Visualizing Social TV

Ever since last week’s explosion of CES announcements about new chips bringing the Internet and Adobe Flash Player to home televisions, I’ve been trying to see some of the implications, some of the possibilities. It’s exciting, but I don’t have a clear picture yet. Below are some of my early thoughts — can you help clarify them, refine them?

Main question: How would _you_ want to use Internet TV? Not “how would you like to develop for it?” but how would you like to be using your own home video display, a few years from now? Knowing all you know of The Internet, all that you’ve seen of web services and local clients, what types of screens would you like to see, what types of controls would you want to exert, what types of communications would you like to have?

What do you think “Social TV” might turn out to be? How would _you_ like it to evolve?

Or even better… if you know someone in elementary school today, how will they like to use their television during junior high?

(I apologize for how disconnectedly this is written… it’s mostly notes pulled together into five sections after a week of reading, and is definitely not a finished essay. If you’re in a hurry, there’s no real news here! If you’ve got time, though, then I need your help in thinking this through, tia.)

Timeline

I think the trend is towards greater control over what we watch, and that private viewing alone does not suffice. Look how things have changed over the past 120 years:

“The movies” were first, whether shown in a baroque theatre, or on a sheet between trees in the village square. People crowded in to watch, open-mouthed. Thirty years later “talkies” turned the popular industry upside-down. Going to the movies was clearly a social event.

After World War II television offered private viewing. Everyone watched everything at the same time — broadcast — but you could choose who to be sociable with, in a setting you could control.

Videocassettes introduced private on-demand viewing. Sex was a big motivator, but once the equipment was out there, people loved the convenience. You could watch whatever you wanted, when you wanted.

In the 1990s there were many experiments in interactive TV, but none really became popular. Towards the end some could access the World Wide Web, so you could mix pages into your screen. But pressing menus and buttons in itself doesn’t really mean much. Interactivity on isolated machines didn’t take off.

Now, with private viewing screens connected to The Internet, powered by clientside logic engines, we’re getting new options for “going to the movies”. But it’s not like trekking to a movie theatre today, with its sticky floors, bacteria-laden chairs, cellphone talkers and other bobo artifacts. You get to relax in your living room, and invite people on the screen (or in the room) that you like, know, and trust.

How do you think “watching the movies” will change in such a situation? When you’re in a safe and sane environment, and when you can communicate (either synchronously or asynchronously) with anyone you want, switching social situations as easily as you switch channels today. What happens then? How do you think people will want to use this?

And it’s a little bit more than that, too, when you add your pocket-device to this world. Your home social viewing situation will be able to move around with you. When you’re “in the cloud” of connected devices, it’s like a virtual cloud of your video/social life can also follow you around, focusing on business when you’re at your computer, focusing on richer experience when you’re in your living room. A virtual “experience sphere” will always be available, manifesting on your different devices, as appropriate.

“Web TV” vs Social TV

As an aside, that term “Web TV” in the newspapers sort of sets my teeth on edge. The World Wide Web is just one application of the Internet, and is not the entire Internet itself. This Web is woven of hyperlinked documents… pages of paper. Television is not a bunch of pages — it keeps going, it moves, it’s closer to the real world, things keep changing. In multimedia days we used to say “Hypercard was stop-until-move, Director was move-until-stop”… documents are either on or off, while real life keeps on moving.

Today’s video websites are webpages that you visit on your computer. Some of them are featuring native clients via AIR, yet still on a screen held eighteen inches away. But now we’re bringing the Internet into the television. Do “pages” make as much sense, away from the document-oriented computer?

The computer is a video screen, and can host video, but is oriented to documents. The World Wide Web is woven of interlinked documents. Computing workstations like pages. But wall displays like to be, well, “a window to another world”.

The computer display has boxy little document windows, but the television display is itself a window, showing you the real world from many places, many times.

You peer into the desktop windows, privately, alone. But a window on the world begs to be shared. Different feel.

