is still no defined way to go about connected TV, and it may take a truly breakthrough service to change this.

Differing views leads to confused viewers



Electronic programme guides (EPG), which provide an interface to channels on digital TV services, may vary slightly in flavour, but they are run on the same principles. Basically, barring a few tweaks and jazzy features, most people can instantly find BBC One if they want it (even my mum, who is the ultimate, and often frustrating test of even the most straightforward technology). But this is not the case for connected TV, where approaches often differ widely between providers. Fiddly interfaces can create the perfect storm for confused viewers, leading to the classic complaint of there being 
’nothing to watch’, even in libraries featuring thousands of hours of on-demand content.

Some companies favour a ‘walled garden’ platform, such as iPlayer, enabling the provider to totally control the ecosystem. Others go for the apps method, like Samsung, in which users can download just the services they want on the TV. Google has proffered a third way with Google TV, software allowing users to browse whatever web content they want on the TV screen. Google TV has been a flop in the US, but the firm has partnered with leading manufacturers for its European expansion this year, which could change the fortunes of what was once described as ‘Android for the TV’.

Go with the grain, do what the viewers do



The stuff techy geeks conjure up in their labs is important, but the future of TV seems to me, at least, more about the psychology of behaviour. It used to be that technology dictated what people could do, but now people have caught up, and they are calling the shots. They want to be able to access the content they want, wherever and whenever they want to watch it. If they haven’t finished watching Downton Abbey on-demand and need to go out, they want to sync it to their iPad, and vice versa. They also want to use social networks to comment and vote on their favourite shows, and have thousands of hours of content effortlessly navigable, even if they don’t actually know what they want to watch. 

But there is no agreed way to do any of those things.

Take social networking – do people prefer having a dedicated Facebook and Twitter app on the TV screen while they watch The X Factor, and then use a QWERTY remote to post messages? Or would they rather use their own smartphone or tablet in a process often referred to as ‘second screening’? It seems that the second approach is more likely, but the smart companies will be the ones that do as much research on actual human behaviour as new technical standards.

All the pieces are there with connected TV, and now it’s just a matter of putting them all together in a way that maximises usability and style. Apple did it before with the MP3 player and the phone, and if speculation is to be believed, the firm could be preparing to do the same trick with the TV. Fervent rumours of a forthcoming, branded Apple connected TV set persist in the tech press, ever since it emerged that Steve Jobs told his biographer, Walter Issacson, before he passed away last October that he had “finally cracked” how to build an integrated TV device. Features including iCloud links and integrated voice assistant Siri have been mooted, although the expected ‘iTV’ branding would hardly please ITV.



The future’s Apple? Maybe, but its definitely social



While we wait for the potential arrival of Apple in connected TV, lots of other companies are already busy introducing services. Only last week, I saw a new TV guide app featuring a TV EPG integrated with real-time Twitter and Facebook feeds, along with some pretty nifty infographics (I can’t say any more as its under embargo, how mysterious of me).

A word here should go to Sky, which has previously taken a rather tentative approach to connected TV, instead favouring big content deals for Premier league football and movies. But the part Murdoch-owned satellite broadcaster recently jumped into the game with a multi-million pound investment in Zeebox, taking a 10% stake in the social TV service developed by ex iPlayer chief Anthony Rose. Zeebox launched on iPad last year, enabling users to search and discover content, gain recommendations, chat using social media, and also access ‘zeetags’ dynamically linked to content on screen, offering web links to information on programmes, actors and even products.

Sky will become the exclusive digital TV partner to Zeebox, integrating the service into its suite of popular mobile apps. In a sense, Zeebox is a blueprint for connected TV – focusing on social features around the dominant behaviour of watching live TV shows, backed up by advanced discovery and interaction options. The platform is not perfect, but it’s a good indicator of what is to come. Its worth noting that Rose set up Zeebox after quitting as chief technology officer of YouView, the much delayed BBC-backed set top box joint venture that aims to bring VOD and web services to Freeview and Freesat. YouView, previously Project Canvas, was initially considered the mass-market game-changer in connected TV, but after the platform was plagued by delays, it seems that the game has already changed.

Conclusions?

Being in the trenches of digital media, as some of us are, it is easy to forget that most people are reading reports from the technology frontlines, trying to figure out the truth amid confusing buzzwords, technical jargon and good old-fashioned bullshit. As a technology and media journalist, I’m as guilty as the next person; but hopefully this article has shone a bit of light on the debate that is cavernous to say the least (we haven’t even discussed monetisation options, which is a different blog entirely).

TV technology is currently in a state similar to the search engine market in the mid 1990s. At that time, numerous providers offered different engines boasting often dizzyingly complex features. But then Google came along and simplified it to a single page featuring a single search box, a format that remains compelling to this day. Will it be Google that brings the same revolution in connected TV? Or will it be Apple? Zeebox? or even YouView? (*cough*) The truth is that we all have our ideas, but no one really knows for sure how TV consumption will change in the future, and that is what makes it all so exciting.

– Andrew

Andrew Laughlin is a media, technology and video games journalist working for Digital Spy.

