The future of TV?

After talking at IBC last Sunday, I’ve been thinking about TV, which isn’t something that I do much. My information diet is a lot like my friend Ian at CubicGarden: I watch a lot of video, just not a lot of TV. Suw and I didn’t even have a TV until recently when we bought EyeTV from Elgato, great little USB gizmo that not only allows us to watch Freeview over-the-air digital television but it also has some great scheduling and PVR features And like Ian, I use a lot of tools to shift through all the information out there: RSS readers, online aggregators and as Ian puts it “an offline social network”. Here’s a little walk through his day:

My home workstation automatically downloads, podcasts, video, everything.It then syncs the latest content with my laptop and I manually copystuff to my mobile phone’s flash card.

The video content is a real mix of mainstream content like Lost, DailyShow, Simpsons, etc, and content from the net (such as Hak.5, CommandN,etc) mixed in. We tend to just pick and choose depending on our moods.

The problem that I have with TV, as it stands, is that it adds content without providing me with tools to sort through it. There just hasn’t been that much intelligence in TV. My computer helps me filter through all the information I need to know. TV doesn’t. Or maybe doesn’t right now. It doesn’t have to be that way. Tom Coates wrote in a brilliant post: Social software to set-top boxes:

Imagine a buddy-list on your television that you could bring onto yourscreen with the merest tap of a ‘friends’ key on your remote control.The buddy list would be the first stage of an interface that would letyou add and remove friends, and see what your friends are watching inreal-time – whether they be watching live television or somethingstored on their PVRs.

Recommendation of information and entertainment from friends and professional contacts is increasingly important to my media habits. The television industry understands this. I saw a demo of what is now only a mockup of possible future features in set top boxes by one of the companies that makes middleware for them, OpenTV. For one, the interface was a lot more intelligent. It reminded me of some of the animation effects of the new Core animation effects in Mac OS 10.5. The visual animation showed other content that was related to what you were watching either on other channels or on the hard drive of you set top box. But what really caught my eye was that you could also see related content from friends or from video sharing sites on the internet, like YouTube.

Also, things the Tom envisioned such as webcams to chat with your friends while watching TV are already a reality. Philips was demoing set-top boxes with USB inputs for webcams.

More intelligence is coming to television. Set-top boxes are going to rival computers running media centre software for capabilities. Real interactivity might be coming to television. For too long, both the television industry and online content providers have abused the term interactivity. I don’t want to press buttons and interact with a box. I want to interact with my friends.

But so far this was just a demo. I asked how they planned to bridge social networks and cable networks. Right now, they don’t know. Electronic programmer’s guides have a lot of text data. But what about pulling in data from RSS feeds for video blogs or even from mainstream video sources? What about pulling in tags from the internet and other metadata? Right now, there isn’t any way to bridge those worlds.

Maybe it will happen when IPTV becomes a reality. That was another theme at IBC, and all you have to do is look a the headlines this week to realise that TV networks are coming back to the internet. NBC launches the National Broadband Company, and ABC and CBS are both offering more programming online). And computer companies are coming into your living room. Apple previews iTV. (Hey, it’s news that Apple actually previews anything!) More intelligence is coming to TV. Well, at least the technology.

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