Thursday, April 26, 2012

Why is Discovery so hard to implement for video services?

Last week, Google said it was trying to tackle one of the hardest problems on the internet -- video Discovery.

Looking at consumer video services (Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and even GoogleTV) and their second screen counterparts (Matcha, Fanhattan, BuddyTV, etc), the admission of the challenge is painfully evident in the user interface the consumer faces and the result of the Discovery process.

But let's back up a bit first. What is Discovery? How does it relate to Search and Recommendation? I think we will find wide agreement that the concept of Search is one where you know what you are looking for and are trying to find it. Now this can be more complex than "Where can I find a legal version of Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol that I can watch in my living room right now?" (which itself can be challenging in today's service offerings).  It is not usually as complex as the problem Shazam solves in the music industry ("what is the name of that song that sounds like..."), but can be difficult (I know the actor who was in the movie or what it was about). Search is decidedly a "lean forward" experience, and as most of us have found out over the last 5 years, it incredibly difficult to implement on a 10-foot remote experience, with various virtual keyboards or fancy remotes trying to help us solve this problem.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Thoughts on Using Audio Sync for Automated Content Recognition in Second Screen Apps

(this originally appeared in Civolution's Vision Newsletter at NAB 2012)

There has been a lot of a debate in the blogosphere and trade journals about the value of automated content recognition (ACR) to the user experience and the best way to provide that capability.  Let’s start by exploring the value of the feature first.  Most apps are using the concept of ACR to provide ease of use for the consumer by identifying the show they are watching and “checking them in” to the show (IntoNow is probably the most well-known for this, but many others like ConnecTV and Viggle use it as well).  Shazam uses it to provide a launch point to additional information about a product you are watching in a commercial.  TVplus uses it to provide a synchronized content experience.  There have been discussions about holding the microphone open (or checking occasionally) and when the consumer is determined to be watching something else, to prompt them to change channels (whether for rewards or otherwise). 

Monday, April 16, 2012

Converting physical DVDs and Blu-ray discs at Walmart to my Vudu (and UltraViolet) account

A few weeks ago when the story first broke about Walmart planning to launch an Ultraviolet-compatible disc-to-digital conversion service thru their own Vudu video service, I raised some points about cost vs. hassle, availability of titles, and potentially what could be done to use this (and hopefully other similar services) to drive growth in digital sell-thru for the studios. I also raised some points later about what would help drive digital sell thru.

So yesterday morning, on the day Walmart launched their service, I called Walmart and asked to speak to the photo processing departing. A very kind woman answered and said she wasn't sure if the service had launched, but had heard about it and asked if I could call back in 15 minutes so she could ask. 15 minutes later, she told me the service was ready, but that no one in her department including herself had been trained in how to do this, but if I was patient, I was more than welcome to come down to be their first customer.

Updating the Second Screen Ecosystem Infographic

In February when many of us met to discuss the quickly developing second screen marketplace at the Second Screen Summit, we referred to an infographic that helped describe the players in each of the contributing market segments.

We had many spirited conversations that day and in the following weeks about which actors were left out and where they belonged.

Thanks to tremendous effort by MESA, below is an updated infographic that is complete and ready for your use during NAB this week.

We have identified the major players from contributing market segments including:

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Harnessing "exclusive" content to aggregate larger audiences in the digital living room

I think there are 4 primary reasons consumers are willing to pick up a device in the living room while watching TV:

1. Simple. It starts with turning on the TV itself, but it is really about getting the content you want to watch onto the TV (whether the right channel, the right device for Blu-ray or digital video, or something you found on your 2nd screen and want to watch on the 1st screen). Last week's blog covers this challenge in detail.

2. Social. Currently a huge topic in the press and in the industry, this is about engaging others via Facebook, Twitter, or specialized second screen applications while you watch the show. A hugh phenomena right now.

3. Discovery. More and more, consumers are picking up a device to find something to watch rather than trying to use the EPG or the 10-foot remote experience of searching for content on the 1st screen. This is still a very nascent consumer experience, but one where real improvements are imminent in the space.

