Articles published from 2001 – 2004 about interactive TV, content and business
Advice on iTV services
ITV services suffer from the fact that the deployment of digital TV signals is a result of a technological drive and development, and not a request from viewers. As a result, the penetration of set-top boxes has yet to reach a level where content providers are lining up to exploit the new, direct way to consumers.
Consequently, consumers await more and better content before they decide to acquire boxes, and the result is clear to see: a successful iTV service has to be intelligently designed, easy to navigate, include interesting and up-to-date information – in short bring added value to the experience of watching TV for the average viewer.
Once this is achieved, the complete value chain of signal and content provider to consumer and back will reach new levels in both the economic and practical sense.
An interactive service for digital TV consists of content and packaging, or what is referred to as interface design, which also includes navigation and accessibility.
ITV services can basically be categorized as stand-alone services and enhanced TV services, where the former is viewed as a full screen service, usually not related to broadcast content, and the latter as an add-on to a broadcast signal, or TV program.
Thus defined, iTV services can be considered as a matrix of three elements:
* Relation to broadcast
The most important aspect of content is updating the information frequently, since TV is historically a medium where viewers expect a new experience each time the TV set is turned on. Of course TV is also known for multiple re-runs of popular shows and movies, but in general the medium is not regarded as a look-up or reference source of information.
The internet on the other hand is somewhat different, as many sites act as a library in which the user expects to find data when searching.
The TV is supposed to be entertaining and deliver new events. This applies to iTV as well as regular programs. The design can be simple, but the service will become a success only if the content is of high interest to the viewers. The relation to broadcast may be non-existent (especially in stand-alone services),
but the service can be of great value to viewers if the subject cannot be found elsewhere.
Interface design in general, and navigation in particular, is important for the viewer to feel at ease and comfortable when interacting with a medium which traditionally has not been used in a two-way mode of operation before.
Selecting text in a readable font and pleasant colors means is important so that viewers don’t have to strain their eyes to receive the message.
The number of selections in a menu should not exceed a maximum of 6-8 at a time, in order to keep an overview. The depth of information levels should be limited to 3, just as the golden rule of ‘three clicks away’ before a user finds what is needed is important.
Immediate visual (and sometimes audio) feedback should be provided to the viewer during interaction as a means of showing that the service is responding to input.
Designing successful TV graphics is a challenge, as the TV screen is not constructed to display stills, but moving images. Viewers are not used to seeing static images on the screen, and text particularly can be bothersome to read on a TV screen. Colors should be kept to somewhat subdued variations, not too high in contrast, and text should in general be kept to a minimum. Icons may work well, once the viewer is familiar with their meaning.
The ‘look & feel’ of an iTV service in combination with the navigation and feedback offered to the viewer can to some extent guarantee that viewers will return often. However, this is most likely to be relevant for games or chat/mail-like services, where content in other ways change naturally. Even the most beautifully designed service will not succeed if the content is static – an example would be the iTV version of the Louvre. Viewers would certainly expect to see new art from time to time when visiting from their TV set.
Relation to broadcast:
When creating stand-alone services, the content (and design) can be closely linked to broadcast material, where the viewers seek more information during or, more likely, after the show. Undoubtedly it is easier to tune into another TV channel, rather than look up supplemental data in a book or to switch on a computer and browse the internet.
Certainly a content-related iTV service, serving as an extra channel, will be a success – just as internet sites for core viewers to a given TV show has proven to be extremely popular. The content may be irrelevant to viewers who do not watch the broadcast, the design may be awful, but core viewers simply want more information.
Likewise, other stand-alone services such as weather services, travel information and sports results will all find audiences eager to come back time and again for specialized facts, even though this may not be linked to broadcast subjects.
Enhanced TV services, linked to broadcast, should be created with special care. The dilemma of focus shifting between the broadcast and an add-on graphic is a significant problem, which can only result in the temporary loss of one’s focus.
A remedy is to design the interface exceptionally simply with few (if any) choices, very short texts and, of course, not obstructing too much of the screen with graphics.
For some iTV services in this category, choices are natural elements, such as participating in a quiz or selecting alternative sides in a debate. The viewer can be made to fill in a PIN code or similar ‘heavy’ actions with the remote control.
For any of these interactions it is imperative to keep the phase of physical and mental dealings to a minimum. They should be at least simple enough to be over with when the broadcast switches to new issues.
This rule definitely applies to interactive advertising, where the risk of interacting with one brand name while another is on the screen has serious implications.
Choosing the best interactive format for TV content
In order to shorten time to market for new, interactive TV formats one should be aware that most regular TV programmes can be enhanced using the same key elements. Once a logic and functioning structure is developed for a particular TV programme, the same application may well work for a range of other programs.
The ultimate application is built in modules, where each part is changeable – for instance:
* Number of questions in a quiz
* Amount of information pages
* Logos and general interface design
Consider a trivia quiz application where the user participates to win a prize. The short version of this application is used for an interactive ad, where the total interaction is over in a matter of seconds. Now change the number of questions and the timing, so that the user is asked questions throughout a documentary – perhaps every ten minutes for half an hour. The logic structure and most of the programming is identical, but the experience for the user is totally different.
Needless to say, developing completely future-proof applications is an almost impossible task. Television is, however, a somewhat steady medium, when you take a closer look at the popular content on any given channel. Talk shows, quiz shows and sitcoms have been around for a very long time, and once a new format airs, like the so-called reality TV shows, suddenly there is a huge quantity of the same concept, only now competing for the same viewers.
As a developer of interactive applications, there is no reason to ride the same bandwagon. Instead, the wise strategy is to reuse intelligent programme code and modules. By concentrating on achieving added value for the user, new revenue streams for the content provider and, quite simply, working rationally in the design phase, all the involved parties in this value chain will profit.
The bottom line is that a framework solution can easily be modified to fit a multitude of TV formats, and this is important for several reasons: it is less confusing for the end-user; it means less testing of technical equipment, such as back channel communication; and it is easier to sell to new clients when you can prove success from experience.
Finally, when new TV formats emerge in the future, and new technical possibilities allow more advanced interactivity, take a guess at who will master these challenges best. My bet is on the developers with a treasure box of tried solutions and not those who are just starting out!
Don’t wait for technical standards – think smart now and become a part of the iTV business.
The challenges behind designing interactive services
The main challenges to be seriously considered when designing interactive TV services fall into two categories: technical constraints and artistic ambitions. Once these issues are defined and solved, any service needs to bring the end-user some content of value and prove immediately advantageous – but that’s a different story: see ‘Some Sound Advice on iTV Services’ article.
Solving the main challenges can be easier than it seems…
The technical constraints: colour and resolution
Back in the early 1980s when the first computer graphic workstations were available from companies such as Genigraphics and Dicomed, the designer would have to think twice when creating artwork. The designer could control only 56 colours at one time, which nowadays not only seems like an odd number, but an odd constraint. However, eight of the colours for any one image were reserved, or unavoidable, and as such there was the magic 64-colour palette to actually work from.
When technology some years later offered a full 16 million-colour palette, it was interesting to see how everyone suddenly went for spaced-out, almost flower-power designs – but only for a short time. It was clear that good design depends not on the amount of colour at one time, but much more on a coherent, well-balanced palette.
This same development has been seen on the internet for some time now. When the browsers were capable of showing animated gif-images, Flash- and Quicktime-movies, there was no end to the wild effects you would see on the net. Not for long, though. The end-user simply does not want to waste minutes for a page to load. Besides, most of the time it does not clarify the meaning of the message.
Compare this to new media like set-top boxes and PDAs, portable phones and general household appliances we’re going to see in the near future, and it is possible that the constraints on the technical side may well end up bringing us much better interfaces.
The graphic displays are getting better and smaller. The graphic chips are getting faster, but we are always going to be stuck with the pixels (picture elements making up an electronic display). On a standard European TV display, we have about half a million of them available, but only just over 300,000 are actually in the visible area of the screen. Needless to say, on smaller equipment, like a portable phone, the resolution is even worse. This means less detail, even if we have more than enough colours to play with. Consequently, the image design must be crystal clear in order to convey a message, which users often need to understand instantly. Just for comparison, the standard setting for PCs is now at least 1,024 by 768 which totals 786,432 pixels – more than the double amount of that good, old TV.
The artistic ambitions: clarity and navigation..
In order to ensure that an interactive service for digital TV will be successful, the first rule is “Instant Access.” For the user this means that something visible has to materialise on the screen in seconds. For the service provider it means that pushing bits and bytes through to the TV set must be efficient. For the designer it means rationalising the use of different bits, which again means simplifying the design – limit the amount of elements (colours, fonts and shapes). It brings us back to the comparison of early computer graphics, when not much “horsepower” was available. The important thing is to use the available tools cleverly.
Communicating with images and text has been working for a long time – ever since mankind started painting his walls by the light of a fire in a cave. On the TV screen, which is our modern cave wall or fireplace, the communication is different. Our patience is short and we expect to receive messages and to experience stories – all this without concentrating too hard.
When designing communication for interactive TV services, one often has to lower the artistic ambitions and keep images separated from text. In magazines, we often see beautiful layouts with two-page spreads and text as an integrated part of the images. On the web, we can experience fancy and interactive stories. These media are for immersed, or deep interactivity, i.e. the user enters a world and takes part of the message. Television might evolve from the present, lazier interactivity to a similar full happening, but we are not there yet.
That is why iTV design is in a phase where the first launches are so important for the industry as a whole. If we are not able to attain viewers and users, all the predictions of the new market simply will not be realised. If we don’t reformat information to suit TV as a different medium, we will scare off our customers.
A rule of thumb is to compare magazines to web sites and then interpolate further down for the TV screen. Only one “web site frame” at a time should be displayed on the TV. Most internet portals are filled with several chapters on each page, and a common mistake is to implement this same split screen solution directly to iTV services. It does not work. The navigation has to be done without a pointer, and the screen/resolution is too small to be sub-divided into many areas.
When the average user is watching TV, the screen size in relation to viewing distance makes the area of content, or field of view, about 10 degrees – compared to a magazine or computer screen, where content fills up more than 30 degrees of the active viewing area. Even when the obvious resolution advantages for print and computers are set aside, this fact speaks for less complicated layout and design for the TV.
In short, it is really very simple to overcome the challenges of designing good services for interactive television – “simple” is one of the key words. Further definitions and specifications of iTV design guidelines are defined in the “BRAINS” standard: Basic Rules of Advanced, Intuitive Navigation Systems.
The BRAINS standard:
Basic Rules of Advanced Intuitive Navigation Systems
The user should always be presented with visual feedback and a clear indication of “where-am-I?” and “what-can-I-do?”
Using colour changes, it will at all times be easy to find the point of focus in any screen – no matter if the user interacts with a remote control or a keyboard with a pointing device. Whenever the user navigates, the focus point should change colour and either shift the focus to a new point, change of scene or assume some further input from the user. The most intuitive way of indicating a focus point is by using highlight/subdue effects on icons and text.
Adding to the intuitive universe, the user will need to be informed about what is happening in plain, brief text. Using icons without text is extremely tricky, as interpretation of any image is bound to rely on peoples’ imagination, which luckily varies among age, culture and gender. Only a few icons are truly international, like the ones we can see in airports, but even traffic signs vary through Europe, not to mention the rest of the World, and may be misunderstood.
When it comes to interactive TV services, we are faced with a new dilemma: The user may not at all know what an EPG is (Electronic Program Guide). Use the icon for a booklet, and the user may think it is where to find the manual. An icon for another interactive service, like a ticket ordering service may be considered the pay-per-view service (if the user even knows what that is).
To make matters more interesting, the icons will have to be displayed using only about 40 by 40 pixels on a TV screen, which really does not leave much room for detailed illustrations. Considering the limited colour palette, and the need for highlight- and subdue-versions of each icon, it needs to be an overall extremely simple design. Last, but not least, the user should be faced with only a few choices at one time. Thus, the options must preferably be categorised into a maximum of six-eight different choices, all being visible at one time. Sub-services can be displayed as lists, as these will be dependent on actual content, often associated with brand names.
To solve these challenges one must first decide on a basic palette, say around 16 colours. Of these, one should make room for corporate identity elements, variations of the icons, buttons and text. Once the user is familiar with the basic interface, this new universe will be easy to handle and operate, and different services could even have different palettes.
The main entrance, so to speak, to this whole new universe should be designed with care and simplicity. With a little luck, we might even see a standard evolving from the best interfaces soon. And before we know it, the TV set will be our basic navigation console, controlling most of our different intelligent household appliances: washing machine, stove and central heating system – perhaps even peripheral equipment such as the car alarm or lights in the weekend cottage.
This will benefit all parties, from the hardware and software developers through the content providers to the end user. A final word on standards: Consider the hassle we face when using a phone or ATM machine where the numbers are in the wrong order. There’s no doubt that standards are for the better when designed properly.
Key words for an interface adhering to the BRAINS standard:
Using an efficient colour palette.
Corporate identity stands out.
A few, simple icons, use of highlight and subdue.
Include a brief explaining text for the highlighted selection.
The BRAINS details:
The details of iTV production
The digital signal allows for compression and transmission of data alongside the video and audio. Compression is achieved through the use of the MPEG format. In analogue transmission, each frame is transmitted in full PAL, while the MPEG format is an adjustable compression format. In short, full PAL frames are only sent once in a while and the remaining image information being transmitted is only the difference from one frame to the other. Image compression is the most important factor for transmitting more channels in the same bandwidth as analogue transmission, while digitalisation of audio has more effect on quality of the sound. The extra data transmission is what makes Interactive Services — or rather — Enhanced Television possible.
INTERACTIVE VS. ENHANCED TV
There’s a big difference between I-TV and E-TV: For a broadcast channel to be interactive, it takes a return path, which is usually a regular telephone line. Even though people call a regular TV Guide interactive, it’s really only a program loaded into the ram of the Set Top Box (STB). The user can flip and browse through information, but it is all in the box at one given time. When the user tunes to the channel carrying the TV Guide, all the information is being downloaded, and it will be lost again, once the user tunes away. Another pseudo-interactive service is the “Present-Following” information, which is available on all digital channels. This information is generated and updated all the time and is sent out along with all digitally broadcast channels. Services like these are more E-TV than I-TV because the user cannot really interact with new information, or gather more information than is already in the signal. A chat-service, a two-way e-mail or a home-banking service with transaction possibilities would be truly interactive.
The way a typical STB receives information is comparable to traditional teletext services. Inside the STB is an MPEG decoder, which starts to convert digital data to images, graphics and sound for the television screen and speakers. Tuning takes longer than on regular analogue channel switching because of this process. Even the fastest chips are still only computers, which have to transform information. The sound usually comes through first — in a matter of seconds. The first frames of the video are displayed once the chip receives the first full-frame image — normally in less than 3 seconds. But the data channel is only available once all of the information is in the box. Programming wisely can bring up graphics on the screen even before all the data is present, but in order to have a fully functioning service, of course all the information has to be present in ram.
