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Interactive TV
Finally, something worth watching

by Sam McMillan

Interactive TV is coming. You’ve heard that before. It might have been called Convergence. Multimedia. Transmedia. 500 Channels. But the future that was trumpeted as early as the ’90s, is finally poised to arrive. While cable providers have dragged their feet trying to figure out a business model, a new generation of “smart” televisions from manufacturers like Sony, Samsung, LG and Visio is about to do to conventional television, and its handmaiden the advertising industry, what iTunes did to the music business.

Apple, and its App Store, has already provided the template that changes the delivery model for television. When a generation of college kids, accustomed to never paying a dime for their entertainment, graduate will they look forward to writing a check every month to a cable company? Or will they visit a site like, drag an interactive TV app to their bookmark and get their entertainment for free? You don’t need an advanced degree to figure that out.

While William Gibson said, “The future is already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed,” today you can walk into a Costco and purchase Google TV and its clunky QWERTY keyboard. Thanks to the convergence of fat bandwidth, speedy Internet connections in the home, DVRs and huge flat panel sets with Ethernet connections in the back, its only a matter of when, not if, your next television purchase will connect to the Internet. And that will change everything.

Based in a grimy section of San Francisco’s South of Market district, the people at Method have established a reputation for thoughtful, adventurous Web and graphic design. Increasingly they’ve carved out an area of expertise that focuses on designing user experiences that provide value across a new generation of interactive devices.

Method Inc. created Boxee’s brand identity and alpha prototype for the Boxee interface. The interactive interface allows users to add popular applications such as Netflix and Pandora, includes a full set of social networking capabilities including commenting, chat and sharing and also lets users save and queue content and view news feeds.

In recent years Method has done cutting-edge interface and user experience design for chip-makers, television manufacturers, cable companies, content providers and set-top box makers.

As a proof of concept for a large Silicon Valley chip-maker and its new chip developed for smart phones and set-top boxes, Method created an interactive TV experience that featured a transparent layer over video. The experience used a standard five-way remote control to access a programming guide and insight into what your friends were watching. By setting up discrete panes in the video divided into zones of focus, the interface provides different levels of control, a choice in hierarchy and a number of viewing options.

Their work for a Samsung media controller emulates the most visionary science fiction movies out of Hollywood. In an end-run around a typical remote controller, Method created a gestural interface for the Samsung tablet that lets a viewer conduct search, preview and video management functions on the tablet. When viewers want to watch video on the big screen, they simply send content from the tablet to the flat panel TV with a flick of their finger.

For Boxee, the iconoclastic, aggressively angular set-top box that lets users find TV shows and videos on the Internet, then play them on their home TV, Method created the brand identity, then extended the elements of the identity into a typeface, iconography, interface language, ultimately throughout the user experience. According to Patrick Newbery, a principal at Method, “Boxee wanted to create a differentiated and branded experience that spoke to a younger, tech-savvy user.” The experience designers at Method worked to present the brand through a user interaction model. As Newbery explains, “The design team had to understand who the market was, what was acceptable to the market, then extend the brand identity into the interface, from a visual and experiential perspective. They thought about how to organize the interface, display information and treat motion and transitions on screen—all the behavioral aspects of the interface had to be tied back to what we understood about the brand.”

At the end of the day, Method did more than hand off a set of wireframes. Because interactive TV is all about the onscreen experience and the relationship of interactive elements in time, Method created a video that simulated the real-world experience of a typical user. All the graphic assets, the interface design and key behaviors were delivered as a reference video for the Boxee engineers to use as they brought their system to life.

Based in San Francisco and Los Angeles, Related Content Database (RCDb) is intent on delivering the next generation of television user experiences. Their secret sauce is an ability to recognize “time data” and apply it to every frame in every scene. Sound far-fetched? RCDb has already created frame-level metadata for over 2,000 feature films starting with the 30 top box office movies of the year for the last 30 years.

The WatchWith eBay iPad app and the accompanying shots from an episode of The Bold and The Beautiful that display actor/product frame level metadata. Geoff Katz/Zane Vella, executive producers; Matt McKenna/Jane Grouix, UX/visual designers; Doug Clarke/Matt McKenna/Chris Yap/Marc Hosein, eBay, developers; Christine Waage, Bell-Phillip Television, producer; RCDb, project design and development.

A data visualization diagram taped to one of the cubicles in the San Francisco startup provides the stats: 2,473 movies, 90,000 scenes, 1,846,174 actor appearances and 370,433 product appearances. Geoff Katz, executive producer at RCDb, explains how the work is accomplished: “We start where the work level or title level metadata stops. When people think about metadata related to film or TV programs, they imagine basic attributes like title, year, cast and crew listings, a two-sentence synopsis—the types of metadata you might see in your cable company’s electronic program guide.” RCDb’s time data team defines each discrete scene in a movie or TV program and then takes a more granular second-by-second look at the frame level and creates metadata that describes actors, portrayals, products, location, music, mood and special extra features related to each scene. Using a proprietary multi-pass process, RCDb employees create this frame-level metadata as intellectual property, then license it along with a software development framework that studios, content owners, device manufacturers and software application developers use to create new contextually relevant user experiences around this programming.

RCDb provides a set of tools that enable content owners to create what RCDb calls “meta-bubbles,” ,an overlay that pops on over the film or video and matches frame-level metadata content with an interactive experience. Turn on the meta-bubbles with a remote and immediately actors, products in scenes, even songs in the sound track, are identified in an interface that is subtle, elegant and remarkably restrained. McMillan
Sam McMillan is a San Francisco Bay Area-based writer, teacher and producer of interactive multimedia projects for a number of Bay Area production houses, and can be reached at