Follow Andrew on Twitter – @mediascribbles

2-Screen 2011 notes

Last night I attended the 3rd 2-Screen event organized by Utku and the team at Mint Digital. I went last year and came away really inspired so was full of anticipation about last night’s event. Unfortunately the speakers were a bit mixed this year, but that said there were some interesting bits and I’ve compiled a little round up of some interesting links and points from each of the talks below.

Andy Hood – AKQA – talking about the Heineken Star Player app

Heineken Star Player is a play-along smartphone app for football, where users can ‘bet’ on what’s going to happen next in a football match (this was specifically made for the UEFA champions league). For example, you can predict if there’s going to be a goal in the next 30 seconds, or at certain points of the game, if the ball goes out for a corner, you can bet on what happens next. And as you go along you build up points. I really liked the look of this app, even as a consumer who has about as much interest in football as Richard Desmond has in nuns, and it actually made me want to watch a game of football to ‘play along’ with it. Quite a neat idea of augmenting live sport with play along ‘betting’ and game play. This article gives a nice summary of the app.

David Flynn – Remarkable productions – talking about the Million Pound Drop

The Million Pound Drop has been the flagship multiplatform success of this year, with Jody Smith and co winning countless awards and the play along stats speaking for themselves. David Flynn gave an interesting and different to the other talks I’ve seen perspective from the TV production side, of how they logistically managed the live play along game with real time feedback from the online play into the live broadcast. It’s all pretty simple stuff really, but interesting to see the process between the digital team moderating tweets and collecting data on game play and the production team on set. They created online interfaces to feed game play data and tweets to the production team for them to approve for airing within broadcast (as a ticker on screen and for Davina to announce).

I love the idea of feeding what is happening online into the broadcast and it’s something we’ve pushed for in some of the programmes we’ve worked with Channel 4 on. In reality we’ve been mostly suggesting this too late in the process, as really it needs to be fundamentally embedded into the design of the programme at the beginning of the commissioning process, which is clearly what happened with the Million Pound Drop. Now C4 are making great strides in really putting digital at the heart of their programmes from the beginning of creative with their recent call out to digital companies to pitch multiplatform TV formats.

Some bonus stats for the Million Pound Drop:

  • They’ve had 4.8million game plays in total
  • 189,000 unique individuals have played
  • 8.6% of the total audience played the game
  • During broadcast, they get on average 2.3million page views per week
Declan Caulfield – Starling

This talk was much anticipated as Starling has been around for a long while now with seemingly little activity or development. Declan came on stage saying ‘I’m here to give you an update on Starling’, which was promising, but unfortunately his talk left a lot of people scratching their heads (and kicking over bottles…). Unfortunately his talk wasn’t very well received by the audience. Maybe it was the heat in the room, or the appalling slideware (sorry), or the fact that most of the talk was the same as the one his colleague Kevin Slavin delivered last year at 2-Screen, but mostly I think it was the fact that without going into what Starling actually is and does, he kicked straight off into a lot of (quite obvious and old, for this audience) theory which left a lot of people who didn’t know about them very confused. Sorry Starling, and I really felt for you in the back channel, but come on!

The Almighty and Much Loved Russell Davies

This was what I was looking forward to most. I love Russell, and always find his perspectives refreshing. As he said himself, he wasn’t there to sell anything, hell, his own company would probably rather not be associated with what he might have so say in the talk, and, most wonderfully, he “really doesn’t get TV”.

Love it.

It was a typical RD talk, peppered with a lot of the questions and ‘internet of things’ type experimentations from his blog, but in summary here’s a few cool things that stood out or that I managed to note down in my notebook.*

  • Robot Flaneur – a robot that gives you tours of big cities around the world using Google street view
  • Winky Dink and You – a kids programme from the 1950’s which was probably the first example of interactive television.
  • That mind-blowing face changing video
  • The robot ball for cats – Sphero

His key points were that screens will become (and are already becoming) disposable, showing examples of offices using ‘spare’ screens for presenting the time, or office stereo data, and also talking about the decline in value of the hardware (as per this weeks Kindle announcements). His thought-provoking point was this – maybe it’s not about more screens, maybe it’s about real world objects, physicality… the internet of things. Real buttons to press. ‘Things’ that talk to the TV.

What simple things could we be designing to introduce a physical interaction with our audiences?

*(Interesting to note here, after spending most of the evening ‘second screening’ dividing my attention between the speakers, my iPhone and my note pad, during Russell’s talk I barely looked at my phone and struggled to write notes. This kind of engagement (engrossment) is something that could indicate success in a programme – if your audience isn’t tweeting much, but the barb rating is high, could this indicate they are gripped?)

And finally… the panel

I must admit I struggled to follow or pay attention to the panel at the end, which featured the speakers minus Russell. I had a real feeling that there were some super interesting people in the audience and that I’d already heard enough from these speakers, which gave me an idea: what if a final panel like that could be made up of people nominated from the audience? Just a thought.

Overall, still a really important event and great to catch up with some old faces and meet some new.