To calculate how long time this takes, one has to know how much ram is being used in the box for data, and the transmission speed of the signal (how much bandwidth is reserved for data). If the application takes up 1MB of the ram, and the stream is transmitted at 512 kb/s, it would normally take a little over two seconds, but this also depends on which sequence the data is received. Just like when searching for a teletext page, the box has to get the information in the right order before the whole application is ready to use. On some boxes, if the transmission speed is set too high, the chip simply isn’t able to build an application because it gets overloaded with information input. Likewise, on the video: If the compression rate is set too high, the chip will not be able to discern the differences between full screen images, and the result will be chunks or blocks in the image and unsteady image quality. Even audio can loose out information, like when a CD jumps a few notes on a dirty disc.
The streaming of all this information is what is referred to as multiplexing — video and audio is being digitized and mixed (or mux’ed) together with data. All three elements of the digital signal take up less than one regular analogue signal — typically between 2 to 6 Mb. This is why a digital transmission can carry more channels in general, and services in particular, than the “old” analogue systems. The final signal can be transmitted through cable, air or satellite. The end-user of course needs some form of receiving hardware in order to view the services. Either a television set containing MPEG decoding facilities or a STB, which converts the digital signals to analogue. In some systems, the modem in the STB may be a cable modem, which means that the user does not have to connect the regular phone line to the STB, but will simply use the cable to send signals back into the system. This is more convenient to the user, and typically cable modems communicate on a much higher baud-rate than phone-line modems. An example is cable modem (512 Kb/s) compared to phone-modems (14.4 or 28.8 Kb/s). The true transmission speed also depends on how many users are on the system at one time — just like regular Internet connections.
The data-channel in digital transmissions can fetch information from just about anywhere. A feed from the head-end, where computers are converting tv listings into a data format suited for the TV Guide application or the Present/Following banner, or small systems set up for gathering information from other sources, such as meteorological sites, databases containing any kind of information and even e-mail systems. The important part is conversion of raw data into the format needed for the application running in the STB. If the system only gives access to custom made information (i.e. not full Internet access),
it’s called a “Walled Garden” setup.
In order to create a visual interface for television, something the user can interact with, the graphic layer is used to display text, icons and other elements overlaying the video. The graphic chip in the STB is what draws the On Screen Display (OSD graphics),
and that is why the complexity of the OSD depends on the graphic abilities of the chip. The interactive application has to be custom designed to the STB receiving the application — especially when it comes to graphic display considerations. Of course the application also has to comply to other standards, i.e. amount of ram, processor-type and operating system & version.
When it comes to the graphics, however, the most important concept to understand has to do with the way the graphics appear “on top of the background” so to speak. The background is normally an MPEG image, which can be the broadcast signal (video),
it can be a full-PAL still image in the MPEG format or it can be drawn on the screen using only OSD graphic elements, in which case the video layer is empty or blank. The big difference between a full background image and the OSD is that the background is always created in the matrix of 720×576 pixels in the PAL format, and the OSD is placed in the matrix of these boundaries. Counting from the upper left corner 0x0 to the lower right hand corner, 720×576. A graphic element placed in this matrix can either be a rectangular bmp-file or it can be displayed by the chip using coordinates and fill-colors.
Depending on the complexity of the graphic needed, it is up to the designer and programmer to decide whether to have the chip draw the OSD or to include a bmp in the application. Needless to say, it is more efficient to have the chip draw a one-color rectangle, and more efficient to include a complex image (like a human face) as a bmp-file in the appliction. Non-rectangular elements are designed using the transparency feature, which is always color-position 0 in the palette, exactly as in Internet graphics — or when using clipping paths in traditional graphic production.
Depending on the software in the STB, the size of the available OSD layer can vary: When drawing OSD on a live video signal, the first versions of OpenTV only allow using 70% of the screen area for graphics. The second version of OpenTV (EN) allow around 30% cover when using 256 colors and full screen coverage in 16 color palettes. Until some future versions of software, the only way to use 24bit colors is including the image in the background MPEG.
When displaying OSD near the edges of the tv screen, the “screen safe area” has to be considered for the layout. On most tv screens there is an area of 40 pixels (from top down, from left, bottom and right towards the middle) which is outside the visible area. Text and important information should always be kept at least 45-50 pixels away from the edges. If some elements need to “bleed” of the edges, of course the elements are drawn all the way to the last pixel.
The OSD area can be set to three different standards for any application. The 70% area has a “top” version, in which the graphics are centered horisontally and extend from the upper line of pixels down to line number 504. Second version of this area is fully centered, and the third version is of course set to the bottom part of the screen. When drawing OSD on a still image (non-moving video) the whole screen can be used. When using 256 color palette OSD, the maximum display area is 320.000 square pixels in OpenTV EN, while the further development of software may bring us larger areas.
Because of the non-rectangular size of pixels on a tv screen, a horisontal distortion of graphics takes place when displaying OSD. A perfect circle will become an oval, which is 12% wider than what’s expected. One way to adjust for this distortion is to resize all elements to 89% width before exporting to the STB environment. Another work-around would be to create all graphics in the screen size of 809×576 pixels and resizing to 720×576 as a final step. Whichever way, it is always better to resize down than up because of the replacing of pixels.
Horisontal lines should never be thinner than 3 pixels (height). Due to the interlacing of the tv screen, any line of only one or two pixels width will flicker. For the same reason, avoid serif-fonts, but more on these issues later…
ALWAYS USE A TV-SET
The PAL signal tends to soften graphics — even in the graphic layer, which is more precise than the MPEG layer. Due to this fact, some joining colors seem to blur into each other. On the other hand, high contrasts sometimes look like they have an edge between and it is always a good idea to test graphics directly on a tv screen hooked up to the pc on which the creation process is done.
Semi-transparency (in OpenTV 1.1) is very difficult to achieve. It can be created by making a checkered matrix, where every other pixel is transparent and every other is opaque, but for most colors, the image in the video layer will be mis-colored due to the way the CRT lights up the pixels on the screen.
All OSD graphics are always non-antialiased, and sometimes it takes meticulous work to find the right pixels to fill out when displaying small graphics. When resizing graphics for OSD it is necessary to check for misplaced pixels and test on a television screen for the final result. Especially logos and icons in which the smallest errors stand out clearly.
COLOR BY NUMBERS
The first color (number zero in the palette) is always transparent in the STB environment. When displaying a graphic which has transparent areas, all other OSD will be erased under that area of the screen, and the MPEG layer is seen through the OSD graphics.
Any application should have its own palette, and it is wise to always have the same basic colors in the same places for different palettes. Almost all applications need black and white, and these should be placed as color number 1 and 2. White should not be “full blast” — but in the RGB values of 220-220-220.
Likewise, other colors should never be full value on any base color. Especially red/orange tend to flicker and blur if there is too much power in the red channel. Blue and green are not as difficult, but it often looks better to use softer colors.
COLOR LOOK-UP TABLES
When designing 16-color applications, the palette should be decided on at an early stage, so all graphics are saved with the same palette. The chip in the STB does not display the graphics like an ordinary graphic program, but has a look-up table where each pixel is associated with a palette entry. In addition to the colors used for text (usually black or white) the colors from number 3 to 15 in the 16-color palette should be used for navigational graphics (arrows etc) and icons.
For interactive designs, it is often necessary to use highlight and subdue versions of some basic colors in order to visualise the focus point of the navigation. Two to three variations of a basic color make room for variations of buttons, icons and text to show different versions. Focus, selected, passive etc.
Fonts take up ram just like images, and for one font in one size and one weight, the application spends as much memory as for one full screen image. OSD fonts are bitmapped and non-antialiased. This means that small sizes and serif fonts are not suitable for television. Usually an 18-point font (when created in Photoshop) is the smallest readable. It is about the same as subtitle texts and that’s proven to work fine.
The combination of colors and text is important: Colored text is always more difficult to read than white or black — with the limitation mentioned before in mind: Not using pure white, and most of the time, it is a good idea to use a very dark grey than pure black as well.
In general, beware of any other colored text. Because of the relatively thin lines in letters, blurring and contrast artifacts take place and this makes the text hard to focus on.
When creating artwork in Photoshop and any other design program on a pc, the length of a text string shown on a PAL sized image will always differ from the final result being drawn by the chip in the STB. This is in part because of the non-square pixels of the tv screen, and is not a big problem, but something to be aware of.
A standard STB comes with embedded fonts, but it is possible to convert any TrueType or Type1 font to a STB font set. One program to use is the FontMonger (commercially available). More on conversion processes later.
Regular buttons, rectangles and graphic primitives, such as circles, triangles and one-color shapes can be hard-coded and they can be included in applications as bmp-files. The most rational way of creating graphics is to use bmp-files, because they are easier replaced if, for some reason, during the development phase, color- or size-changes are needed.
It is natural to keep control of each graphic element in the hands of the designer rather than the programmer. Converting fonts is only a small part of making any graphic element into a STB element.
When creating bitmaps, it is necessary to resize before saving into the bmp-file format. When creating graphics to a 4-bit environment, all files have to use the same palette — with the colors mapped correctly to each color number in the palette.
In Photoshop, it is possible to map a file or a series of files to one specific palette and subsequently save a 4-bit bmp in the Windows format.
Afterwards each file goes through another conversion process in the programming phase to compress file size further. If several files have to be made ready from different formats, and perhaps even different color depths, it is easier to use DeBabelizer from Equilibrium, which is capable of reading and writing most any kinds of file types.
In DeBabelizer, it is also possible to rearrange palette entries a lot easier than in Photoshop. When backgrounds and large images are converted to the MPEG format, a certain loss of quality is unavoidable. To assure best result, it is recommended to slightly blur sharp areas of the original image prior to saving in the bmp format. Always keep the original file to try out several versions (and when working in Photoshop, keep the layers separate!).
The final result as seen on a tv screen looks very different than what is displayed on a regular pc screen.
Focus points are probably the most important elements in designing interactive interfaces. As the user does not have a pointing device, it has to be evident where the “cursor” is at any time. The easy and natural way to achieve this is by using color changes of the buttons/text on screen.
Navigation by pressing the numerical and/or colored keys on the remote control makes color changes on the navigation elements less necessary, but is not recommended as the norm. There is no room for visual feedback, and it is basically less fun to use than when changes occur at every interaction. When the user navigates by pressing arrow keys instead, the immediate feedback assures that the system is alive and responding.
Arguments such as faster navigation by using numerical keys don’t really work, because of the limitations a natural overview of choices bring. When the user has to choose between more options, it should not be more than 5-8 different, unless the options are in the form of a list, in which case numerical keys will not work anyhow.
When less than 9 options are visible, clever positioning will mean fast access even when using arrow keys.
Whether using icons or text (or a combination) for navigation, these elements have to be designed in two versions; one highlighted (for select-state) and one subdued (for not-selected). It is also possible to have a third version, which lights up once the user presses the “OK” key, in order to give even more feedback, but if the system reacts promptly, this last state is not really needed. Icons can be extremely difficult to design, for more than just one reason:
1) Different age groups/gender/culture assign different functions to icons.
2) Icons have to be simple (small sizes, few colors).
3) Icons can’t be changed after they are once introduced.
When designing a well functioning interface, it is equally important to know early in the process which kinds of choices the user is presented to. Some choices will be displayed as pop-ups, some as lists, others as icons or images — yet others as buttons or hidden-lists.
There are even more ways to activate the choices made by the user: Direct manipulation, choose-and-save or simply switch to another scene.
Combinations are possible depending on the function of choices made. The hierarchy of an interactive service must be clear, for the user and for the designer. It has to be clear to the user how to move around in the service, and how to get back to the beginning. Most users are a little afraid to loose their orientation or to actually “harm” the STB — like a computer needing a reboot.
One way of looking at interactive services is the “flip ‘n’ browse” metaphor, where the screen is a window through which the user sees a page at a time of a book.
Flipping through pages is natural for anyone, and using the right/left arrows feels like a normal navigation. When going “up” a level, like to the previous choice, it will be by pressing the up arrow, unless this is used in the actual page to move between sub-choices.
Most remote controls have specially assigned keys, like a “Return” or “Back” key, which would be the simple solution, but this has to work throughout the whole system, otherwise it confuses.
Key words concerning navigation and usability:
Minimize “travel”, “depth” and “redundancy”.
Clarity on access: To a new topic or to new material in the same topic?
Remove “obstacles” on the screen.
Minimize effort and don’t expect users to learn.
Give visual feedback.
Be explicit, flexible and forgiving.
Include help on the screen (graphical and/or textual).
Use metaphors only if they help.
Once the first few services have been designed in an interactive universe, there is very good reason to keep some basics looking and working the same way throughout other services.
If on-screen arrows are designed as triangles in a particular size, it would be strange to suddenly change their form or even size. If buttons are rounded in the corners, rectangular or any other form, it would be natural to use the same form in similar functions. If lists are displayed directly on the background or in their own boxes, do it the same way other places.
Color changes from one service to the next is actually enough to show the difference — just like the choice of font means a lot for the overall design and look&feel of a service. If a new service has totally different content than what’s already up and running, of course the layout and design has to take new access- and display-options into account.
Example: A TV Guide displays one form of information, while a typical board game is very different. Likewise, a TV Guide is similar in function to a look-up service, even if one has search options and the other does not.
Libraries of all common elements, fonts and color tables should be categorized and saved for re-use. It is so much easier to adjust a well working set of tools and elements than to invent new stuff all the time.
Whenever a new service has to be designed, always look through work done before and get a thorough feeling for which elements can and should be used again — it means even more to the user than to the efficiency of the developers.
These libraries should contain programming code as well as graphic elements: Search functions, input procedures and inter-hierarchy navigation to mention a few. Most services basically do the same thing for the user: Display choices and info.
When it comes to games, this consistency is somewhat different, but at least some functions for games are the same; such as how and where to find rules, options and sub-functions.
Any interactive service will always be present in a system with other interactive services, and should be similar in navigation and functionality to the rest.
The success of a service depends on content, but the ease of use for the user depends on the interface design. Compare to other GUIs, like that of telephones, Windows or cars for that matter. Once a common standard is introduced, it is easy to move into another part of the same universe.
It is very easy to design complex services and tempting to include smart functions, once the designer has a good overview of a service, but the user does not have this overview before, or after (!) using the service.
Links between different services should be made clear to the user. It is often difficult to backtrack in interactive television unlike when navigating on the Internet (or reading two books at a time).
