Interactive TV Tries Again
After many misfires, interactive TV is finally taking hold, using a variety of approaches that could significantly differentiate video offerings.
CABLE AND IPTV'S FOOTRACE
Most service providers are developing their interactive TV services with a careful eye to what consumers will actually use, even as they try to develop a competitive advantage by adding bells and whistles. IPTV providers and cable companies are in the early stages of what could turn into an all-out race to interactivity on the TV screen. After admitting that AT&T's U-verse service was giving it a run for its money, Time Warner Cable announced it was expanding its interactive TV push with help from app provider itaas. AT&T, SureWest and Verizon all are pushing their own interactive services. Cox redesigned its user interface to be more interactive and user-friendly, with help from NDS.
Competition in interactivity, while just starting out, clearly is going to heat up. So which pay-TV provider has the leg up? Today, it's anyone's game.
IPTV providers will be the first to make a major push, said Jeff Heynen, directing analyst of broadband and video for Infonetics Research. They've clearly already made moves in these directions, and, with less of an installed base of set-top boxes (STBs) with legacy middleware, fewer upgrades will be needed to enable interactivity, he added.
“Being the new technology on the block facilitates their ability to offer interactive features first,” Heynen said. “That said, cable operators won't be far behind. They are putting in place set-top boxes and tru2way frameworks to make these features easily deployed over their environment. You'll see more and more STBs that are hybrid in cable that have a DOCSIS return path built in to enable that interactivity.”
Verizon is pushing to be at the front of the pack — constantly trying out potential new applications directly with consumers through its beta testing process, said Joe Ambealt, director of product development for consumer TV for the company. Verizon is using three different types of interactive technology, operating virtual machines within its STBs — including one based on the Lua programming language, another on the EBIF standard, which is a subset of the cable Open Cable Application Platform (OCAP), and a third on DVD capabilities.
The Lua-based interactive applications — such as the Widget Bazaar, which enables other content creators to design widgets — include “more sophisticated interaction models, which are beyond sort of a simple display of information and start to become more participatory and interactive” than existing widgets built on XML and RSS technologies, Ambeault said. One of the first uses of the new interactivity was an ESPN fantasy football application. Verizon also has demonstrated Facebook- and Twitter-type applications for interactive TV, but only as proofs of concept and not necessarily apps it will deploy, Ambeault said.
Considering the combination of social networking with TV only makes sense, Ambeault added, because “the important data point is that 2008 was the tipping point in that the vast majority of TV viewing is done with multiple people in front of the screen and a lot of the single-person viewing is more and more migrating to a computer screen. It just keeps coming back in larger and larger volumes from secondary research that the principle reason to consume video through the TV screen is the social aspect of it. So you focus your use cases on that.”
The EBIF-based applications will be bound to the video content itself and can include things such as on-screen live voting for American Idol or other reality shows, or buying directly from a shopping channel, Ambeault said. The virtual-DVD capabilities can allow consumers to buy content that resides in the network but acts like a regular DVD — and also can enable advertisers to package a message within appealing content, he added.
AT&T — which started its interactive offering with its U-bar, giving access to news, sports, weather, traffic and stock quotes — is relying on Microsoft Mediaroom capabilities and is moving to the Microsoft Presentation Framework, an underlying platform for interactivity, said G.W. Shaw, executive director of U-verse marketing for the company.
“The Microsoft Presentation Framework allows us to be much quicker and integrate much better internally as well as with external partners,” Shaw said. “They are giving us the [application programming interfaces] and we will develop internally and work with external partners like Yahoo! and Flickr.”
The basic additions AT&T provides via interactivity either enhance TV viewing by providing more data, which was done for the Olympics and the NCAA's March Madness, or link AT&T's U-verse IPTV service with its broadband and wireless offerings, Shaw said.
SureWest Communications not only differentiates its interactive services from other service providers, but it offers different services on its fiber-to-the-home network in California than those on the hybrid fiber/coax network it operates in Kansas. SureWest's customers in California can actually watch themselves on TV via the TellyTopia i2TV service, as part of the IPTV offering, and can upload their own user-generated video content and see it played on a special channel or view other Internet video on their TV screens.
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