Making TV social, virtually

[From MIT’s Technology Review]


Making TV Social, Virtually

What happens when your online pals meet your TV?

By Erika Jonietz
Monday, January 11, 2010

In the 1960s, families gathered in the living room to watch Bonanza. In the 1980s, friends met at the water cooler to speculate about who shot J.R. In 2010, mom watches HGTV in the bedroom, dad cheers for the Longhorns in the living room, and the kids laugh at the new episode of Glee on in the study.

In an effort to “make TV social again” and to bring even far-flung family members and friends together around the screen, researchers at companies including Motorola, BT, and Intel are working on ways to combine social networking with TV viewing. The goal is to get as close as possible to a physically shared viewing experience–and to make it easier to find something decent to watch among the ever-increasing number of channels.

The idea is not new, says Jeff Patmore, BT’s head of strategic university research, who works with students at schools including MIT and the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. About 12 years ago, BT experimented with “interactive television,” allowing people to send messages to one another over their TV screens. But “we’ve been there and done that, and we don’t want to do it again,” he says.

More recent experiments have also had limited success. For instance, in September, Fox broadcast on-screen Twitter streams from the casts and crews of its shows Fringe and Glee. Viewers were nearly universal in their loathing; one comment on Fox’s own Fringe fan page reads, “The LAST thing I want to see on my 52? plasma is half of the screen covered with the opinions of a bunch of people that I do not know.”

Therein lies the trick to making TV social again, says Crysta Metcalf, an anthropologist at Motorola’s Social Media Research Lab. Metcalf has headed a social TV project in the set-top box maker’s research labs for the last three years. “What we’re working on right now is a version in which people can see what their friends and family are watching–not Facebook friends, but people you’re close to and would really want to watch TV with,” she says. “A lot of our studies back this up, that this is people’s preference.”

The popularity of social networks has made this more feasible. For example, in January, and Facebook broadcast live streams of President Obama’s inauguration; if viewers signed up through Facebook, they could watch real-time status updates from people in their network alongside the video.

“It’s very clear that social networking will become part of the TV viewing experience,” says Steve Rubel, who watches emerging technologies and trends as senior vice president and director of insights for Edelman Digital. “It’s the convergence we’ve been talking about for a long time,” he says. Rubel echoes Patmore and Metcalf, though, in stressing the importance of how such systems are designed and implemented. “User experience is crucial, and the simplicity of it is crucial.”

A number of startups are also moving in this direction. Boxee makes software that allows people to easily access Internet video content, such as YouTube clips or shows from, on their TVs. Boxee software includes a feature that lets users share with their friends what movies or TV shows they’re watching, and send them recommendations. However, this still requires consumers to install software and connect their computers to their TVs–something many are reluctant, or ill-equipped, to do, according to Tanya Goldhaber, a senior in electrical engineering at MIT who was involved with BT’s studies of social TV as an intern last summer.

Creating a simple user experience is “a fairly difficult thing,” says Motorola’s Metcalf. “The one huge key is trying to make it not like it’s instant messaging or a PC on your TV, but like it’s sharing an experience.” Based on earlier user studies, her team is now experimenting with specialized software installed in smart phones as the interface between users and their TVs. But they haven’t yet hit on a solution that’s ready for mass adoption, she says.

The Motorola and BT groups are also both working on how to tie such systems into existing social networks and on filtering access to users’ information and ranking recommendations from other viewers. “It will probably be a subset of your normal social network,” says Patmore. “I probably have 130 or 140 friends on social networks, but they’re global, and not necessarily people I would chat to about what I was watching on TV.”

All of this should be solvable, says Marie-Jose Monpetit, an invited scientist at MIT’s Research Lab for Electronics who has studied social TV for several years. “At this point none of these things is a technology issue,” she says. Programming interfaces such as Facebook’s FriendConnect make it easier for third parties to create software that draws on information from social networks, and interactions between cable and other broadcast operators have been simplified through initiatives like the Open Cable Application Platform. “The real question is–is there anyone who could find a business model for this,” she says.

The answer is most likely yes. Despite the technical hurdles, more and more consumers are canceling their cable subscriptions and figuring out how to connect their computers and TVs. “If the cable operators don’t have something more to offer, they’re going to lose to the Internet,” Monpetit says.

Both BT and Motorola are in the advanced stages of prototyping and testing, and although neither company’s representatives would discuss specific plans, both said it’s likely that the first fully integrated social TV systems will be available to consumers later this year. “Companies all believe that this has value for them, and people are stepping into this space fairly quickly,” Metcalf says.

Patmore agrees. “Things will move very rapidly [in social TV],” he says. “These days, it’s very noticeable–technology is probably going to give you only three or four months of commercial advantage over the opposition.”

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