Two seperate services, such as a travel/ticket-service and a weather service may seem natural to link, but as the STB will only hold one service in memory at a time, it means that it is not possible to (re)load a service at a given point. If the same information is needed in two services (ex: the temperature for a Greek island) it is better to display it in each service than to cross-link. This way the user has quick access, doesn’t need to load a new service, and will not be lost in the total hierarchy of the system.
When loading a service, it is possible to include a splash-screen (like starting a Windows program). This allows for control of the load-time, so the whole service is completely loaded before the user starts navigating around in it.
Splash-screens are included in each application or can reside in the STB (in that case, there is only one for all services). In the main menu of an interactive system, the different services available should be categorized in accordance to content.
Usually there will be a set of services having to do with regular television wathcing — such as the TV Guide, access to PPV, etc. Other services could include news and events, games, a general setup section and different types of look-up services. This whole concept is entirely new to the average user and should be simple to use.
For almost 40 years the television set has been used to switch channels and control the volume. These two functions have immediate effect and feedback, but in the digital universe, even channel switching take longer time. That’s why all interactions (inputs from the user) need to result in some form of visual feedback from the service.
A look at new media and new iTV formats
Some months ago, when participating in an attempt to think out new ideas for interactive program formats, the whole concept of ‘new media’ got a new meaning.
What happened was that our small group decided to come up with the ultimate applications for interactive television after having wined and dined for a couple of hours. We wanted to focus on a maximum of five standardised frameworks supposedly capable of solving all our challenges of satisfying every link in the value chain. Content provider, signal supplier and the end user – all of them should gain serious benefits.
Having more than 50 accumulated years of experience in the business of interactive communications, the group was well equipped to create technically viable and creative ideas. We split up in three groups of three persons and decided to convene after an hour with presentations from each group.
Naturally this exercise brought out some quite similar schemes, and it does not take a PhD to figure out that one was the classical quiz-show variant of multiple choice questions on the TV screen.
This is just so easy to implement and fits the interface of a remote control with arrow keys and the OK-button. It can be used for live shows with a minimum of back-end controls and it is even easier to enhance taped shows with synchronised interactivity overlaid in post production.
Now, the interesting result from this brainstorm was that we found out how quiz shows are certainly not the only kinds of programs to profit from a simple interactive application. In fact, they were actually among the least suitable once we thought it through.
Documentaries, travel programs and even soaps were much more likely to attract and attain viewers with an added value of the occasional trivia quiz. It is a common practice to have sponsors, but who really does notice which brand is associated with a show when the logo is displayed only before and after the program?
In our case the sponsor would have the opportunity to show a logo several times during the show (neatly embedded in the interface graphics) and the viewers have a motivation to stay tuned and alert during the complete airtime. The short description of how it all works is that clues to the answers are in the story itself. Every five or ten minutes a popup window will prompt a new question related to the content and this, of course, has a time out and can be removed by the viewers who are not interested in participating.
However, most viewers of a particular program will achieve a better knowledge from the program if they decide to take part in the competition – just like a play and learn game. One fine detail is that it’s totally voluntary and will associate positive experiences to the logo displayed on the screen for the viewers who choose to use the application.
This is in stark contrast to the regular commercial breaks, which have more or less lost effect in the past couple of years. In the next few years, with even more channels to choose from, there is not much doubt that TV commercials will suffer even more from audiences tuning away or simply skipping forward when using Tivo- or Replay-devices.
In other words, we discovered how the new media of interactive television could easily bring along not only new revenue streams (sales of screen real estate for logos) but also definitely an enhanced viewing experience for the end-user.
Implemented in an intelligent way, these applications could include questions from previous episodes which would result in building a more loyal community and possibly more hype for the program in general.
The best is yet to come: once such an application is developed, it is an extremely simple task to modify it for a variety of different program types.
As already mentioned, any kind of documentary or traditional soap contains enough information to supply questions for a quiz. And while quiz shows like Who wants to be a millionaire? already are becoming interactive, the real bonus might very well be in combining these elements in new ways.
That could be why we call it new media, new economy and new opportunities…
The obvious iTV content
What made the internet so interesting? How come we have streaming content and animated images in our browsers? Why is the majority of ISPs beginning to offer high-speed connections, where the users can fetch video and huge amounts of pictures through their telephone lines?
Of course, the answer is correct and compelling content. Content, which has a wide audience. Content that will always attract viewers and cause attention. Content that satisfies needs. Due to political considerations, however, we are still experiencing attempts at multi-view soccer events and F1 races, but the real break-through is not there! Amazing, though, because everybody knows what could make the difference.
Let’s face it: The successful content for iTV is more in porn than in sports. This may sound like a sorry excuse to exploit the world’s oldest business, but nevertheless – there may well be a good reason why this content has always been a profitable business. It’s here to stay, and it will never be obsolete.
The obvious opportunity when talking about iTV lies in the superb image and sound quality combined with the perfect use of this medium (television),
i.e. the way people actually spend time in front of the screen.
As it goes, the average viewer is either alone or in an intimate company.
Family viewing is becoming less frequent and more people are living alone than ever before. Even counting the family viewing, there are a lot of viewers spending the last few minutes of the day zapping around after the late night show, and these minutes can in fact turn out to be worth more than the accumulated amount of media attention during the day.
Especially considering the way most young people are living their lives, with all the effort towards gaining a step in the right direction in their career and at the same time trying to establish a relationship – this is a challenge bound to fail. More often than not, marriages end up in divorces and we live in a society where children are brought up with just one parent – if there are children at all.
The adults are living a life without close mental contact to a soul mate. This is perhaps where iTV could make a difference.
Imagine a channel dedicated to setting up close relationships. It would probably not be a prime-time channel, but something people tune to when there is nothing else to watch. On this channel, the viewer will use the remote control to browse through a catalogue of images and texts presenting other viewers of the same channel.
It would be a kind of anomymous rendevouz.
Once you find someone of interest, there is a link to get in touch, just like internet meeting places, but in this case – as already mentioned – the image and sound quality makes for a much better presentation. It is possible to use short videoclips and the ambience can be improved with easy-listening soundtracks. There will even be the option of writing a short message with the remote control in the same way as people use SMS on cellular phones.
This combination of entertainment, exhibition and contact service could easily reach all of Europe. As satellite- and cable-TV coverage in Europe is practically a matter of bandwidth, and digital TV is becoming a standard, the only thing holding the business back from investment is finding the most suitable content. Here it is.
We may still see many trials of interactive ads, sports events and multiple-choice quizzes before the killer application is born, but it is really quite simple to come up with a sure winner.
Just take a look at how the society is developing in most of Europe and the rest of the developed world: Our standard ‘family’ is not living their lives as in earlier times, and they have a completely new medium at hand.
Interactive television is bound to change a lot of the ways people gather information. In this course, they will be looking at screens, which have room for other messages, such as messages from sponsors and links to advertisements.
The main content is the driving force, and this is where content providers need to think differently – and the side effect is the power of reaching a lot of the customers to a certain product. Interactive TV is capable of this, as such a service will be based on viewer preferences (doing searches) and setting up profiles.
What better way to reach a specific target group than to have the customers supply information about their preferences? In the case of an iTV service where the main subject basically is very personal as the objective is looking for partners, there is a great opportunity of localising and zooming in on very exact targets in every aspect.
Content related iTV services
As digital TV-transmissions are being deployed throughout Europe, it’s interesting to analyse just which kinds of services are offered to the consumers.
We will all soon be able to access e-mail services, home banking and various games from our TV sets, using either a set top box or by acquiring a new, digital TV set. Of course, any serious operator also includes the inevitable electronic programme guide and usually some news or sports pages for the user to browse through.
All the while, developers are wondering when the magic level of subscriber penetration will be reached and whether to rent or sell the equipment to consumers – or give it away. Well, no wonder it’s difficult to push these services to the average consumer. Did anyone ever ask for digital TV? Is the average consumer really able to see the difference in image quality?
Sometimes, the fast moving images of a digital video stream are being destroyed by the mpg-compression.
When the consumer is faced with these artifacts just a few times, plus the slow zapping every time and pseudo interactive services to top it off, it’s bound to be a long way before everybody wants to join.
Chicken and Egg Problem
And until that happens, we’re faced with the classic ‘chicken/egg’ dilemma. Nobody is going to use interactive services when the content is too lame. But no content suppliers are investing in new concepts while penetration is so low. The same problem has been around before. Consider having the world’s first telephone. How fun could that have been? We need new ideas on the content production side in order to build our audience – the faster, the better.
During the development phase, when focus groups are asked if they would like e-mail access on their TV sets, they usually answer in the positive – just like games and lookup services sound interesting. Compare this to asking a cave man if he would like a kitchen, a bathroom, a study…. Why would anyone deny interest in better surroundings?
The problem is that our everyday TV viewer doesn’t actually know what these services contain, just like the cave man would lack insight into designing his modern home properly. This is where we, the players in the industry, need to consider real hard which services really belong in the interactive TV universe.
Viewing preferences are changing
Another problem we are facing, along with the new possibility of transmitting interactive services, is that this wonderful technology is enabling consumers to record their favourite programs without the bother of a standard VCR. Products such as TiVo and RePlay already allow for intelligent recording, which means that viewing preferences will change radically in the near future.
We will switch on at our own time, not necessarily in the general prime time anymore, and most importantly, the days of commercial breaks may be over! These can be skipped as easy as a song on a CD.
This time-shifted TV-viewing means that broadcasters and producers will soon have to come up with new ideas of financing their products. However, the dilemmas mentioned above could converge into much better services to the end-user.
Content Related Interactive Services
Content Related Interactive Services (CRIS) might be the answer to reach mass penetration. Most news programmes only cover each story very briefly – though there is plenty of background research material. The news desk acts as a filter and presents highlights in perhaps just half an hour.
But it is still only a minority of users who are ready and willing to switch on their PC and surf the net for more info. Why not stream along the extra background information on the data-track of digital transmission? It’s easy, cheap and available when you need it.
The same ‘CRIS’ approach will certainly enhance the experience of watching documentaries, movies, quiz shows and even commercials. As the regular program airs, and the consumer is tuning to the appropriate channel, the set top box simply records/downloads the extra information for the user to explore at his own time.
There is no doubt that such kinds of services are more interesting to the consumer, and it doesn’t take a PhD to figure out how targeted the audience suddenly is.
While watching a certain program of interest, and when offered more information, it’s an active choice to access this embedded ‘present.’ It will not be long before channels or programs that are not including data tracks simply are not considered interesting at all.
The next point of this vision is incorporation of association chains. An example could be the ‘CRIS’ broadcast along with a travel program. This would initially include extra information on the country being covered in the story. Most likely, it would also include offers from a travel agency near your home. Now that the viewer is in the perfect mood to order a ticket – since she or he has just seen how great this destination is and learned a bit about the climate, currency and so forth – there are several chains of association to be followed, not unlike links on the net.
There is the need for a new suitcase, insurance, temporary pause delivery of the daily newspaper and so forth. There is nothing new about linking services like this, but when talking interactive TV, and combining regular program content with extra services, it all becomes worthwhile and unique for the consumer.
When including ‘CRIS’ to a movie, a soap series or a children’s program, the obvious extra information would be merchandise and perhaps the opportunity to test the consumers’ related knowledge in a small quiz.
As the consumer will access this info at his own free will, it’s very likely that the service will be conceived a lot more positively than the average commercial break we’re used to.
On a final note, try this small exercise at home: When you watch any kind of program the next time, I will bet that most of you can readily think of at least three content related subjects which could be interesting to explore to some depth. As long as you are the one deciding to make the choice, and it’s not being forced into your viewing experience, it wouldn’t even matter if there were a logo or an offer to join in some simple competition.
It’s really simple: Interactivity equals communication plus choice!
Television content finally dead
A tongue-in-cheek obituary on the demise of content and a hypothesis on the rise of a new application…
As a result of the controversial ‘Jorgensen Study’ released earlier this week, it is now an indisputable fact that content on television no longer matters.
The global community has obviously embraced ‘TVpicks’ and viewers are no longer using television as a means of entertainment or information. The phenomenon of a so-called PokÃ©mon-Syndrome (“Catch’em All,” which originally started as a game for children) has bewitched people all over the world in the hunt for bonus points ranging from free access to more television through winning basic commodities and cash prizes.
The highly respected Jorgensen Group had been asked by AGCP (the Association of Global Content Providers) to investigate whether audiences around the world noticed what was going on in the programmes behind TVpicks, and the report clearly states one unambiguous fact: Nobody cares for content anymore.
Content is simply dead!
Killer app got a new meaning!
Ever since the invention and launch of digital television, there has been a rising concern among content creators all over the world about the effect of too many TV-channels. Would the audience really want to watch more television? Would anybody really be asking for more soaps, game shows or news? As the politicians tried to regulate digital transmissions and advertising in commercial networks, the viewers seemed to respond with a PCI-attitude (Profound Consumer Indifference).
Although several major reports commissioned by the governments in the US and in Europe predicted the development of a new-world economy based on huge demands for TV-commerce, none of these forecasts came true. However, as the TVpicks craze has shown, there will always be amazing, unpredictable results from new technology – once the right idea comes along.
Just as the breakthrough of the internet began when consumers were given free e-mail accounts, the invention of TVpicks apparently instigated end-users to really want and use digital television. For years the broadcasters and service providers have been trying to find a “killer application” which was supposed to drive penetration of set top boxes. Until the invention of the TVpicks concept, nothing worked.
The way it works
When researchers from the Jorgensen Group explain this sudden change in the business, they unanimously agree on the beauty of simplicity as a winning factor. TVpicks enable viewers to earn points by pressing the OK-button on the remote control at key points of any broadcast stream. The basic idea, according to researchers, was to give viewers enhanced entertainment and control of the information offered.
Personalised advertising would benefit all parties in the value chain – but nobody dreamed of the success and effect that followed. As for the just as sudden “death of content” side effect, everyone in the business is still in a state of shock.
However, with viewers all over the world being hooked on television, as never before, the industry is booming and stock of TVpicks Inc is now well above both Microsoft and Sony, combined.
Interestingly, other advantages seem to accompany the TVpicks concept. World population has stabilised as a surprising result of less sexual activity when people spend still more hours watching television.
Keeping a job is no longer necessary to sustain a reasonable income, as all kinds of goods can be obtained by collecting TVpicks from sponsors.
Predicting the future
As the smart reader will have noticed, this whole story is fiction – however, as nobody predicted the success or even existence of e-mail or SMS 20 years ago, history tells us that sometimes the most weird products will change our lives. Once we have access to unlimited bandwidth, who knows what will happen?
Where does iTV take us next?
How can we possibly imagine the coming iTV services? Let’s try to keep an open mind for the options we are faced with in the next few years.
