December 3, 2015

Square eyes on old problems

 TV screen

For all the growth of mobile, the primary ‘glass’ in a domestic context is the television set. Of course, TV means different things to different people these days, and it also comes with additional contexts such as games consoles, smart devices and set-top boxes. A plethora of open and closed environments, contractual arrangements and packaging.

So this blog isn’t going to tell everyone how you should design and build for TV — because frankly it’s still a pretty fragmented platform. Instead, in the spirit of cooperation I’d like to encourage a conversation on what TV is, what it’s for and what it’s not.

Let’s start with some assumptions. Surveys have shown as much as 85% of TV usage is simply watching video — whether linear scheduled programmes, catch-up / on-demand services, or video ‘cast’ from apps on other devices. We could probably draw a line around that and call it ‘active use’.

It gets interesting when you start to think what the other 15% comes from, what the use cases might be and how those might be exploited. Airbnb wrote about their experience heading into Apple TV in creating a rich experience for viewing photos of their properties. That’s one angle and clearly falls into ‘active usage’, people around a screen sharing the use of an app. But is it really that different than two people looking at a tablet on their sofa?

Benedict Evans posed a similar question, using the old ‘Father Ted’ example of nearby small things and far-away large things being much the same. Depending what you build, that’s basically the tablet vs TV debate in a nutshell.

So if active usage is something so hard to define, is passive usage any clearer? By passive usage, we mean things like information or augmentation happening as you do something else. For example using the TV as a background screensaver, or something that happens while you watch TV (overlays, companion products, etc).

Companion products have come and gone with varying success. An app called Zeebox, a companion which fed live follow-up information about TV shows (and TV adverts) as you watched them, came close to getting something going — but ultimately pivoted their business to broad digital marketing and not a single product.

But the concept of ‘second screen’ is something that lives on without too much fanfare — a very high proportion of users sit looking at Twitter or Facebook while they watch something — so the whole “Social TV” phenomenon proves that people aren’t necessarily distracted.

How about doing things on the screen while content is viewed? It might seem distracting but ‘red buttons’ have become relatively commonplace, if a little clunky and under-used. ‘Green buttons’ are less well known commercial equivalents still seen on some channels — driven largely by an XML feed sent with the broadcast.

That’s where it gets more interesting — is it possible to take that data, in a modern Smart TV environment, and make better use of it? In Europe there are some rules around what you can overlay on a screen — partly to avoid interference with subtitles, and partly to protect users from things like product placement and unknown sponsorship. However, these aspects may change over time, and are not present in all markets. For the purpose of debate, this is a good hypothetical disruption or innovation point.

There’s also the challenge of universal platforms like Windows, and connected /Cloud data elsewhere. What obvious benefits stem from getting users between TV and other platforms they use? At the same time or as part of a value chain? Should the TV ‘glass’ just be another end point where users start, continue or complete something as part of a journey?

Identifying users has always been the pain point, particularly from a remote control — but recent changes like Twitter’s Digits service and Facebook’s recent phone-based login for TV apps (something YouTube has also done for some time, pairing phones with TVs) make that a lot simpler.

Shazam pioneered some of this a while ago, using their app as an innovative way to interact with TV advertising. Hold your phone near the screen for more information. There have been several tries at augmented reality using phones to overlay content as you watch the TV, offering follow-up deals or additional content, or more advertising.

Even from the technical point of view, there is no ‘single platform’ for TV or anything like it — in fact TV interfaces make the ‘browser wars’ look like a gentle debate in the pub. From a mixture of HTML, legacy Flash platforms, bespoke systems like Android TV and tvOS from Apple. Even within the HTML5 group, standards and support differ, as do performance levels which vary with hardware. Slowly but surely HTML5 is getting nearer to a standard but I suspect it will never be finally final.

I honestly don’t think anyone has answered these questions successfully yet — and as a listening exercise I’m really interested to see what people think about TV interfaces in general. I’m keen to hear your views and opinions on this, the near future and the art of the possible.

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