4. Stimulating. Another reason consumers are watching with a device in their laps is because they want more information about the movie, TV show, sporting event, or live event they are watching. They are looking up the actors, checking the stats of their favorite players, seeing who made that dress--all of the information they want to check in real-time while watching the first screen.

In my last blog, I discussed the evolution of the digital living room in terms of the devices outside the Apple ecosystem and how difficult it is for consumers to get a truly integrated content experience (devices don't play well with each other or with content). Part of the solution, I argued, could be solved by UltraViolet, the video content industry's effort to provide a path for digital sell-thru. Another part was a combination of CE devices / operator STBs opening their control systems to 3rd party developers (APIs, web servics) so that other applications like digital video service providers (Hulu, Netflix, Amazon) or second screen applications (Fanhattan, BuddyTV, TVplus) can allow consumers to find their content and get it to play effortlessly (Simply) on the first screen (their TV).

But there is another major element missing in this effort to make the consumer experience in the digital living room a better one: access to stimulating content.

If you used the Masters 2012 app last weekend while watching the golf tournament (or read my blog on it), you noticed there were 6 sources of video available (the live broadcast plus 5 other camera setups). If you watched the Oscars and the pre-show red carpet event using the official Oscars app or the E! Red Carpet app, you also would have noticed additional camera angles that were not available through any other source. Movie titles do this (create an app specific to the title with exclusive bonus materials). TV shows and even TV networks do this to--making content exclusively available thru their show specific or network specific app.

When you ask yourself why they do this, you initial conclusion is that it must be about money, yet in nearly every example I can find of exclusive content, the app itself is made available to the consumer for free. Perplexing.

So let's step back from this for a minute. Why do TV shows, sports events, or studios invest in custom created apps for their content? They want to aggregate bigger audiences around their content. In fact, that is why TV networks, movie studios, and sports leagues exist--to aggregate audience to increase monetization thru content licensing, advertising or subscription.

So why keep the special camera angles, bonus features, and star-studded interviews exclusive? My guess is that part of this is down to the human nature of the managers involved in the process to promote the app that they have built. But most of it is about cost and control. The content creator doesn't want to bear the cost (time, resources, money) of distributing the content to third parties, and additionally, they want to maintain quality control over how the content is used.

Are there models today where this problem is already is solved? Certainly. Look at at big brand or movie title. When they launch a new product or movie, they develop a very specific set of rules on how the logos, brand images, photos, and even movie trailers are to be used and then make them available under a limited use license to "trusted" 3rd parties to put to use to help them promote their brand or movie.

So how do we bring this together in the living room? We need a way to get content creators and application developers to syndicate this stimulating content. The content creator needs a cheap and efficient way of making the special content available to "trusted" 3rd parties so that when you are watching the Masters in 2013, you get access to the great materials in the Masters 2013 app and in the ConnecTV or TVplus app. When you are watching the Oscars next year but prefer to use IntoNow or Miso, perhaps you will still have access to those additional camera choices. When you watch the Hunger Games this fall, you will hopefully have access to the bonus materials thru the custom app AND through Fanhattan.

While nothing is free, perhaps there is a reciprocal business arrangement between the apps (digital video services, second screen apps, social TV apps) and the content creators that can make this all worthwhile (sharing ad revenue, customer affiliation, or even a simple syndication fee).

If we can solve this access to content challenge and the challenge of the multi-brand device living room, we can create an environment where the consumer will have more reasons to watch the content in the first place, increasing overall consumption perhaps even at some premium pricing--and everyone in the ecosystem wins: the content creators aggregate a larger audience, the distributors aggregate a larger audience, the app developers aggregate a larger audience, and the device makers sell more devices.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Masters 2012 App Reivew on the iPad