Consider the development in communication technology we have witnessed the past 150 years. Not only the invention of the television and telephone has changed our means of reaching an audience, but also the speed of spreading information has increased immensely. The internet and that wonderful spin-off , e-mail, makes for a total change in the way many people interact in general.
During the past few years, even I have personally become somewhat dependent on similar technological breakthroughs, such as the Short Message Services offered by most cellular phone providers. Needless to say I did not miss it when it was not available, but now that it’s here, I couldn’t live without it. Has it made my life better or easier? Hard to tell.
Did the invention of the wheel make a significant change to how mankind lived life? Certainly! Of course there’s a serious difference between SMS and the wheel, I know, but one interesting element of this change in commodities is the unpredictability of our future.
Not unlike the invention of the wheel, iTV will change our everyday lives, and the best part about this is that we actually know it will happen. When the poor slaves of Egypt were in the process of building the Pyramids, they didn’t know how much easier it would be to move tonnes of bricks using trucks instead of rolling trunks of tree. Today we already have more consultants working on business models – taking advantage of broadband communications – than the Pharaohs had slaves.
Makes you think, doesn’t it?
However, even though we know it will occur, we are still unable to come up with precise visions of how iTV will influence our future. A wide variety of arguments, pro & con, have been heard at numerous conferences, but in reality it’s all just guesswork.
Now, coming back to the open mind mentioned initially, let us for a moment analyse how most people act when they visit a library or the average news-stand. Nobody in his right mind would contemplate reading all the books or magazines. It is there for our convenience and we have the option to choose which information we need at any given time.
Similarly, having instant access to two-way communication will imply a lot of selection and sorting. This is where we need new tools, inventions that were not needed or possible at earlier times. Exactly like the car is a natural vehicle (excuse the pun) for the invention of the wheel, we are going to experience strange, wonderful and possibly dangerous toys in the area of communications.
One such invention is likely to be pseudo intelligent “agents” helping us to sort and access all the information available. When we really have iTV in our hands, we need help finding the bits and pieces that we are looking for. In this early stage of iTV, we are already witnessing attempts at creating intelligent EPGs and PVRs that are learning from the way we watch TV.
When it comes to other aspects of iTV we will soon have automatic chat-rooms, communities and IMS-like services at the touch of a button, once we turn on the TV set. All of this was not considered necessary when the TV was invented, but it certainly makes use of all the best from a rapid technological development.
Our world is changing, and when you put the various parts together, interesting things happen. Let’s embrace the opportunities and make a difference, just like that ancestor did, when he cut up the logs into slices. Now, that was easy, you might say – but the best ideas are often the most simple.
Banners on iTV – how to succeed
As still more providers of digital TV are deploying interactive services, designers and developers are faced with the task of incorporating banners and ads in the various interactive services – both in stand-alone and enhanced TV applications.
This means solving a range of problems. Firstly, the resolution of a TV screen is much worse than the average PC screen. Compared to printed material, such as a magazine or a newspaper, the TV simply isn’t fit for displaying good quality stills.
Second, the user often has the interaction device (remote control) sitting on the table, and not immediately at hand when watching TV.
Third is the annoyance factor, which most of us know from the websites using animated gifs or popup windows. Furthermore, the act of watching TV is, for most consumers, a linear experience where hyperlinking is not natural behaviour except for the zapping when content gets too boring.
These obstacles can be overcome, however, with the right approach.
The resolution problem implies that banners must be small, so as not to take up important screen real estate from “real” content. When talking of EPGs, there is a tremendous amount of data to be displayed, whether it is in the American grid or the European list. After all, we have at least 50 channels, each with perhaps 20 events per day, and all these 1,000 items have to be searchable by genre – just to mention a few of the elements.
When having interactive additions to a regular program (aka enhanced TV) it should be obvious that blocking too much of the screen is a bad idea. In both cases, the visual signal that some interactivity is available should be discreet. In other words: The banner must be small, but clear and distinct.
Obtaining a quick reaction from the consumer can be solved by using a quick-key instead of the frequently used arrow-keys and OK. On most remotes you will find an “i”-key, providing more information about the current program, and this can be overruled for the few seconds of interactivity in a regular program, and in stand-alone services, it is seldom used at all. The “one-click” approach will generate more hits than other complicated navigation – remember that the recipients of that ad are labelled couch potatoes for a reason: They’re lazier than most users of the internet.
Once the banner ad is actually clicked upon, you have to make sure it offers some positive information, relevant to the context in which it is set. This may well just be one image with accompanying text, explaining where to find out even more at the viewers own choice. It must be easy to get back to the program or service that was just left, and this means no change of channel.
On the advertising page, there should be a clear return link, and if it also includes an external link, it must be obvious that you are about to leave the present surroundings.
This also can be compared to browsing the web. I am probably not the only one being fooled by “cleverly” designed external links, which forget where my browser came from. This is even worse in the iTV-world, as we don’t even have the backtracking capability.
With all this said, there is no doubt we will see many different ways of solving the new challenge in selling ads on iTV. There are lots of eyeballs watching, and the effect of having your logo displayed on that screen is powerful. But at the end of the day, the ads might not even need to be interactive. After all, the enormous marketing budgets of Coca-Cola have done wonders for the brand, but people don’t buy a soft drink each time they see the logo, now do they?
Normally it is worth the money to just get noticed. In the iTV business there is even the option of being associated with a strong experience and have the consumer react when he or she is motivated and in the exact right mood. But it must be done wisely.
iTV: A look at its past, present, and future
Back in 1993, when the first demos were being developed in Scandinavia, there was no doubt that this new medium could generate massive revenues for the telecoms companies and other service providers, as well as for content providers – and of course iTV was destined to become a huge success with the consumers.
At a point in time where the dot-com death was still an unknown phenomenon, it was an easy task to convince investors that getting access to the living rooms and using two-way communication could not fail to succeed.
In the beginning almost everyone in the business agreed that interactive TV had potential in several fields: from distance learning, to general public service utilities, to the ubiquitous pay-per-view services. It would be the perfect tool to reach millions of people because of the technology of broadcasting, compared to point-to-point distribution of information.
Whether using cable, satellite or terrestrial transmission, this technology had bandwidth superior to the internet, and the return path did not need more than a regular modem in order to fulfill most of the needs of the interactive services.
Back then the requirements for real business models were considered as “we will find out along the way – just get the stuff working first.” This was of course a luxurious state of development, as the money kept flowing in, and the visions were only limited by imagination.
Along the way came focus group testing of ideas and functions. The average viewer was asked if it would be of interest to receive e-mails on the TV-set, if up-to-the-minute sports results were something you would pay for and which kinds of public information you would want to access via the TV screen. Telephone directories? Sport results from your local community? Chat with someone sharing your hobbies and interests?
In this phase, the business models were still thought of as some minor element to fall into place before everything was actually up and running. Classical sponsors were used in the mockups, such as Coca-Cola, the symbol of advertising, or more content related brands like a telecoms firm for the phone directory or Nike for the sports results.
So, what happened? The average viewer being tested said: “Yes, that would be cool. Yes, I’m willing to pay for extra information.” What nobody could predict, however, was how technology kept on evolving at an extremely rapid pace.
High-speed internet connections gave us access to TV-like content with streaming and endless channels. Nobody had asked for it, but when it’s suddenly there – almost for free – sure enough nobody complains about the quality.
Nowadays developers in the iTV area continue the struggle of coming up with a killer application, which will change the way consumers spend their time in front of the TV, and at the same time persuading content suppliers that it’s a good idea to split the marketing budget into one more medium.
There is no longer a reason to wait for more boxes or consumers, as we are beginning to have statistics showing serious amounts of deployed hardware and software on the market. The time has come to “just do it” – to steal a very good slogan from a well-known brand.
During the past eight months it has become an everyday occurrence to hear about launches of interactive TV shows and services. But the fact of the matter is that there are still no exact business models showing how, why and what to launch with a guarantee of profits.
In the immediate future, which means a year at most, some services and business models will have proved prosperous and others will end up as steps on a ladder, depending on how consumers and providers perceive the changing opportunities of keeping in touch with each other, which is basically what interactive TV accommodates.
The next step on the ladder will be maximum exploitation of the new medium. Not being too frightened about business models, but just seeing where it takes us.
Great potential in iTV and New Media
Let’s face it, the market is still not too active when it comes to trading iTV applications. For the most part, providers of digital TV (DTV) have only been acquiring standard services, such as a customized EPG, news and weather services or a couple of games from the few software houses capable of delivering.
Thanks to the scare from internet investments gone wrong, we are witnessing an extremely reluctant market for interactive entertainment. This is partly a healthy reaction, partly a shame for the lots of creativity out there. Without a doubt, this new medium needs profitable services and public interest before anyone in his right mind would start pouring resources into yet another hot air balloon.
In contrast to the killer application of the internet (e-mail)… we still need to invent something amazing for iTV.
Recently, however, I had the curious experience of attending two separate meetings, where it dawned on me how the ice may be broken.
First came the deja vu incident where a project was being presented to young executives from a TV station, who undoubtedly know exactly how important revenue streams are. They clearly also had a good understanding of the struggle the iTV business is facing these days, such as the missing standards and all. What was lacking, though, was the vision of how to take advantage of a not too distant future, in which all viewers will be receiving their signals digitally.
It is hard not to compare this with the famous response from 1875 US President Rutherford B. Hayes made when he was presented with the telephone. “It is a remarkable invention, but who will ever use it?” Perhaps it was difficult to explain and convince old Rutherford how this new invention would change the world.
Hindsight, of course, is an easy crystal ball, but the sad part about this little story is that history is repeating itself again.
The main problem for iTV development seems to be this arrogant attitude from frightened and non-visionary business people, and not necessarily the ongoing platform/OS/standards discussion.
Having said this, luckily there is also a positive episode that springs to mind.
The other meeting mentioned earlier involved 100 per cent technical staff – no mention of business models, income possibilities or use of persuasion techniques. The sole purpose of the meeting was to explain how a new approach to handling iTV services could work.
Since the people explaining it were not in sales, they focused on facts and spoke from the heart. In fact, their presentation was verbally and visually quite poor, but the message was unambiguous. They were only in it because they believed, almost knew, that this idea was the only perfect answer to an unasked question.
In other words, the client did not actually have an immediate need, but as the project was put forward with such honesty, the client ended up contributing to the development and placing an order of considerable size.
The lessons are therefore twofold:
1) When buying iTV services, or you become involved in acquiring any new media technologies for that matter, try to think further than next few months. In a world of rapid changes, it takes a visionary and open mind to succeed, and in the case of two-way communication through the TV, there is definitely a huge potential for making it big because of one fact: more consumers have access to TV than to phones.
2) When selling iTV services, try to avoid the pitfall of having smart sales people making fancy presentations. Instead, focus on how and why your project deserves to proceed, and maybe will even continue with or without your client, because your own confidence is all that matters.
If nothing else, these suggestions should provide the iTV market with a little optimism for the many meetings in the coming years, where buyers and sellers get together in what should hopefully produce a breakthrough in a promising, new market.
Why not use templates to design iTV applications?
There is a good reason why the market-dominating presentation tool PowerPoint has had such overwhelming success. Back in the late ’80s, during early versions of the program, regular users had the opportunity to become involved in the development of features and functions through an open forum, where suggestions on how to improve future versions were welcomed.
This not only proved a successful strategy in affording designers a better understanding of the way users worked with the tool, but it also allowed them to see just what kinds of common themes came out in presentations.
Users described the content they would typically include in standard presentations, ranging from the financial world, to product launches and strategy/kickoff meetings. It turned out that among the vast number of presentations held every day, the majority of these were built from basically the same keywords and outlines.
Presenters are now able to put together a professional presentation simply by answering a few questions at start of the program. We have the option of getting help on what to put in each and every slide – and the result is, if not perfect, almost always a safe bet.
This idea of standard models and templates can be extended to developing iTV applications and services. We can split the types of services into just a small number of basic models, for instance:
1) Program related
2) Stand alone
Each of these of course has several sub-categories, but the overall technical requirements will be enough to begin designing templates.
Along the way, every variety will naturally be divided into other classifications, depending on the availability and necessity of a back channel (the use of a modem) and amount of input (on-screen keypad or a ‘real’ remote control keyboard).
At this time in the business of iTV, it can be rather difficult to imagine how such a complex item as a fully functional application could possibly be created from answering “a few questions from a wizard.”
But let’s not forget that the average interactive service does not diverge much from the average business presentation. You have a message, an audience, a medium and the interesting challenge of the short attention span of the receiver.
Interactive services can and should be based on templates, instead of re-inventing “new” solutions every time. This is a fact that the cleverest developers already know and employ to some extent, even if their customers are not be aware of the similarity to existing services.
Some excuses involve the discussion surrounding standards and insecurity about revenue models, which are justifiable, although not reasons to delay the process of entering a highly profitable new market.
Start by thinking along the same lines as when building a presentation. Ask your developing partner which basic functionalities and chunks of code are already tested and working, then you can pretty easily assemble a fine application in much the same way as PowerPoint did.
Another obvious trick is to study the applications running in the networks and rethink content. Weather forecast for regions and cities are equivalent to products in categories and varying prices – same model, different content.
You can even have automatic updates from a central database – without spending five times the normal amount for a 30-second commercial break running for a few weeks.
iTV advertising has its benefits
When it comes to advertising through new media, especially iTV, everybody seems to be asking for results even before trying it out.
But compare new media advertising to that in traditional print media and it seems clear that increased sales might not immediately materialize from the first showings.
Consider that when you flip through your next Sunday paper, more than 50 per cent of the content is ads. This has become a tradition, and ad buyers are used to a rather low response rate from print media.
But in the new media advertising arena, companies don’t seem to have the same expectations. Perhaps it’s because of the many internet failures. But what about all the magazines and newspapers that didn’t make it through the years? This hasn’t stopped print advertising.
So it’s a good idea to analyse just what results iTV advertising really bring the general campaign, and the market has lots of combinations with various benefits.
First, you have to decide whether the ad needs to be interactive at all, or whether associations with a specific program or service justify the small cost of placing a logo on screen. As an iTV content delivery provider, sponsor or partner, you would be expected to spend a few pixels on promoting yourself – or selling a small area of screen real estate, even if the ad doesn’t function as a shop entrance for customers.
The viewers will notice a brand or a product and that awareness is worth at least as much as outdoor posters or printed ads with no coupon.
This is where the limited TV screen for once offers an advantage: it’s easier to stand out on that square than if you place huge billboards along the highway, because the audience is concentrating and focused.
Secondly, decide from which type of service or program you get the best promotion. Just as when the non-coupon ads of print media are part of the marketing strategy, you need to investigate target groups.
