The new generation of IPTV-ready television sets are the stage on which broadcast and internet media will come together. Adrian Pennington looks into the converged future.
This month Samsung introduces its first TV set to connect viewers to the internet. Thanks to technology devised by Intel and Yahoo!, users can download software "widgets" to track things such as the weather and news feeds or keep up with MySpace while watching TV.
Similar interactivity is available or coming soon through Sony's Bravia internet video link, which can sample content from selected websites. Panasonic has Viera Cast, which brings YouTube and HD movie rental from Amazon. TV sets from LG will stream movies from rental portal Netflix and has Yahoo! widgets for weather, stock-market tickers and photos from the Flickr website.
These advances are more than gimmicks: they narrow the gap between broadcast and broadband, with profound implications for the way we watch TV.
BBC head of digital media technology Anthony Rose declares: "The ability to interact with the TV has been promised for at least a decade, and there remains a lot of hype in this area, but the time is finally ripe for convergence to happen."
Rose is mindful of iPlayer, which provided a third (95 million) of all views in 2008 from Virgin Media's on-demand platform. The BBC hopes to grow iPlayer's presence further this year by launching on Freesat. Something bigger is in the pipeline, however: as the number of ways for TV viewers to access the internet explodes, the BBC, ITV and BT have joined forces to develop Proejct Canvas, a open-standards-based approach for TV over broadband.
"The question is, should the BBC support a dozen different consumer content brands or should we help shape the industry so that there is one common standard?" Rose asks. "We think there's a vacuum in this space for leadership so that the internet hits the living room in the right way, rather than in a fragmented way."
Rose wants to reduce the cost of writing new iPlayer applications to work on different platforms, and to ensure quality. "If iPlayer buffers (frame delays in streaming) on a PC, people are prepared for it," he says. "But buffering over a TV can interrupt the suspension of disbelief and viewers may not come back. The experience has to be very good from the start, and that's something that needs work."
There's little evidence that people want the full internet experience on a TV. "You can display the internet on your TV by plugging in a laptop, but if you leave the web unchanged consumers won't engage with it," says Ian Valentine, founder of web TV service provider Miniweb Interactive. "Any content owner wanting to reach TV audiences this way has to redesign their website to consider what types of content viewers actually want in their living room," he says.
"For example, wouldn't it be great if while watching Doctor Who there was an alert to a mash-up of Doctor Who content found by the system's recommendation engine? The fusion of broadband video with broadcast creates a personalised TV experience."
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this new breed of applications is the ability to connect with fellow viewers. "Middleware" developer Ant, for example, has demonstrated an application called Footie Friends. Based on the Twitter service, it shows how friends watching the same football match in different homes could banter in short text messages.
Pay-TV technology company NDS is also taking some of the most successful elements of social networking and applying them to set-top boxes. Broadcasters could, for example, multicast with more personalised "long-tail" content and create user groups to recommend and share that content to one another.
Another application involves user-generated content (UGC), the subject of a recent trial by BT Vision. "The goal was (to) prompt people to create content related to a specific theme," says Andy Gower, who led the media interface group in BT's Broadband Applications Research Centre. "We were interested in whether you could do it across multiple platforms and how could we use that UGC to create new forms of content."
BT Vision has also said it wants to allow subscribers to interact with others, during live soccer for example, and create communities of interest to which it can then target advertising.
"Socially networked TV is here," asserts Michael Comish, chief executive of VoD site Blinkbox. "People already interact with programming by text, phone or online vote. There is proven demand. All the technology is doing is bringing it all together in one place."
Social network sites are also the starting point for search mechanisms that will guide viewers through a potentially unlimited mix of programmes. Social networks aggregate information about users based on personal data and behaviour and build communities around it.
TV is set to change
"Search and recommendations are on everyone's agenda," says Paul Ranger, interactive marketing director at NDS. "Customers need interfaces that allow for different types of content such as web, VoD and programmes recorded on a DVR. For a broadcaster or service provider it's a means of 'upselling' and cross-promoting content, and keeping viewers engaged to build ratings and advertising opportunities."
blinkx is an online video search engine with designs on the TV market. It finds TV episodes on the web by using speech recognition and text analysis, weeding out illegal clips and falsely tagged material, then grouping them by theme. "The way users navigate programming on TV is set to change," says Suranga Chandratillake, blinkx founder and chief executive. "Physically, the navigation needs to be simple, with interactivity achieved by a remote control, or Bluetoothed mobile phone, rather than keyboard. The interface also has to be clear enough for viewers to understand at a glance what is available, yet rich enough for the most relevant content to be browsable."
It may be personalised too. "Many households now have more than one TV, so there's the opportunity to cater for the preferences and behaviour of each individual based on their profile," says Antonio Pequeno, director of interactive TV developer Mirada. "The majority of viewers are not familiar with the concept of having a personal account to watch TV, so audiences need to be educated that it is possible to access a wider range of services through their television."
Information about viewers based on their on-demand preferences and shared ratings and recommendations will be of great value to advertisers, who can target campaigns much more effectively over IP than by broadcast.
"The IPTV advertising market will only take off when there is critical mass," argues Comish. "Project Canvas could be the tipping point that takes convergence mainstream."
Independent producers should also be thinking about convergence, says Microsoft's media services director Stephen Petheram: "Beyond basic social network functions there is huge potential to develop a whole new language of IP-with-TV experiences that as an industry we are only just beginning to explore."
BT Vision has been delivering a "walled garden" of broadband video on demand (V0D)plus Freeview digital terrestrial TV via a set-top box since December 2006, racking up 350,000 subscribers.
By managing and owning its broadband network, BT promises a superior quality of service to rivals delivering content to a TV over the open internet.
The other UK IPTV service, Tiscali TV, is about to be sold by its Italian parent, with BSkyB the most likely suitor. It targeted 200,000 subs by the end of 2008 but hasn't released official figures for more a year.
New competition arrived in November in the form of Fetch TV, which combines Freeview with downloadable content. Unlike its IPTV rivals, Fetch TV can be accessed via any internet service provider and users pay for VoD on a per-use basis.
"Fetch TV could do for VoD what Freeview did for digital TV," claims marketing director Peter Cox. "We firmly believe in social networking by TV. Our plan is to launch first, get iPlayer and other platforms online and then market our other capabilities."
Its backer, IP Vision, is in advanced talks to bring iPlayer to the platform.
"Our intention is to have as much of the catch-up community on our box as possible, since access to free content is most likely to drive extra rental of exclusive content," says Cox.