For anyone who saw the final round of the Masters last Sunday, you were treated to an exciting and incredibly stimulating entertainment experience filled with double eagles, come from behind efforts, and a sudden death play-off shoot out.  The Masters 2012 app for the iPad matches that excitement and stimulation on every level.  While this app doesn’t provide tons of social tools (perhaps the demographic is wrong) and doesn’t provide any control of your 1st screen, it more than makes up for those missing feature sets by providing a stimulating experience beyond what most consumers could have wished for.  The app was the perfect companion to one of golf’s most historical weekends, with the ability for the consumer to not just see the obvious additional information items like the leaderboard and bit of information about the players, but to see live video from the broadcast (delayed 30 seconds) or from one of 5 other camera locations on the course, to see the leaderboard with video highlights on the exciting holes (loaded nearly in real time), to see an in-depth view of the players weekend progress in addition to their professional backgrounds, and and incredibly rich and stimulating historical perspective on the course and the tournament in the form of a decade by decade multimedia timeline and video fly over course map.

The user interface of the app is clean and simple, with the features centering the live video window (with 6 camera location options including the live broadcast) and highlight a mini-version of the leaderboard.  The video for the various camera feeds was delayed from live by 30 seconds, but started quickly and had no pixelation or frame issues, even when shown full screen on my iPad 3.  Drilling into the leaderboard revealed a rich and interactive view of the players’ progress, with video highlights available with a simple touch and an ability to select your favorite players so that they would always appear at the top of the board when you checked on their progress.  There was even an alert feature, letting you know when your favorite player was on a key hole or had moved up or down in the race to victory.  A live text update of significant events was provided just below the mini-leaderboard (presumably in case you missed something), and current video highlights were promoted just beneath the live video window, helping you quickly and easily find the most amazing shots of the day and the weekend.

The lower nav bar on the app allowed for more detailed exploration on the course and the tournament, providing a rich media view decade by decade of both.  There was also a very well developed course map with the lore and legend of the course combined with the obvious video flyover of each hole.  Of course, there was a detailed photos section (both current and historical), and an ability to check the player pairings for each day (with tee times) so that you could more easily follow your favorite players around the course.

While watching the end of the tournament with a few friends on Sunday, we found ourselves constantly referring to the app to see recent hole highlights (the double eagle by Louis Oosthuizen) and to check on the leaderboard as a guide to switching camera angles while the broadcast was focusing on players we were less interested in.  When Bubba Watson started to come from behind, everyone wanted to know who he was and what tournaments he had won.  As the tournament headed to a sudden death play-off, the room immediately wanted to see the hole they had to play and how the 2 players had fared on that hole earlier in the day.  The only real missing feature set was the social arena.  While I don’t think most golf fans want live Twitter feeeds, something like the ability to share a link to those favorite video clips so that your friends who were not in the room could share the moment with you, even if not in real-time, would have been nice. 

The Masters 2012 app has truly been world class delivery for a stimulating second screen experience.  I am hoping to see this level of effort for the other major tournaments (British Open, Ryder Cup, etc) in golf going forward.  At least for this consumer, it will certainly raise my interest and viewing time for all of those supported tournaments.


Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Evolution of the Digital Living Room

Apple with its iPad, Apple TV and iCloud for movies and TV shows has delivered a seamless ecosystem to the consumer's digital living room for owning and watching content from multiple devices in the home.  The rest of the industry (SmartTVs, connected devices, Android tablets) struggles to create a similar experience when they are a single-brand ecosystem and fail miserably when there are devices from multiple manufacturers in the household.
How can the industry work to solve this problem?  Part of that solution is UltraViolet.  As discussed in previous blogs, the concept is that someday I will have the same experience as the Apple ecosystem (buy a movie with the UltraViolet feature and have access to it from every device I own).  The reality today is that none of my SmartTVs or connected devices (except my iPads and PCs/Macs) can stream content from Flixster, some have access to Vudu, but if I purchase on Blu-ray I can use "sneaker net" to carry the disc from room to room.

But perhaps more important than UV is a better connectivity approach to the digital living room itself.  The challenge here is that DLNA is not enough.  Assuming I have a pre-sorted directory on my PC where I can access that I am looking for is a bad assumption.  The majority of SmartTV companies have been busy building their own proprietary approaches to solving this problem (with and without partners).  Boxee is trying to solve this problem, but I think its focus on a 10-foot remote experience limits its capability to do so.