Of course, you need to place your ad in the correct spot. There is more reason in placing a travel ad in the weather forecast than in the EPG.
In the world of TV, viewer habits have long been measured and used for the standard commercial breaks. Now you can take part of the program or service directly instead of just playing the intermission.
This factor is the most important to embrace in the overall calculations – how to include interactivity.
Naturally, the whole idea of advertising in iTV incorporates that extra element of inviting potential customers to interact with your message. This can be in the form of requests for more information, product samples or even a direct demand to be contacted by phone. A cheap, but effective solution is to include a page or two with images and text inside the iTV application, leaving the viewer in a safe environment rather than using links to external services.
The optimal two-way communications link comes when integrating the back channel, normally a modem in the set-top box. It is much like the traditional coupon, but easier to use and a great deal more impulsive when used in a medium where mood and feelings drive the experience.
The bottom line is that although you will not instantly push more products over iTV, being able to convey information efficiently to a target audience in a high-attention situation is a massive marketing weapon. In time, the technology will improve and audiences will expect to find added value services in all kinds of TV programs.
Until then, experimenting can bring you the advantage of being a crucial step ahead of any competitors. As in all other aspects of new media, know-how is one of the key characteristics of success.
Make the most of iTV – learn from regular TV
Imagine turning on your TV set one evening a few years from now, when all the channels are fully digital, and they have the capacity of carrying loads of data tracks along with the audio/visual experience.
Sitting in your favourite armchair, you can attend lectures from Harvard, explore the background information on science expeditions or investigate your next vacation spot inspired by a travel program.
Using an infrared keyboard, you can even engage in a chat room with your friends and comment on the news or that show you all follow.
Communities tend to build around cult events, and suddenly you can receive live transmissions of the greatest concerts in the world – while at the same time, you share the experience with friends, because you get a message directly on the screen, telling you that they’re also watching the event.
Almost as good as being there in person.
Almost as good as going to Harvard.
This scenario would be a natural development with the technical possibilities of digitally transmitted TV signals. Due to the smart signal compression and abundance of channels, not to mention the extra option of actually having small applications running in the TV or set-top box, there is a good reason to believe that mass communication will take a turn very soon.
However, when you consider the evolution of televised content for the past 20 years, there could also be a reason to yell out “WARNING!”
What we are witnessing is a sad and overwhelming amount of technical solutions being created “because it’s possible.” Not necessarily because it makes good use of a premium form of communication.
If the whole concept of televised pictures and sound were to be invented today, I personally think that a perfect selling argument would be along the lines of education. But the medium turned out to be great for entertainment instead, which is not necessarily a bad effect, but certainly not something to be overly proud of for our future generations.
We are at the edge of an amazing new opportunity to teach and enlighten not only the Third World population, but, in fact, everyone with access to a TV set. Do we really want to produce more game shows with ads popping up all the time? Where is the gut out there to “proudly associate” a product with intelligent communication – as in producing in-depth documentaries with an attitude and an application?
When will we see interactive television making a difference?
The big difference at the moment is mostly slow tuning and weird interfaces that have a tendency to confuse rather than simplify the act of watching TV. Just to set the record straight, there has also been a fair amount of positive attempts to meet customer demands of iTV, and of course it is important to achieve a healthy economic balance (a.k.a. profit).
But when you think about it, what could be a better opportunity to reach literally billions of people in just one signal? All it takes is a little knowledge about the principles of combining video, audio and fairly uncomplicated interfaces in order to make the experience a successful challenge for the viewer.
That is when profits will follow, for the simple reason that attention is turning out to be the currency of tomorrow’s market. To paraphrase a popular slogan: “reach out and touch everyone! Do it with iTV.”
Making alternative profits in iTV
Developing applications and add-on interactivity for regular digital television (DTV) has often proven difficult in the industry.
Still more players are laying off personnel, closing down offices, or trying to stay alive by providing consultancy services.
Some are going back to their “roots” of doing websites instead of exploring new business areas. This is really a shame, in the light of the fact that TV as a medium still outperforms PCs both in numbers and as a general interactive entertainment platform.
TV has always been a superior medium for storytelling, and the recession in iTV business is sadly beginning to seem serious.
This situation could change rapidly if one considers the vast amount of alternative transmission paths leading to viewers. Not PDAs or mobile phones, as these gadgets still have too small screens to provide much of an experience other than delivering short messages.
What I’m getting at is the market of hotels with in-suite interactive services. These systems have, in effect for a long time, provided pay-per-view (PPV) services, information services such as a menu from the restaurant and room service. Some even provide additional “what’s up in town” channels and uncomplicated arcade style games.
The beauty of these products is clear: First, the audience typically wants to be entertained and informed on very specific matters. Hotel guests will gladly spend time and money, as the use of on-demand movies and internet access has shown.
Second, the billing process is simple to implement. The usage can be added directly on to the invoice or charged separately to a credit card.
But perhaps most importantly, developments of these services include the exact same elements as services for iTV. There is a need for quick response time, simple interfaces, know-how about some proprietary operating system and frequent content updates. All of this means creating services for a DTV network.
Transmission is frequently accomplished using satellite/dish plus local cabling with up to 100Mbit lines. Compare that to the traditional DTH or, in particular, the DTT market, and you will suddenly have bandwidth for more services than most at-home consumers can access.
The result could be real – and profitable – VOD, better quality streaming video due to the high bandwidth and a new combination of a “walled garden” approach without limits.
This may seem a contradiction in terms, but could work by guiding users through a predefined portal, but using this only as a recommendation of services, because the target group is quite easily defined.
The market of hotel chains could very well become the next likely niche for pushing interactive television content to literally millions of people a year.
It will require some re-thinking about the types of interactivity, as hotel television viewing certainly differs from home viewing. But more often than not, such obstacles bring out new creativity in developing teams.
At any rate, we are looking at an industry where development is facing some serious challenges – like migration to completely new software architectures, backwards compatibility when faster set-top boxes begin hitting the stores and generally staying alive in tough competition.
Why not look around for other opportunities than fighting over the same few end-users out there?
Perhaps this is already happening, not just in my mind or some interesting ongoing projects. In that case, I can only say “the sooner, the better!” Let’s not surrender in this iTV business, but exploit our challenges to improve.
Sensible payment methods for iTV services
Among the interesting challenges we meet as developers of interactive services for digital TV (DTV) is selecting which form of payment options to include for pay-per-use (PPV) applications such as games, detailed information, and special events.
Traditional methods, used even before digital signals were common, involved users dialing a premium, overcharged number to join a quiz, competition, or take part in a TV show in other ways.
Even now, there are still some PPV operations around that use older model set-top boxes without a modem, and the only way to order an event is by phone. The smart card in the box then receives a descrambling key through the TV signal and opens for that particular show.
Somewhat easier is the so-called iPPV, or impulse Pay Per View, where users simply click the OK button on the remote control and immediately gain access to a scrambled channel.
At night a modem in the set-top box automatically sends a notice back to the subscriber management system about the consumption of paid watching. Depending on the overall technical system, the user will be charged on his regular phone bill, the DTV subscription, or a separate invoice.
All of this is pretty smart, as the relationship between the consumer and the provider is already established. But sometimes it causes problems, like when the subscriber is not identical to the consumer. This may seem irrelevant at first, as prices are normally quite small. But even so, individual members of a household might want to see a split of the services used by each person.
This may not be important when shopping for CDs and books, but when more betting services – not to mention adult entertainment – begin to hit the screens, users may want to pay for services via other private methods.
As the penetration of mobile phones has already proven, this is perfect for personal use and thus for individually targeted communication. In order to employ a simple system in the world of iTV, a user would send an SMS to a specified number and receive a code to descramble the signal right away.
VoilÃ¡: You achieve not only a direct billing to the consumer, but even more importantly, the supplier will be able to market a product straight back to that same person. A simple example would be using a feature known from amazon.com, where you get recommendations to further reading material or music when you order books and CDs.
If you liked this show/event/movie, you will most likely also want to watch a similar thing, get a reminder on your mobile a day in advance. Developers should also include an option of accepting this invitation so users will see it as service instead of annoying marketing.
Mobile phones are already used to pay parking tickets and buy soft drinks and other commodities. So my best guess is that we will start seeing personalised entertainment offers from iTV service providers before long. The possibilities of cross media selling are enormous and if it is packaged the right way, consumers will definitely welcome smart solutions.
As for any mass communication, it would be important to include a way to opt out. Otherwise users will receive tons of messages, just like spam mail – and for the companies doing that, one can only wonder why they only seem to use opt-out as a way to update their address books. That’s when they discover your e-mail address is still alive.
Let us look forward to more intelligent creations in the years to come. The potential is out there, that’s for sure.
MTV hopes games will keep viewers tuned in during ads
MTV UK began a novel experiment recently that it hopes will show that an iTV game can entice viewers to sit through commercial breaks rather than change channels.
Called “WimblePong” in honor of the upcoming annual Wimbledon tennis championship, the experiment overlays a game of the electric-green-colored tennis ’70s video game Pong on top of regular linear-TV ad spots.
MTV spokesperson, Jaime Strang, told itvt that a “Play” button appears in the upper-right-hand corner of the TV screen 15-20 seconds before a commercial break begins – when the viewer clicks on the button, the game loads up.
The game is single-player for now, and, as no prizes or leader boards are provided, it does not use the dial-up backchannel. Points are simply for fun: if players change channels, they lose all their points; if they resist the urge to change channels, they accrue points through all the commercial breaks.
“We just want people to get used to the idea,” Strang said. “We’re very keen to open the debate on the serious issue of how we keep viewers with the channel during ad breaks in an increasingly competitive environment where people are recording their programming on TiVo and Replay and skipping commercials.”
According to Strang, MTV’s sponsors have reacted positively to the experiment. They were, for example, willing to pay regular rates for the spots, even though their ads are partially obscured by the game.
Asian iTV – the next design test
How will designers cope with a completely different set of characters, layout conventions and visual culture?
While developing iTV services for the European market was an interesting task back in the mid-90’s, it is indisputably even more fascinating to begin designing services for the Asian market.
Among the various decisions to be made is, of course, whether to apply the grid-format or the list-format for displaying TV programs in the Electronic Program Guide.
Another choice has to do with the overall look and feel, where we are used to simplicity in Europe (perhaps especially in Scandinavia) contrary to most any web site you might visit – or magazine you have seen – from the Asian communities.
The character nightmare
Regarding the display of Roman versus Chinese characters on a TV screen, it does not take a designer to realise how dissimilar these important communication icons are.
We regularly concentrate on font size, family and contrast in order to secure readability, but this is not nearly the end of discussion when it comes to displaying Chinese characters through a set top box.
First of all, there is simplified and traditional Chinese to choose from.
Secondly, a probably well-known fact is the astonishing number of characters in even the simplified version.
This not only means that the memory available in the set top boxes today is likely to be overloaded a long time before you start to include logic code and images, but more critically that you are working in the complete blind if you are not familiar with the written language. Big problems!
The layout and colours
One of my personal first questions was: “Should we display the text vertically?” – but luckily I was told that not all Chinese is typed downwards. In newspapers (and on the web) it has for a long time been customary to put headlines horizontal, from left to right, so that issue does not seem to be too troublesome.
While in the process of creating the first demonstrations and prototypes, my research has included bundles of pages from a variety of internet sites, sadly only to conclude that they all seem to be extremely colourful and totally crammed with information. In the beginning, I could not help laughing a little and think about all the unread text and unclicked banners these sites must fall victim to.
However, one has to respect such a divergence in visual expression. The result at present is still a more “quiet” design solution because of the limitation in pixels on the TV screen. After all, they use NTSC out there, which has even less building blocks [pixels] to play with than the PAL system here in Europe.
One other argument for going towards plain and uncluttered design is the inferior colours you get on the NTSC system compared to PAL. It is no wonder some people call it “Never the same colour”. The final argument pertains the golden rule about interface design for interactive services: Keep it simple, which goes for colour schemes and elements alike.
The culture (clash?)
It will be very interesting to see, in the coming months, just how the launched services will look. At the moment we are in the early stage process of development, and one thing is certain: The speed of feedback and intense effort of Asian employees indicates a rapid deployment.
I can imagine a period of swift tests, immediate decisions and perhaps later some finetuning if any details need to be changed.
That is yet another result of two cultures meeting: We are facing an entirely different World, not only in the visual aspect, as described above, but also when it comes to efficiency.
Both these experiences are bringing renewed energy into the work of interactive TV. There is a lot to learn on all sides, and with a little luck, the involved parties have a good chance of coming through and proving that interactive TV equals both business and profit.
Remember the vintage Michael Jackson video with wandering zombies – badly dressed and having the occasional nervous ticks, like they didn’t know exactly where they were headed and why?
This same scene can be witnessed at huge tradeshows, only it’s real people wasting time trying to justify their spending of next years budget on “best solution” products.
Having recently attended the annual IBC, which by all means is a great show, it occurred to me there is some irony in seeing just how many guests seem to spend hours walking about without the slightest sign of actually being mentally there.
Once they stop at some booth, all they get is sales talk from a robotic person, who has been taught the text from a brochure by heart. After which they leave with a plastic bag filled already with kilos of other brochures and the rare toy or other merchandise with company logos.
Will huge designer booths (some of them resembling small villages) plus free coffee, beverages, nuts and sweets really sell more products?
If so, the responsible decision maker should reconsider such a modus operandum seriously. There must be another reason why tradeshows are so popular.
One reason might be the social gathering of colleagues. As the IBC is situated in the middle of Amsterdam and the NAB is in Vegas one could build a theory about the time spent outside the actual show. Both of these places are known to offer high quality entertainment.
Another reason could be meeting old friends and acquaintances in the industry, which you only get to see once a year. Let’s face it: The ratio between new contacts and buddies is about one to four, and this could very well be enough reason to leave the office for a few days.
However, even the least ambitious exhibitor easily spends around E25,000 and hopes for a sale to cover expenses or at minimum some new leads to future clients. These new leads would be difficult to catch by more passive marketing, such as direct mail, but there’s still a long way to the budget mentioned above.
So – why do thousands of people really put so much effort into tradeshows? Is it to get away from the family for a few days? Is it an excuse to have some time off from the office? Or is it to investigate which products and solutions will secure next year’s business and rising profits?
For some reason it is hard to believe this last mission – when you step back for a moment and take a look at the wandering zombies. As for the exhibitors, one can only hope they will benefit in the long run – much like we all spend resources on advertising without truly knowing what would happen if we cut that item on our budgets. This leads to the inevitable conclusion on “How tradeshows survive”:
Nobody dares to ignore them. Without tradeshows, the industry mysteriously ceases to exist because they nurture all the hype surrounding press releases, new product features and industry news in general.
