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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 Flingo.com, 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.

METHOD: ADVANCED DESIGN FOR AN ADVENTUROUS EXPERIENCEBased 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.

In a scene from The Other Guys, meta-bubbles identify the watch Will Ferrell wears, the car he drives, the song he’s listening to on the radio, even names of products he mentions in dialogue. Watch video with meta-bubbles turned on, and props become products—a paradigm shift that will utterly transform the $27 billion product placement business. By allowing content creators to add unique events in the video timeline, such as the opportunity to interact with a scene, pause the onscreen action while ordering an item, and then return to the scene, RCDb opens new avenues for product advertising and enables direct, seamless, almost frictionless commerce. In other words, next time you’re watching Mad Men and see Don Draper in a Brooks Brothers suit, don’t be surprised if there’s a 20 percent off coupon a remote-button-click away.

Anyone with a teenager in the household knows it is entirely possible to watch TV and simultaneously check in with Facebook, e-mail and the Internet on a laptop, smartphone or tablet. As Katz explains, “We see more and more people using an iPad or tablet while they watch TV. They are comfortable using apps that not only control what they watch on TV but provide new ways to interact with what they’re watching.”

Interactive Wall Street 2 movie trailer designed by 20th Century Fox, developed by Coincident TV.

For example, RCDb’s “WatchWith” app for the iPad can add a layer of contextual engagement to what’s playing on the big screen. In partnership with eBay they’re taking this idea to the next level: WatchWith eBay. Using the built-in microphone on the iPad, the WatchWith app listens to the audio stream in a TV show, detects the audio “fingerprint” of the show, then displays content synched on the iPad. In the hands of a savvy production department, that means every single prop, item of jewelry, accessory and piece of clothing worn by an actor on screen can potentially be purchased on eBay with a button click. Put simply, let’s say you're watching a rerun of Friends, you think: “Jennifer Aniston looks pretty good in that sweater.” You tap the iPad, and next thing you know, the sweater in just your size is shipped to your home. The hardest decision you’ll have to make is choosing air or ground freight.

“Frame-level metadata is instrumental in driving t-commerce.” Katz explains. Programmers, producers, studios and content owners will get involved, and get involved early. “A new revenue stream can be created by the show producer that lives alongside, not outside the show. This will be too important to be left to the marketing department—it’s a whole new way to monetize content,” Katz says.

At Coincident TV, John Gilles is trying to help advertisers solve a fundamental problem of interactive advertising. “They’re trading analog dollars for digital dimes, to paraphrase NBC Universal honcho Jeff Zucker,” Gilles says. Gilles, the executive VP of marketing and sales at Coincident TV, explains that each hour of broadcast television is accompanied typically by 32 revenue-generating ads. On the Web, that drops to ten or twelve per hour. “It’s one third of the inventory. And therefore ad revenues for video on the Web are smaller,” Gilles notes.

Coincident TV believes it has figured out a way to rebuild the ad revenue online by getting people to watch longer. The Coincident TV offering called CTV consists of four elements: First is a time-based XML declarative language. Second is an easy-to-use CTV editor that enables people with minimal training to create new video experiences. Third is a portable player that enables video consumption on just about any digital device screen. And fourth is an analytics and measurement package that provides detailed numbers on the user behavior of millions of users per week.

Fandango Moview on Samsung SMART TV (left). Geoff Katz, executive producer/UX designer; Jane Grouix, visual designer; Indra Kumaran, Fandango, product manager; RCDb, project design and development. The Samsung Media Planner (right) is a premium television project that allows exploration and organization of television and personal media content via a touchscreen interface. Method Inc. established the interface architecture, features and functionality, and visual design for the Samsung Media Player, which was launched to the UK market in 2010. Developed by Method Inc.for Samsung Design Europe.

Right now it’s possible to watch an episode of Glee on Hulu. While that’s great for Hulu (and for consumers), it’s not so good for Fox, which loses viewers and ad revenues to Hulu. To recapture that lost revenue, Coincident TV created the Glee Superfan experience, with a player embedded on the Glee Facebook fan page. There the fifteen million Glee Facebook fans can watch episodes of Glee including a picture-in-picture experience that maintains video continuity while providing additional modes of interaction including behind-the-scenes bonus videos, cast and character bios, discussion forums, a Glee Photobooth, as well as social networking sharing via Facebook and Twitter. Hotspots embedded in the video frame enable viewers to buy a song performed on Glee on iTunes.

The metrics point to some compelling conclusions. In just one week, Coincident TV’s Glee app created one million superfans. And Gilles notes, viewers are watching CTV twice as long as typical video on the Web. Thanks to picture-in-picture presentations they are consuming twice as many ads. Completion rates of a linear Web video hover at 60 percent. Coincident is able to raise that to a 72 percent or greater completion rate. “For the producers of Glee that’s millions of hours of additional engagement,” Gilles says.

Gilles believes that “by 2015, 15 billion devices will be able to watch 500 billion hours of content.” That’s basically every screen, everywhere. Speaking of screens, several stock analysts who follow Apple predict that company’s entry into interactive TV sometime in the next twelve months with a 46" HDTV set sporting sixteen speakers and a single cable. The result, analysts predict, could potentially add $100 billion to Apple’s market cap. With Apple taking out patent applications for enhanced TV widgets, an app that can transform an iPhone into a “soft remote” and a slick HDTV in the offing, the future of TV will be here before you know it. ca

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 sam@wordstrong.com.

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