The big wall display is becoming a communications device. It’s not like holding your phone up to your ears or your eyes. It’s not like working on a book at your desk. It’s like sitting back, relaxing, and looking out a window — at interesting and changing scenery — with your friends — and maybe Roger Ebert or Jon Stewart.

Screens from your pocket, desktop, and living room will work together, but will not look the same. How should they _act_?

I wouldn’t want to read email on a TV, probably not even “surf the web” because of the smaller input device and the differences in screen distance… I have other screens that are better for that. But I would like to call up text windows on the TV for information about a movie cast, or to check the history in a story. It’s possible to get that with today’s webpage format, but I have a feeling that a personal choice in widgets would work out better.

The question should not be “How can we bring today’s websites onto home TVs?” I think the more useful question is “Sitting back on the couch, in front of a big screen, maybe with a laptop or mobile at your side, what types of experiences would people find most useful?” We need to clear away automatic assumptions, take off our YouTube blinders.

“Yep, that Model T sure is pretty Mr. Ford, mighty futuristic, yep… but where do I hit it with the buggy whip to make it go faster?”

Scenarios

Lots of varied thoughts in this section, none of them completed…. ;-)

If you wanted to buy a video, would you want to fire up a web browser to surf through an online store? I wouldn’t — besides webpages being bloated and slow to load, being able to visit any page on the web means carrying along the whole patched-over security structure of today’s infectious web. I think I’d rather download sidebar widgets from stores and services I trust, and explore video catalogs that way.

There’s the whole issue of read/write TV. We see a little bit of it today with webcams on computers, and some striking use areas (much of the early interest in Flash Media Server was from adult sites), but when your TV changes from a dumb display receiving broadcasts to a luxury computer on the Internet, why shouldn’t you publish just as easily as consume, whether as text chat, audio, or full video?

Would a family separated by a business trip watch movies together, in synch, with live two-way communication? Adobe Connect is already popular for this, even without high-res movies playing at the same time. My bet’s “yes”.

Synchronized viewing makes sense for live events — say, watching football with old college friends, everyone with their friends’ webcams up. Lots of people watch American Idol or the Oscars too. Such content seems a little strange to me, but I’d bet some groups would take up the habit of watching such events with distant friends.

And I also suspect there’s market for asynchronous viewing of annotated video. There are already some video-commenting systems for browsers, but there the pro and consumer content are locked together, and one comment stream serves every audience — broadcast-style comments. But suppose your teacher’s annotation stream, or your friends’ chat session, was a remote XML feed that time-synch’d to the movie whether you got it from DVD, download, or cable?

Take it further… should dubs and translations be baked into the visual stream, or should there be an expandable variety of subsidiary files which can optionally accompany a video? There should be “opensource translation” of many videos, right?

I’d want sidebar notifications on my large-screen display… a little slideout widget that alerts me if a particular email arrives, or if a travel bargain is available. These would be set on the computer, stored in the cloud, and polled and displayed by the television. Makes sense, right?

There’s another implication of Internet TV, where the big display is always connected to communications from other devices. The price drop in flat-panel displays has increased their use in the ambient environment. You see them in restaurants, shops, transit areas, bank storefronts. Some of these show broadcast video, some of them have live weather conditions and advertising, some are in-house signage. These are digital displays, but ITV adds Internet connectivity. What happens when your pocket device talks with the kiosk map?

Other writings

Here are some of the discussions I’ve been reading the past week, while writing the above scenarios:

  • There was a “bloggers vs vloggers” discussion on Techmeme last week… some of this is about technology and media, but much of it is about personality… one of the easiest ways to garner responses online is to say something wrong, and text is easy to copy and respond to. No direct relevance to Social TV, but it shows how media types differ, satisfy different needs.