The journalists always find something to write about and someone to interview. Even though they might as well do their research on the phone and using e-mail.
The attendees travel back home to write reports on their findings, validating their expense accounts. Even though they only vaguely remember what they experienced due to the late nights out with old buddies.
All in all, it’s a strange phenomenon – the tradeshow terror – but maybe also a sign that videoconferences and web site presentations still has not outsmarted human interaction. With all the fuss going on regularly, as mentioned above, it will probably take some years before the terror becomes digital.
Now, that’s a consolation…
New biz in a new way
Having recently attended a new kind of meetings forum, the thought occurred that perhaps conferences as we know them might change radically in the future. Instead of having keynote speakers presenting one at a time for the audience, this “forum” was laid out in a completely different way.
In order to maximise concentration for all delegates, the organisers had invited buyers and suppliers in the broadcast business to spend three days at a hotel in Italy. Each individual party had been asked to fill out a form indicating with whom they would like a short face-to-face meeting. And by short, I mean really intense – less than half an hour!
This means you get to the point at once, and both parties have had the opportunity to prepare exactly for which questions and answers need to be addressed in advance. Even if you were “hooked up” with a company that you did not tick as interesting, it was a great motifier that the other company had you listed high on their list.
At first it seems like a business meeting of around twenty minutes duration may not be nearly enough to cover all your company’s areas or, for that matter, to have two companies meet for the first time and exchange information on possible future projects. However, as the hotel was situated in a quite secluded area, the evenings turned out to contain just as much “shop-talk” as the daytimes.
Exactly as the saying goes about golf courses being a perfect place to carry out business, the fine hotel restaurant or Jacuzzi, health club and even the night time bar turned out to attract relaxed professionals continuing their talks from earlier in the day. Not unlike a combined tradeshow/workshop, but with a different focus altogether, as everybody knew from the start that the common goal was getting new connections, and not signing contracts there and then.
The comfortable surroundings also helped in setting the scene, of course. When you are trapped inside meeting rooms or, as the case with tradeshows, huge hangar-like buildings with lots of noise, it really does not smooth the progress of discussing serious business.
If you, on the other hand, are pampered from early morning to late at night with the luxury of high-class hotel personnel, you can concentrate fully on the task you set out for. The stress factor was limited to obeying the race-court-like announcements from the very efficient organisers, who every half hour would voice another “Five minutes, please” or “Take your seats, please” to indicate meetings ending and beginning. Between meetings anybody not having new appointments would stroll around and take in the beautiful scenery or simply have a cup of coffee with a trade colleague in an almost vacation-like situation.
I am pretty certain that this kind of event will become more widespread once word gets around. Not only is it a lot easier to remember people, companies and products when you have met for a brief and focused talk, it is also inevitable that spending spare time together, as potential future business partners, encourages a positive relationship.
As for the economic side, it may be relatively expensive for the suppliers, who are naturally paying for everything, but compared to many other investments in marketing, this was certainly worth each and every penny!
As for the contrast to conferences mentioned previously, there was actually in conjunction with the meetings and later in the afternoon, a few speakers doing the regular product presentations. However, the whole concept of undisturbed, purposeful and concise meetings between mutually interested participants – like pearls on a string – is undoubtedly what will make a difference in the area of arranging new business for a wide range of industries.
Whether or not videoconferences will ever outsmart real life meetings I can’t tell, but at this point in time, I have a strong feeling that even with our existing, high technology this just can’t compete with three days of shared business and pleasure.
When will iTV ever become truly interactive?
When will iTV ever become truly interactive? Or, has TV always been interactive in the first place, might be the real question to pose in these days of new media wonder.
One of the easy answers is, of course: “Yes, in fact TV has always been an interactive medium in the sense that you can turn it on and off at your convenience!” The return path has always been there in the form of regular mail and analogue phone lines, which give the viewers sufficient opportunities to voice their responses.
Agreed – it is not as powerful and instant a response as when thousands of people press the red button or participate in a live quiz simultaneously. However, when it comes to including interactivity, we should not kid ourselves. New technology does not do the trick alone. More important is how and to whom we introduce it in the first place.
For iTV to really make a difference, we must first explain to the producers and editors how our new, value added services would improve their original product: TV shows, -series, -documentaries, news programmes and perhaps especially the commercials. This is a long process, and even if you are successful at it, there are the presenters, not to mention the viewers who need ‘education’ as well.
This sounds like a lot of hard work – and all for what? Some argue for new revenue streams, others for better quality of entertainment and/or increased levels of viewer shares – the most optimistic go for all of the above. In my opinion most of these arguments still need to be proven when you time and again meet the negative attitude from the before mentioned producers and editors.
Not that iTV is a waste of resources, on the contrary, but lots of industry research and news stories indicate that our efforts may have been misplaced for a while. Admitting that this provocative statement can be perceived extremely negatively by many readers, I will nevertheless try to convince colleagues in the iTV business to focus more on the task of enlightening our “primary” clients than continuing to promise ‘Profit & Fun Unlimited’ until further business models actually prove viable.
Once producers and other creative people see the light, there will be profits along the way. But one step at a time, and that step points towards gaining an understanding from creative people rather than from the more technically oriented staff. Imagine a situation where the strains for interactivity were born from the ideas of those responsible for content. In such a case, the technicians would for once have a serious goal in satisfying real-life demands and not just be playing with an extremely expensive set of hi-tech LEGO.
As to this rather aggressive assault on fellow developers, I can only say that my judgements follow some experiences where creative personnel in the TV industry clearly lack acceptance of true, interactive TV. Whether this is caused by plain, innocent naivety or a conscious choice of not wanting to embrace this extra importance to their programs, I cannot tell. But I have a strong feeling we still have a chance at making iTV a success in the near future, if only the right people comprehend the prospects.
To sum it all up, there’s a good probability that iTV will be truly interactive very soon, if only the message comes across to what I call the “primary” clients. These are not the viewers. Yet.
Making research into interactive TV interfaces work
Ever since the early days of designing interfaces for interactive TV, the perfect interface has eluded us. It is not an easy task and certainly not easy to judge either – mostly because people – the end users – are somewhat different when it comes to understanding intuitive navigation, taking in new information and even to taste in colour schemes.
Normally, the process of deciding whether, for instance, an EPG should display information about stations, programmes and schedules in a tabular or a grid-like form ends up in a cultural argument, or to put it less politely: “This is the way we are used to seeing it – just do it!” Nothing is necessarily wrong with that attitude – because we need any new user to comprehend the functionality without even thinking about it. But when it comes to introducing multiple buttons on the TV screen, we are faced with more trouble than first thought.
These buttons can be highlighted and pressed with all kinds of arrow keys and the odd OK-key on a remote control, and some of them even perform functions! Suddenly you are in the middle of a deep, deep search for information or a tragic victim of hypertext, a term you might not even be familiar with.
So, what does the average designer or developer have to do in order to make sure this interface works properly? Focus Group Testing is the safety net, which has made us all feel secure and has justified our findings. When you can point to a lengthy report wherein the majority of crash test dummies have actually found out how the interface was supposed to work, you think you’ve got it made.
The funny thing is, though, that after this phase, real development starts, and quite often you find out that some “minor” logical details were not tested at all, because everything in the test was pre-production.
Once you start receiving live data and realise how unstructured that can be, you lose control of the perfect environment in which the focus groups occurred.
The first point here is not to eliminate focus groups – I believe such trials are extremely important and interesting, but don’t forget they might also tie you up with false assumptions, such as the very controlled situation, or tailor made content in the demonstrations. Even more dangerous is the fact that designing without knowing exactly what your building blocks will be simply cannot result in an operable solution.
The second, and perhaps most important, point is this: If you take time during the design process to analyse how and what information will be delivered – in great detail – you will gradually understand how the data structure in itself can show how the design must be carried out.
For example, consider how news is categorised into local, regional, and international news, then sports, arts, finance, etc. Subcategories occur and then, of course there are the eye catching and short headlines – with all of this before the actual news story is displayed. The same thing goes for a shopping catalogue, and even for an EPG. First you have to select from a main category, then narrow down your focus and finally choose an item to explore in detail. Not unlike going to a newsstand and deciding which magazine to buy.
In the design process, this usually means you come down to a few levels of navigation, where each area of information is easy to separate from the rest. When all of the information has been categorised and rules have been set to guarantee what kind of data always comes out in the same format, there really is no big challenge in deciding how to navigate the interactive universe. Of course, the aforementioned disputes over which colours are nice still applies, but wouldn’t you rather spend some time testing various palettes than whether the overall concept navigation through a new interface works?
There are lots of answers from the research phase if you start out in the right direction. The resources you spend on familiarising yourself with building blocks in the form of real data are worth it, and will, more often than not, end up with answers to what is good interface design that everybody can understand.
In the end, peoples’ minds do tend to work quite alike when they are presented with a limited range of choices in the process of finding relevant information – even on a TV screen.
Pay-TV and pirates
In a new report from investment banker Morgan Stanley, the decline in subscribers, which could fall 4 per cent in 2003, to pay-TV channel TV1000 is a direct result of piracy. Moreover, the churn exceeding 30 per cent on an annualised basis is a major concern, and MTG will now either swap smart cards regularly or switch CA systems.
Both these actions are costly affairs and might very well make it more difficult for pirates to receive the scrambled signal – but it will only be a matter of months before the new codes are broken and the free are at it again. Obviously there’s still a bunch of nerds out there who find it a lot more interesting to crack codes than to watch TV.
As long as the price for watching premium content is at a level where consumers calculate that it makes sense to pay E30 for a black market pirate card instead of the E50 to E60 subscription, the content providers will have to fight piracy.
Perhaps lowering the subscription price will only result in even cheaper pirate cards – but at one point it will not be worth the hassle to acquire a fake card. You never know how long it works for, and if you have to pay for even just two of them in one year, the calculation turns out in favour of the real cards.
Exactly the same goes for pay-per-view channels where you pay only for the events you actually watch, as opposed to paying for several months’ access to content of which you may not even see a fraction.
When introduced back in the Eighties, a common sales argument was centered on the ease of use compared to going down the street to a local video rental shop. This way you didn’t have to leave your couch, and you didn’t even have to bring the tape back again.
However, the price for one event was just about the same as renting a new-release movie – with no discount options. Soon the video rentals started offering five movies for five days at a very reasonable price. Some of the cheapest are below E7 in total!
When a single pay-per-view movie costs you around E5, it doesn’t take a lot to figure out which deal is best.
Certainly some intelligent business development gurus must have been busy working on new spreadsheets trying to find the optimum price, but it’s a wonder why they only tried to catch the consumers with introductory, subsidised prices on the hardware.
Look at what happened to mobile phone subscribers, who are now shopping around for cheap minutes – they are among the least loyal customers and have cost the operators fortunes in failed marketing efforts. This is very similar to the situation of pay-TV, where the hardware is set-top boxes instead of handheld phones, but losing a customer perhaps is worse: You lose to the black market, not even to a ‘real’ competitor.
If the price for a subscription or a movie is lowered by, say, 40 per cent – there is good reason to believe two things will happen:
“¢ re-sellers of pirate cards will not make as much money, and to many it will simply be bad business. A classic way of cleaning out competition.
“¢ customers will not bother to look around for alternative suppliers, as long as the content still is attractive, of course.
Just as important, though, is the fact that people in general tend to complain more about a product when the price is above a certain limit.
Consider how many times you’ve read a newspaper without finding it particularly interesting, but still buy a new issue a couple of days later. Without complaining about the price, that is. If you could buy a movie for around E1, you wouldn’t even mind if it turned out to be boring and you zapped away before it was halfway through. At least you did spend that one Euro, and the chance you would do it again on a regular basis is much better than buying one expensive movie once a month.
Watching TV is an act of everyday impulse, not the same as buying expensive long lasting commodities.
Designing iTV for Arabic Cultures
While the Chinese have no problem reading characters from left to right (instead of downwards on the screen) the Arab language is written from right to left, which not only has an effect on the overall layout, but indeed has resulted in some interesting findings in the development of a functioning GUI for the Arab market.
Research into other electronic design from the Arabian culture shows that there is no way to avoid the “mirrored” page design. When browsing through multiple web sites, even the scroll bars are found situated on the left hand side of the screen.
Navigation buttons are placed on the right hand side, if not on a horisontal line in the topmost area. Articles are clearly right aligned and all in all, the standard page layout from the Western World has simply been mirrored. Additionally, it seems the use of multi-coloured designs are very popular, as opposed to the more muted, or even minimalist, design sense we tend to see in the West.
Thus we are facing at least three major differences from ‘traditional’ iTV design: text is typed from the right; all navigation elements are mirrored, and colour palettes are extremely full.
Concerning the general layout and having important information to the right, such as main navigation buttons and titles – in terms of design, this is just a matter of flipping most items on the vertical axis.
However, there is yet another small problem when the client wants to implement a bilingual service. It must be possible to change between Arabic and English interface and content. Imagine reading English (printed from left to right) with all the elements layed out from right to left. Highly unnatural!
On a recent trip to Egypt, I noticed a clever way of overcoming this bilingual communication on printed materials, such as flyers and menu cards in restaurants. Common information like prices and logos would be placed centered in the middle of a page, while the two languages would be on either side.
This turned out to be a perfect marriage, in the sense that each culture would logically approach the information from their respective left or right hand edge of the page. The TV screen, however, is not large enough to display both languages at the same time, and at present, we are still working on various solutions.
Lastly, on the subject of the many colours, I suppose it is a matter of taste. Not wanting to judge whether minimalism or a visual explosion of patterns and rainbows is best suited for an iTV interface, it will make most sense to respect a culture with proud traditions.
Sometimes when people ask what line of business pays my bills, it’s tempting to make up a story instead of beginning to explain about interactive television. However, a couple of days ago when the situation came up, and for the nth time I found myself talking at length about two-way television, an interesting conversation came out of it.
As so many times before, I started out with a non-technical reference to teletext, the similarity to some internet services and how game shows can become more than just old-style entertainment with added value enhancements where you can participate from the couch with your remote control.
Most people by now know the shows Big Brother and Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, so it isn’t that difficult any longer to illustrate the concept with a few real-life samples. When it comes to talking about services like electronic program guides and other stand-alone services such as an e-mail application or an arcade game, the usual response is to turn the dialogue towards the convergence between PCs and television.
Now, this subject has been discussed for a long time and we still don’t watch full-length Hollywood productions on our PC screens or type letters in a word processing application on the television screen, so it’s actually quite amazing why so many people hang on to the impression of two quite different appliances converging.
In any case, once the conversation had been going for about ten minutes, and the people I was talking to started to understand what I was working with, it turned out that they actually owned a set-top box.