I think the best way for the consumer and for the device manufacturers to move forward is for the device manufacturers to focus (similar to LG) on exposing their devices via APIs to applications on tablets (second screens) and local (home movies) and over-the-top video services (Netflix, Hulu, Vudu, Amazon, VDIO, M-GO, etc).  This allows Second Screen apps (think BuddyTV, Dijit) to deliver the "Simple" capability to control the large TV (1st screen) and deliver the selected TV show or movie to that 1st screen (or tune the channel), but also provides a more natural interface (2-foot remote, touch screen, virtual keyboard) for "Social" interaction, review of "Stimulating" content and "Discovery" of new content, and providing the "Seamless" delivery of the source of that content across services so that it can be delivered directly to the viewing screen.  This then gives the consumer the capability to buy devices (Boxee, PS3, Xbox, Blu-ray players) and Smart TVs from different manufacturers and still have a robust alternative ecosystem that is similar in capability to Apple's.

And this approach is an urgent requirement for the industry because the consumer will not wait much longer to improve their own digital living rooms.

Let's face the facts.  If the iPad tablet market share holds in the 90%+ range, consumers are going to start buying Apple TVs (Tim Cook described them as iPad accessories), which will obviate the need for SmartTVs and other devices almost entirely:

  • removes the need for Blu-ray players since the Ultraviolet experience is built-in to iCloud for the Apple ecosystem
  • removes the need for SmartTVs as Apple TV connects to HDMI
  • removes the need for other devices for streaming services with Netflix,, etc, on the AppleTV product
  • leaving only the home movie challenge which Apple then solves with their iMovie and iPhoto products.

If you don't believe this is urgent, check out my recent experience at home below:

I have had a frustrating last few weeks with my Apple Ecosystem at home (AppleTV, iTunes on a Windows PC as my main library, 4 iPads & 4 iPhones for a family of 4--by no means ordinary in penetration).  Apple's latest 10.5x change to the iTunes software has a bug in it that requires you to turn off IPv6 in your network adapter of your Windows 64-bit PC (guess how long it took me to figure that out?).

So for those few weeks, I was forced to deal with the "average" digital living room in my attempts to share and watch content in my home.  I am sure most Americans have 3-4 TVs in the house (so say the statistics)  of different brands plus a gaming console or two and various connected Blu-ray players.  In my house, we have a Boxee Box, an Xbox 360, a PS3, 3 "SmartTVs" (a Samsung TV, an LG TV, and Panasonic) and another connected LG Blu-ray player.  We typically use Vudu to rent movies (better experience than Apple in Discovery and delivery in real-time) on the PS3 or Boxee, we watch "high end" TV on the Apple TV (series not yet available on Netflix or Hulu), and watch all other content either live or DVR'd from our AT&T U-verse or from iPads/other connected TVs/devices via Netflix or Hulu+.

What a mess.

Our digital living room experience at home a few weeks ago (and going forward since I fixed the IPv6 problem) was that for special movies and TV series, we would buy them, and they would download automatically into the main library where everyone in the family had access to them forever more from iPads or the Apple TV (using local delivery or the iCloud).  Home movies that were already in .mp4 were also available to those devices.

During the "time of digital failure", I tried using the DLNA capabilities of the various devices including Boxee, PS3, and my TV-connected PC to watch home videos or non-DRM'd content (outside of Netflix and Hulu+).  I think all of you probably already know how painful this was.  Boxee is probably the best at being able to decode multiple formats of personal home video (Canon camcorder, Canon DSLR, iPhones, etc), but is difficult to use to browse and find content (as we shoot and store video).  The PC which houses everything is just not built for a 10-foot remote experience (yes I have tried to font changes, I have a Logitech mini-keyboard, and even occasionally us LogMeIn from a laptop instead to control it).

The experience was so painful, that we actually purchased a few movies on Vudu as an experiment (can't download to the iPad, but you can stream) and had another push on Boxee for home movies.  Ultimately, it was the "stick" that drove me to fix the Home Sharing bug Apple created.