  • A press release from a signage company, announcing they’ll be using the Adobe Flash Player engine in their new devices. This isn’t the first such announcement, just timely. I wish I knew what percentage of ambient signage was already in Flash. It’s important to me because it means an interface can be portable across device types, even though it may need to be adjusted for the physical capabilities and social setting of that device.
  • An article oriented to the “web tv” perspective: “Here’s what I do want: The ability to use my TV to watch all the great video the Web makes available–actual TV shows and movies like ‘The Office’ on Hulu, ‘Lost’ on ABC.com, ‘No Country For Old Men’ on Netflix’s on-demand service.” That stuff doesn’t interest me personally, but I know lots of people do watch those shows, so I’m not seeing the whole picture. Still, I think the next generation of video will be something different than last decade’s Web and last century’s Broadcast mixed together.
  • At Slate Farhad Manjoo dissected the problems of adding together “WWW + TV”, instead of multiplying “TV * Internet * Flash”. Some cute lines like this: “Passivity is television’s main feature; we love it precisely because it asks so little of us.” I like background video too. But I think he’s seeing only part of the picture here: “Perhaps there are some ‘Lost’ fans who’d like to connect with other fans through their TVs, but I’m still dubious. It’s much easier to express whatever you want to say with a keyboard rather than a remote control.” I agree that text-on-a-TV alone won’t cut it, but I’m betting that mic/cam communications will be quite compelling.
  • The Washington Post sees the problem as bringing the current desktop “web video” over to the big screen near your couch, in article “TV Over the Web: Still a Fuzzy Picture”. That perspective of “TV over the Web” makes it harder to see the possibilities. I think we’ll end up with something wildly different than the current YouTube experience. A little video square inside an unchanging document was just one more hack along the way.
  • While writing this, I heard from Nigel Pegg and Stefan Richter of their in-browser examples of social video… I know there have been other efforts at “social computing, with video”, but I’m not sure of a link to find all such work…?

Meta observations

One wildcard pointing to potentially rapid evolution is the existing ubiquity of visual tooling. Lots of people already use Photoshop and Premiere, and create visual presentations delivered as a video stream. We don’t have to worry much about learning to create new types of media… the shift will be in the addition of a social layer atop it.

Application developers will face these new opportunities first. But the professional creative community is already comfortable contributing.

Adobe is making a big bet on video. Adobe is also making a big bet on Rich Internet Applications. We’ve already got significant tooling support for bringing these two worlds together. We’re not starting from zero… some significant barriers have already been removed.

We’ll need a neutral social layer, spanning device brands. Apple will have its little walled garden, as will others, but you should be able to watch a show with someone who doesn’t own the same brand of hardware, or even necessarily employ the same user-interface. And you shouldn’t have to adapt to a new interface just because you’re getting videos from different sources… advertisers will try to “own the social layer”, but I think it’s stronger when the user owns the interface. I’m seeing widgets and overlays of specific functionality, not pages and frames of pixel-predictable layouts, or different virtual theatres you may attend.

A lot of what we’ll be able to do will be determined by the depth of device APIs on the new type of television. I have next-to-no idea what will open up when. Customizing the interface to your broadcast schedule may not be possible (your sat/cable provider will likely control its UI), and reskinning the interface to your locally-stored programs could go either way, but I hope these devices expose access to playback details… sending an edit-list to friends so they can skip boring parts of a sporting event, or go directly to a given skit on a comedy recording… mashups are possible if the messaging layer can hold playback instructions.

What are the economic opportunities for developers? Too murky to see clearly here in Jan09. We’ve got to wait for these new Flash/Internet-enabled Systems-on-Chip to ship before manufacturers start adding them to displays sold in local stores. We don’t know what the distribution models for content will be… it could end up like the iPhone, with centralized editorial control, but Intel’s announcement for AIR support implies a freer situation. And even when we see the devices and can deliver atop them, it will take awhile for financially-meaningful audiences to buy in. Independent business opportunities are not yet clearly visible.

But we do have an opportunity now to shape the next generation of innovation. If we make good apps early — useful experiences — these can influence future growth.

So… wow, you read this far!? Thanks! You must be wild on this stuff too. Which angles are particularly exciting your imagination today…?