Typically, the wife claimed that her husband always operated their remote, and that only rarely did she watch a complete movie because she tended to either fall asleep or get bored and go about for some other activity. What had me wondering, though, was that suddenly this whole business with interactive television has become a widespread commodity – that the penetration is improving, and the funny thing is that people spending money on boxes and bouquets of channels don’t even realise what they have access to when it comes to interactive services.
Most likely this is a result of poor marketing and perhaps a lack of interesting content, but nevertheless it’s a pity.
We proceeded to talk about the classic “Present-Following” banner, which is a common feature of most boxes, and I asked whether they had noticed it when they switched channels. Mentioning also that it was a pretty smart function, as you can check out what is showing on other channels without having to zap there.
Again, the typical reaction; husband knows about this banner, but the wife had never given it any thought or understood what it was there for. She said it was exactly like the video recorder, too many functions that were too hard to figure out. It would most often be the kids operating that, even though it’s now a somewhat old piece of household equipment, which you would expect everybody had become used to.
Not only did these people own a digital set-top box and have full access to many well designed services, which I know well, as I am familiar with the network, but they would continue to use their TV set for just keeping up with the evening news and once in a while catch a movie.
This might prove my point in the theory about non-converging technologies, and it might also make one think a little about which types of services actually make a difference.
Obviously neither the electronic programme guide nor the “Present-Following” banner did the trick for this unscientific focus group, but I would bet that some enhancements like in-depth info for documentaries or cleverly designed quizzes could open the eyes for many more on a brand new way of using the television.
Distance learning and spreading of knowledge in general is both easier and more powerful when you combine video, audio and a simple interface for interaction.
The bright side of this experience – with what turned out to be owners-not-users – is that at least the set-top boxes are out there. In some months or years we can hope they will notice a pop-up graphic icon and try to find out what that OK-button on their new remote can do for them.
It only takes some creative thinking from producers of more programmes. Casting your vote and joining in a quiz seem to be the first steps, and the more variation we have in interactive television, the more users will invariably become aware of the options.
This, of course, is no big news, but the point is that people apparently don’t even have to understand what interactive television is in order to be potential end-users of the services. Getting them to actually spend time on these new services on a regular basis could take some extra tries however.
Max iTV profits from few subs
It must have become clear by now that the penetration curve of digital television has not been as steep as everybody expected a few years back.
This is despite the fact that operators have tried to encourage programme developers and advertisers to at least test the new options of direct marketing through return channels. We have also seen bundles of free information services, such as weather forecasts, sports news and the like.
Still, consumers have in many markets selected DSL subscriptions instead of purchasing a digital set-top box. Frustratingly, with all the well-meaning and sometimes quite expensive efforts, the break-through has not happened, and the business may now need to change approach.
So, the million-dollar question is: how does one generate revenues from the existing base of subscribers without starting from scratch with new cumbersome trials?
Well, could it be that we were overwhelmed by the limitless options suddenly available when the technology finally was in place? Could it be that the darling consumers actually might participate if only they were not faced with too many selections? Could it be possible to earn a few bucks from each end-user, after all, if only the cost-benefit from their side turned out to make sense?
Consider the situation where you watch a programme of interest – or even a commercial break displaying some product that you may be interested in. What if all it took were pressing the OK-button once, and a few days later you would receive a brochure, leaflet or other kind of hardcopy information in regular mail?
Now, that should be a ‘piece-of-cake’ development, both regarding the interactive application, the back-end handling of communication and the logistics of sending out requested materials. In return, the information provider will be generating valuable data about potential customers, the operator will gain knowledge about customer habits and the TV station will discover even more on viewing patterns.
As for the consumer, of course there must be some form of privacy guarantee, so masses of junk mail will be avoided – but, in general, most people do want to learn more on a subject of interest. This may result in more than needed information; however, this has always been a trade-off. You can always choose not to fill out the questionnaire, not to acquire more facts – not to use the interactive features of digital TV.
On the other hand, I’m convinced that extremely simple services, as briefly exemplified above, will lead to what may be labelled a ‘Demand Pull’, and meanwhile produce extra income. One of the key points is that consumers will perceive these services as just that: a service!
Not something being pushed down their throats, but actually a new, welcome benefit. Another important point is that it cannot be simpler than pressing just one button. No interfaces to familiarise yourself with, no time spent away from the channel, and generally no unwanted interruption.
For those people who are really keen on interacting, there will always be programme guides and probably other look-up applications, free of charge or by subscription. In order to make money of the existing elements of this puzzle, though, I believe it will be a good idea to shake the bag and come up with some uncomplicated and cheap solutions.
Cross promotion is not a new idea, and one thing is certain: the viewers of a digital TV channel are very likely to be highly focused, exactly because they have so much to choose from. Once their attention is within reach, it’s time to make them go for the OK-button. But leave it at that and charge a small payment for the advantage, and there’s your profit.
Wi-fi – Wonder and mystery!
A couple of months ago, one of my friends decided to go from an old-style modem connection to wireless at her home, partly because she upgraded to a DSL connection and partly because wiring the house would be a costly affair. Having to spend some money on the upgrade was okay, but why not go that extra little way of being liberated from cables, too?
The new instalment would be in the living room, and she always uses the PC in her study, which is on a different floor of the house. A quick calculation of the costs versus benefits was easy: drilling through walls and ceilings not only would be a mess, but, without doubt, also more expensive than acquiring wireless hardware.
At the store where she bought a combination package of hub and network plug-and-play card, the salesperson promised that it would be simple to install, but to be on the safe side, my friend decided to have some of her nerd-buddies come and do the trick.
One of them is the CTO of a rather large corporation; the other has an e-mail address that is by now twenty years old. They manage several websites. Just to explain that these people are no novices in dealing with technology and internet-related experiments.
She would cook dinner and they were certain to be up and running before she even had the wine open.
As it turned out, she was happy it wasn’t a soufflÃ© on the menu that night!
The guys spent more than four hours struggling with the so-called plug-and-play equipment, and once it finally worked, they admitted to not knowing exactly what made it function. Of course, these people could have had a bad day. They could also be less into the internet- and software-solutions than I thought. But the bottom line is that all kinds of wireless products are sold in the consumer market at extremely low prices now, and you would expect that anyone without experience could perform a successful installation.
Obviously this is not the case. To make matters even more hilarious, one of the forementioned fellows was called to assist another friend just a few weeks ago. This guy had bought a new laptop and wanted to start using his broadband cable connection – again with a wireless setup.
Well, you would suppose the second time around at least would mean less time spent on this troublesome mission. However, after some hours the whole operation was abandoned – it simply would not work.
I could not stop laughing, but at the same time found it depressing that such a wonderful advance in technology still lacks good, standardised interfaces.
I am not insinuating that it’s impossible to install a wi-fi setup, and I’ve heard of several others making it work with great results. There is no question that I would prefer losing the wires for my PC, Mac, TV and stereo equipment. But it has got to be easier to install and use than a VCR.
Why do manufacturers put new technology on the market before having tested it on real people? Is is because they are afraid some competitor will be first on the market? One result of this strategy is likely to be bad publicity from stories just like the ones above.
It must be better to wait for half a year and have a clear, understandable manual included. Or, alternatively, making absolutely sure the product works with the most common other hard/software systems around, and not only special versions and brands.
Presently it may be sensible to wait until the security issues are totally solved as well. Even if you don’t perform your financial transactions through wireless connections, you probably wouldn’t want all your e-mail correspondence to be monitored by your next-door neighbour.
As a matter of fact, I already trust available products on this matter, but, to be honest, I don’t know where this faith comes from. Just like those guys who never found out why the first installation actually ended up working, perhaps?
In essence, this is one of the reasons wi-fi is a truly wonderful technology. Full of wonder and mystery!
Is a picture worth a thousand words?
In the ongoing debate on whether mobile phone users are willing to pay a significantly higher price for sending MMS messages (with images) as opposed to increasingly cheap SMS (text-only) services, there is an old proverb that comes to mind: “A picture is worth a thousand words.”
The extensive use of SMS services have successfully verified that young and old consumers around the world have accepted paying a small amount in order to stay in touch using only around 160 characters in postcard-like greetings.
Basing a quick calculation on some of the lower priced operators’ charge for an SMS message (E 0.15) and assuming a full message contains around 25 words, this means the cost per word is roughly E 0.006 – which, though quite unscientifically, suggests a reasonable price for the data transmitted in one MMS would be an astounding E 6.00
However, it seems the price for sending an MMS is settling at around E 0.35, a tiny fraction of the above conclusion.
Nevertheless, consumers are still relatively slow in taking up the new sport of shooting pictures and sending them along to friends. This may be due to a number of reasons: one is the requirement of purchasing a new (expensive) camera-enabled phone, another is the often poor image quality and finally, but very important: the paradox of that old proverb.
Ever since painting crude hunting scenes on cave walls, the human race has enjoyed and taken advantage of illustration and imagery as an effective form of communication. It was true for a long time that a picture could convey so much more than a thousand words.
People still go to museums and daydream in front of beautiful paintings.
We have posters in our offices and when going on holidays, we all recognise that special ‘Kodak-moment’ when the sun sets in the horizon.
How come, then, we are not willing to pay sufficiently for a brilliant service of “instant delivery of extremely personal postcards”? Maybe it is a matter of changing habits. Maybe we have become used to expressing ourselves satisfactorily inside 160-character sentences. Maybe we are overstuffed with images in our everyday lives.
In fact, when sending an SMS the consumer is engaging in a totally different kind of dialogue, where images simply don’t work. When you employ the funny/expressive/personal picture in the MMS, there is even more reason to comment upon it using words. This implies that an image suddenly is at a loss for words – very contradictory to the proverb.
The textual message of an SMS is perfect for making or changing an appointment, for assuring your loved ones that they are on your mind and for general chit-chat. This is not really possible using images, or at least difficult to achieve to the same effect for most people.
Finding other uses for MMS should be easy, though. Of course, the operators and service providers are continually looking for new revenue areas, and the introduction of MMS has great potential. But not as a stand-alone product. If combined with other communications, however, this service can prove even more profitable than SMS.
For instance, it will be so much easier to upload a snapshot to dating profiles on the Internet, more fun to add an image when participating in interactive television contests and polls – not to mention the new, creative contests in both web- and TV-based communities. In these cases, the MMS will become a must and consumers might even be willing to pay E 6.00 because they get more value for their money than just sending a picture.
Besides, the recipient of the message does not even have to own a similar device – because the mobile phone develops into a whole different gadget: it is now a device used for more than just messaging.
I predict that pretty soon we will start perceiving our handhelds as what have for some time been marketed as PDAs. With the new DVB-X specifications and enhanced compression techniques, we are really only waiting for larger screens – and maybe a good set of headphones as well. And friendly prices, of course!
Lottery-style games path to iTV profitability
As interactive television is now in its adolescence, and we find ourselves still waiting for a real breakthrough or discovery of a killer application, perhaps it is time to reconsider what the viewers are actually willing to pay for.
We have tried various information services, such as electronic programme guides in tabular- or grid-form. We have been translating weather forecasts into nice graphics with updates every hour. We have had all sorts of magazine-style services with products to buy from home, and even been able to book a test-drive of the new models from Volvo.
These fine services have been interesting, but most lack that fairly important feature of showing decent profits. The sad result is that many services are shut down after only a few years on the networks, and, of course, all the marketing people get scared at starting up new ideas. However, there can very well be another type of interactivity worth looking into.
Instead of providing complex products simply because it is possible to do so, e.g., e-mail access from the TV set (to mention another service failing to prove successful) we should reflect on what the average person is willing to pay a small amount for in general. As long as we reach a sufficient amount of heads (and hands controlling the remote) we can easily make huge profits from simple services.
An imminent comparison is from the mobile telephone industry, where SMS messaging has become a breathtaking triumph in three fundamental ways: Firstly, it is so cheap for customers that nobody really thinks about the price when sending a message. Secondly, it is so easy to use that nobody needs a manual. Thirdly, it covers a need in a fun way. That is to say, instant and extremely personal messaging, including the innovative, fresh use of emoticons.
So – what on earth could be the SMS for interactive TV? It will not work to simply create a similar service using a remote control for typing in messages, even if the set-top box does have a modem and can be used as a gateway for communicating. You lose the elegance of mobility, and besides, with all the mobile phones out there, why introduce another messaging interface?
If we agree that the above-mentioned three factors are as important as I claim, we need to analyse how to best combine them into something useful for the average viewer. It must be cheap, simple and fun. Interestingly, these topics go hand in hand with the act of watching TV on the whole.
Now, the problem with playing out an easy, content-related quiz or game is that prizes cost money. But for the viewers to participate, they must have some sort of encouragement – something to gain.
And here is the possible coup: Charge each viewer just a small amount and let the prize pool consist of, say, 75 per cent of all combined stakes.
Sounds familiar? Yes, we know it from regular lottery, which, obviously, is a cash cow in most countries. Also known as the “tax-for-people-who-don’t-understand-mathematics”, this form of entertainment would be perfect for interactive television. But in order to pass political hurdles, I believe it is necessary to twist the idea a little.
Instead of picking numbers or predicting results of a sport event as in the usual betting scene, viewers would not have to submit anything other than their smart card number and the small, set wager in order to take part.
In the beginning, the prize would be small because of few players, but the chance of winning would be big. As more people start playing, the prize increases just like the chance of a win gets smaller. Nothing new about that if, again, you compare this idea with a regular lottery…
So only one question remains: why hasn’t this been done before now?
Everything or nothing: Bond games vs. Bond movies
A few weeks ago I found out that the new James Bond release would not be a movie, but an interactive game. Am I the only one who finds this a bit odd? Of course the 20 movies have not all been equally great, but being in my early forties, it has been a nice tradition to always see what 007 was up against, how he perennially saved the Earth and always ended up in the company of a beautiful woman. Where has entertainment come to now?
It will never be the same if I have to buy a CD-ROM game – I don’t want to participate in the action, I just want to sit back, relax and enjoy.
Also recently I read that here in Denmark, that small country in Scandinavia with a proud history in film making, we now have a company, IO Interactive, less than six years old, which has been sold for the impressive sum of around â‚¬36m, based on their development of a handful interactive games for PCs and game stations. That’s pretty good going.
The fact is that the games have sold well, but what happens when the audience is through playing? You will not see many re-runs, I predict. The overall experience will be short-lived compared to good, old-fashioned movies.
Apparently the new James Bond game, Everything or Nothing, developed by Electronic Arts, has sold more than 4m copies in the first month, which must be called a success as well – but I can imagine a lot more people have been watching each one of the James Bond movies over the past 40 years. What is with all the hype about these games?
Maybe I am simply too old to see the fun in playing games on a PC. To me, this tool is for working. As for the interactivity, the community building, and the option to play with or against real people sitting next door or on the other side of the Earth”¦well, I see the challenge and the interesting part.
But it should not have to be on account of another medium. When we “advanced” from radio plays to TV, we did not kill radio, now, did we?
There is no use in arguing that interactive games will fail. I am positively sure that it is not only a good idea, I also firmly believe it is a fine way of getting people in touch with each other across borders, which can only be a good thing. Some would even claim that we don’t need wars if only Bush and BinLaden could meet at a Counterstrike workout and settle their differences online instead of sending soldiers into action and citizens into despair.
However, that is still only a fantasy.
It seems like the new games are going to be more and more film-like in the sense that 3D graphics and surround sound become a must for any new development – like adding stereo sound and Technicolor once was to movies. Fine with me – our monitors, graphic chips and speakers get better all the time, so let’s get the most of them.
But let’s not forget the experience of giving in to a few hours of storytelling in the dark either. There is a big difference from having a good story told to being involved in an online game. One should not exclude the other.
With all due respect, I think it is time to yell out: Give us back the movies!
At least we should not forget that a movie has the unbeatable power of huge and continuous audiences, which Mel Gibson’s new The Passion of the Christ proves very nicely. Maybe that should have been an interactive game instead.
Try playing Jesus and see if you can handle death by being nailed to a cross – and what would happen if you decided to change the story. This would be just as interesting as the above-mentioned hallucination of the possible anti-war effects of computer games.
In fact, I think the storytellers would benefit from having a movie AND a game out – just like the case with Lara Croft. Then I would be able to choose as a consumer, and who knows? I might even spend more money, if I decided on both versions. Exactly like reading the book before or after going to a theater for the movie. In any case, it would be cooler to play Jesus than James Bond.
Combining multi-player gaming with reality TV and iTV
A few days ago I was in a discussion, where it occurred to me that there are still new, bright ideas on how to exploit the potential of interactivity on TV (television probably being the most accessible medium on our planet). Even though some of these ideas may sometimes seem like childish fantasies that nobody would consider backing financially, it is still interesting to dream about the possible future.
The idea that came up was, in the short version, about creating a combined tv-show and game universe. Not a bad combination, and although both areas have proven successful, we still have not seen a concept where the synergy prospered.
Imagine when the processing power and graphic abilities of set-top boxes are no longer a constraining factor of how and what you can provide of services to the average viewer.
It will be possible to render real-time 3D graphics on the television screen reflecting a viewer’s choices; it will be possible to navigate in virtual worlds; it will be possible to send and receive loads of information from one viewer/user to another.
Then imagine that our society continues the transition towards people living alone instead of settling as families. Why not introduce a new channel/game, where you could log-in, establish an anonymous avatar (identity) and stroll around meeting new acquaintances in a kind of masquerade? This would be the new idea of making use of the data-track of digital, interactive television.
After a while, one would become part of a newly created cult. Compare this to the discovery of America, if you will”¦ Only much faster in the making!
People are sitting in their own homes, communicating through what would be perceived as pure magic only 50 years ago. We already see it in chat-rooms on the internet. We are online with our mobile phones anytime and almost anywhere today. The same options will be within reach using the television screen soon enough.
The idea is to create a chatting opportunity on a TV channel, where one could meet other people in a virtual world. When logged in, one could choose to simply watch or one could create one’s own avatar and take part of the interactivity.
Surroundings could be anything, but let’s say it would be some kind of semi-confined space. A cruise ship. Room for two hundred or two thousand people, and you would have to mingle around to find others sharing your interests. After spending enough time there, you would want to meet some of these other people in real life. Here is where the TV show comes in:
Those participating also sign up for a finals-get-together-party, which could be broadcast live on the TV channel. Along the introductory sequences of this whole setup, the average audience has been watching and getting to know key participants – and the cliffhanger of course is to see how they perform when everybody gets together in the real world.
All of this may very well seem like a weird and unlikely consequence of how to benefit from the simple fact that interactive television brings new options to interpersonal communication.
The benefits of interactive television are difficult to predict, and one of the most intriguing questions these days concerns whether the producer or the viewer has the most to look forward to. With just a little optimism, though, both sides have a bright future.
Interactive TV sunsets
As television signals around the world are increasingly being transmitted in digital form, consumers are receiving their video and audio through satellite transmissions instead of VHF or UHF wavelengths.
With all the hardware hanging up there in space, a thought came to mind the other evening.
I was sitting idly watching another beautiful sunset on an almost clear sky – it’s even more picturesque if there are a few con-lines (the condensation effect that airplanes make, tracing lines in the sky along their flight paths) or perhaps a couple of clouds.
This play with colour in the half-hour before and after sunset never ceases to amaze! In fact, the same splendid show goes on in the morning, but only on rare occasions am I awake to study this.
But, back to the above-mentioned thought: Satellites transmitting television signals.
Why not put a camera on those satellites in geostationary orbit and transmit signals down to our screens? With all the transponders – and not least, the bandwidth – we could potentially tune in to a channel where sunsets or sunrises could be watched live from almost all around the world.
Not only would it be a beautiful sight, maybe with a soundtrack of meditative music, it would also cause audiences to stop and think about how precious our planet actually is.
We have all been transfixed by images from the space shuttles – either as brief film-clips or fantastic still images. Now we can (technically) have it brought to us 24 hours a day, and with some interesting side effects, such as watching Tokyo turning on their bright-city-lights as we in Europe or America are starting a brand new day or going to sleep late.
Of course, in a small and elegant graphic bar, we would see which major city was on display at the moment – but even over the Pacific Ocean, I am quite sure both sunrises and sunsets are worth a peek.
When considerable bandwidth soon really does become cheap, we could probably have multiple channels showing the present situation of large cities, seen from space. Tune in to any metropolis from a list and check how things are from high above.
We will most likely have to wait several years for the high quality zoom function, but that does not matter for now. Place for improvement and further worries about being watched.
No – really. These space-cams could indeed become a source for different pay-per-view content with a meaning, and even if it might be somewhat “the same show” over and over – it’s never re-runs! No two viewings will be the same. Who hasn’t seen tourists incessantly taking pictures of the sunsets wherever they end up?
There simply must be a market for this! Aside from the fact that viewers will become more aware of our fragile and beautiful surroundings, there will definitely be corporations willing to sponsor the task of setting it all up.
If some executive reads this and decides on going for it, I will not press charges for stealing my idea – but just in case: Remember where you read it first.
Always on – a miracle?
A couple days ago, when meeting with some friends, our conversation touched the subject of WAP – which seems to never really have taken off. Two of the guys did have cell phones with enabled WAP, but they hardly ever used the services. We are surrounded by information, news and advertising most of the day anyways, sitting as we do in front of a computer (call us nerds if you like).
One very interesting point came across, though, which made me think back and try to guess forwards: Driving into the downtown area of Copenhagen from a suburban area, some optimistic fellows had tried to surf on a laptop along the way. The drive was around eight kilometres, and to their astonishment, they succeeded in staying online the whole way.
We are getting an ever-increasing amount of “hot-spots” here: gas stations, coffee shops, McDonalds, etc. Offices and private homes are also beginning to install wireless stations, so the project of staying online while driving was a complete success.
As mentioned, this inspired thinking back in history and towards the future. My own grandparents when they were young considered automobiles, airplanes and television magic. They didn’t even have hot water or a private bathroom at home. Nowadays we have ice cubes directly from our fridge, we can even install a tap running (literally) boiling water into our cup of NescafÃ©. It’s hard to imagine our own grandchildren flying around in personal car-planes – even though we have seen prototypes already.
But the always-on concept is nearing. Not necessarily by using the first available technology (such as WAP or GPRS) but simply through an evolved internet.
Now, one obstacle – I’m probably not the only one pondering – is the lack of IP addresses if “everything” needs to be identified. Think of all the convenience goods in the supermarket; It would be insane to have an address for each and every item and the barcodes. Or would it? Some are already talking of the intelligent products – and the benefits for all.
Providers would know when to increase production, storage would become less of a problem with just-in-time deliveries, and your own fridge would know when you needed to get more milk, and when your week-old milk needed to be discarded.
Insane or not – maybe we have to consider a completely new (miraculous) system of IP addresses. In fact, the other day I read about research into another classification. This new structure would allow for such a plethora of addresses that explaining it required a “visual exercise”.
Imagine the Earth was covered with sand one meter deep (three feet)- ALL OVER. Each and every grain of sand would be able to have a unique identity (address) using this new technique. Well, magic to me – it just might be natural and everyday logic to my grand children. And the concept of always on is very likely to become a fundemental part of living even before then.
With so many unique addresses, limitless power, affordable prices of hardware and bandwidth, I can almost see it coming.
And with a little luck I might even be around to experience it. After all, my grandparents eventually did get their own bathroom, several cars and even tried flying an airplane.
Screen resolution proves universal theory
Have you ever wondered if the universe is infinite? The concept of infinity itself is hard to grasp, but still ever so logical to prove, by the simple fact that any number will always allow an addition of one (or any other number, for that matter).
There’s an old story about the Hotel Infinity solving this problem several times over – even when an infinite number of busses arriving each with an infinite number of passengers, and they seemingly all get a room (try to Google Hotel Infinity or Hilbert’s Paradox).
However, and this is where screen resolution comes in handy, the following text is about to prove that the world we live in is, in fact, a finite place.
As in the simple mathematical example of adding numbers to prove infinity as a concept, consider the pixels your screen is making use of to display this text.
Regardless of the set resolution and colour depth available, this amount of information is a fixed total. I will not go very deep into demonstrating just how many different images a standard screen is actually able to display, but if I choose my own screen as a sample, I have 1280 by 1024 elements at my disposal of which each dot can display an amazing 16.7 million hues.
Imagine how astronomical the number of variations would be if you had to go through all possible combinations. A whole lot of these would not even be visibly different. Actually the so-called “true colour” setting includes more diversity in colour tones than the human eye is able to distinguish.
So, not only do we have a limit as to how many images are technically possible to display, but we also know that we cannot even tell the difference between quite a number of them.
If, for example, two pixels were interchanged in the sandy area from a picture of a beach, I would most likely not notice that difference. Presumably the point of this small exercise is already beginning to shine through.
As human beings we generally perceive our world, and thus the whole universe, from what we see. As to the fact that there’s more to it than meets the eye – I totally agree, but hang on.
Anything thinkable and unthinkable can be displayed on the above-mentioned screen – and in addition to the fact that that enormous photo album, in spite of everything, has a technical threshold, we have now also established that our physical abilities lower that limit significantly.
Of course we don’t see our world through a screen. In order to counterargue any dispute about this fact, let me just point out that the screen is simply used as an example to simplify matters. Our eyes work more or less the same way – we have much higher resolution (though less colour depth) but this only means that the calculation above needs to be carried out with other figures – and nevertheless we will ultimately end up with a finite number.
This number is unimaginable high. But it is not infinite!
Now, where does this take us, then? I would maintain my estimation of the universe consequently being a limited place, after all. Infinity must be a theoretical issue, since my first mathematical example unquestionably always holds true. But wait a minute”¦If the universe is expanding, as is generally claimed, one would inevitably be able to move the item farthest away just one more metre out, wouldn’t you?
But you would also be able to display an image of that incident on your “screen,” then. And yet, that image is contained in the photo album with such obvious constraints. Ergo, there is a limit to the Great Photo Album of the Universe, and thus also to the universe itself.
The scary part is that we have only been talking about two dimensions – holograms and other three-dimensional phenomena might complicate matters a bit.
As of now, all this turns out to indicate two discoveries and one promise:
Discovery #1: There must be a big difference between theoretical and practical infinity.
Discovery #2: I would like a bigger screen, perhaps even a holographic one!
Promise: The feature next month from this keyboard will argue infinity exists and is possible.
The infinite biological computer
As explained in a previous article, the concept of infinity should probably be perceived differently when talking about theory and talking about facts.
Theoretically, or at least mathematically, infinity is easy to grasp. It doesn’t take a PhD in anything to accept that it will always be possible add one more number to any other number – or likewise to place a number (fraction) between any two other numbers.
Once we agree with this argument, we are also conscious that infinity exists. There is still a problem as to fully understanding the consequences, however. We can’t really put the theory into practical use or come close to comprehend that the universe is a never ending “thingy”.
One possible breakthrough in science could change all this.
Let us, for the fun of it, compare the way our brains work to the way computers do their magic. I will not hesitate to call it magic even though many people have now become used to what computers do for us in everyday lives.
The pragmatists will claim (correctly) that computers are only capable of extremely simple math, such as addition and subtraction of numbers. The building blocks are in effect small switches guiding power through “filters,” that can either be “on” or “off” – thereby using the binary system, and hence all the ones and zeroes also called bits.
Put together, as words are made of letters, we call them bytes. But at the core is still this constraint of “either-or”. Not maybe – not almost. Just like your girlfriend can’t be nearly pregnant. In that case we talk planning. But that is another story altogether.
Through these switches and transistors we are able to access all kinds of information. We can process data in just a matter of seconds of such enormous quantity that it would have taken hundreds of people years to finish the task before the invention of this advanced calculator. Enough of the amazing stuff, though. Let’s get back to the issues of infinity and comparing computers to our brains.
You see, the biological switches we have in our heads operate with power as well. Our synapses send small “currents” to one another in order to communicate. From Encyclopedia.com, we find:
“When an electrical impulse traveling along the nerve reaches the axon, the neurotransmitter is released and travels across the synapse, either prompting or inhibiting continued electrical impulses along the nerve.”
Not quite unlike those bits and computer switches. However, the big difference is in the infinite combinations possible when using variations of chemicals and even gases instead of the computer’s limited “on/off” mechanical elements.
That breakthrough mentioned above would of course mean that our computers need to operate a little more like our brains. Instead of only reaching conclusions by “yes and no” – it should be feasible to introduce some kind of in-between.
Whether it will be through gases and chemistry or differentiating the currents into “yes, there’s power, but only a little” – I really don’t know, but it’s a thought worth some research. Well, I can imagine scientists somewhere have already been thinking along these lines. It’s just strange that all we get is faster CPUs when the whole dilemma might involve taking an alternative approach.
If and when this happens, we just may be able to answer the big question about practical infinity using our new breed of computers. Our next challenge will likely be to phrase the question correctly. This, now, is finally taking us back to the biological computer.
A human mind could perhaps one day understand infinity, if only those transmitters got the right spark. I was actually close to the bright insight once myself after testing one “enhancing” drug that helps speed up and alter the internal network. Sadly, I forgot it all afterwards. Next time I will write it down on my regular add-and-subtract computer.