Channeling Online Video

YouTube and Yahoo Video claim to become more tv like. In a nutshell, the idea goes like that. Instead of just offering vast numbers of video files, you can subscribe to channels. According to Yahoo, a channel is a series of videos from the same source or user. If you like a channel you can add it to your Favorites page. YouTube-channels are somewhat similar. It’s just that every user (and his content) are defined as channels.

Of course, that’s not a textbook definition of a tv channel. As usually a channel wouldn’t rely upon a single source of content. But aggregate content of different sources to build a program stream, which is watchable.

Now listen to this. According to Reuters, YouTube wants to create a personalized programming experience akin to TV viewers surfing channels with a remote control.

On Read/WriteWeb, Richard MacManus ask himself: The “personalized programming experience” I can dig, but why compare that to tv channel surfing with a remote control? He’s right. Internet guys like to talk about video as rich media. Probably because tv (as the prime rich media example) is big and loud (and sometimes still stuffed with money. Compared to YouTube, any not too crappy cable channel looks like the rich uncle, with more people working on catering than YouTube’s total headcount).

But the real differences is not the quality of the content encoding (OK, YouTube videos tend to look like having been soaked in lukewarm dishwater for at least a week). The BIG difference makes the interface. YouTube et al rely upon the web, the richest interface you can get, displayed on high res screens, with keyboards and mice attached.

Remote controls are like keyboards poor cousins. Well designed for a single purpose, but not really versatile. So any interaction which is a bit more complex than switching channels and turning the volume down asks for pretty arcane user inputs. The screen as a displaying device is pretty much useless – if you want to display a certain depth of information. The resolution, be it PAL or NTSC, is abysmal. And even HDTV doesn’t solve this problem, as the viewing distance is too high. That’s why iTV or Video on Demand are such complex endeavours. You always have to reduce the information level to minimum, because there’s no way to display it anyhow.
Of course, linear tv ist still the 800 pound media gorilla – especially in terms of consumer hours spent on. It’s ubiquos, easy to use, totally ungeeky and sometimes even quite entertaining. And the imcumbent to beat in terms of spare time spent.

But what’s a personalized programming experience akin to TV viewers surfing channels with a remote control? Calling it channels might even be the right approach, as everybody understands the concept (a branded collection of content). But tying channels to content producers is quite off track. Even Spielbergs have their bad days and produce some stuff really do not want to watch. For a channel, what you need are aggregators, editors and program directors.

If you can’t join them: beat them.

Or at least scare them to death. Look at Google’s funny presentation of an interactive TV research paper. The gist: in a perfect world, iTV would be an ubiquos reality, any marketeer’s dream and the perfect pasttime for many a people who’s idea of entertainment isn’t watching a PC scanning itself for viruses. But as we all know, the world is far from perfect (Global Warming, Cialis spam, Cherry Coke – just to mention a few). So since one and a half decades and for the next foreseeable time, iTV can consistently be described as the future of tv (and future it stays).

The reasons are plenty: a hodgepodge of industry interests and players is frequently churning out standards which are practically nowhere deployed (MHP). The computing power of the targeted hardware (A.K.A. settop boxes) is dwarfed by any 10 Dollar wristwatch from a street vendor in Paraguay. And most walled garden of the operators aren’t landscaped after the hanging gardens of Semiramis, but obviuosly more likely with the desert Gobi in mind.

Yes, it’s a mess. But who’s better equipped to fix up a mess than Google? After all, they brought (some) order to the web (which is after all the mother of all messes). Introducing Google TV. Or at least a paper called Social- and Interactive-Television Applications Based on Real-Time Ambient-Audio Identification.

In a nutshell, the idea goes like that. Many people watch tv and surf the web at the same time. Combining those experiences in a somehow converged appliance is still a pipe dream. Connecting PC and STB is mostly not an option. Making people doubleclick to switch a program is the not-so-elegant status quo: first change the channel on the remote control, than switch web sites.

Google’s approach is somehow between big brotherish and ingenious. The only thing you need is a PC with a microphone and a tiny piece of software. The mike listens into the room, the app samples and irreversibly compresses the viewer’s ambient audio to summary statistics. These statistics are streamed from the viewer’s personal computer to the audio-database server for identification of the background audio (e.g., ‘Seinfeld’ episode 6101, minute 3:03). Meaning: transmitted won’t be your stupid talk about nuking your next door neighbor, but just the audio fingerprint of the background noise formerly known as television (and if 10 minutes after you talked about nuking your neighbor 20 square jawed hulks with blackened faces politely knock on your door, you’ll know that somebody has put a trojan onto your system).

Far fetched? Audio fingerprinting is already here. UK-based Shazam recognizes music you play to it, same goes for Fraunhofer Institut’s AudioID. This solution is quite elegant. You get rid of most of the existing complexities, don’t have to care about channel numbers, locations, distribution networks or else. You’re back to the program itself (which even could be a DVD you watch and Google TV will tell you that there’s a guy watching the same movie over and over just like you and you can start to talk, chat or whatever about your mutual obsession).

The paper describes four different types of applications: Personalized Information Layers, Ad-hoc Peer Communities, Real-Time Popularity Ratings, and Video “Bookmarks”. The impact on advertising is partially addressed, too. Well, networks, be aware. Will Google harvest the info clouds surrounding any piece of programming and at the same deliver targeted ads, based on context and consumer behavior (and thereby taking away your bread and butter)? Most likely, not. Even if Don’t piggyback isn’t totally covered by the famous Don’t be evil. But wait for those kind of apps and ads to show up combined with IPTV offerings. Additional lines of contextual content, combined with AdSense for IPTV. To be watched either picture in picture or on a second screen (PC, handset, …).

More to read: Official Google Research Blog: Interactive TV: Conference and Best Paper,
and Chris Riley: Clues on Google TV?

Addendum: The more I think about it, the more obvious it is. The mad professors at the Googleplex are good for many far fetched ideas. But let’s put it like that: the audio part is such an obvious privacy nightmare scenario, that they can’t be serious about it. No way. So we have to divide the paper in two parts. The relevant part for Google is the iTV-backend, with the app and ad serving.
But would have anybody in the whole world noticed just another iTV paper without the harebrained audio scheme attached? Right. And here we go. One paper. And Google positions itself as an interesting player in the TV/iTV market.

Get That Movie. Now.

On Ars Technica, Andres Bylund is giving us a real treat: Blockbusted! Movie rentals of today—and tomorrow compares the different means of renting a movie (at least, if you’re US-based; but most things ring quite true for the rest of the western world, too).
It’s a nice round-up. There’s definitely nothing wrong with it, but it’s a bit misleading, too. Because Bylund is comparing Apples to Oranges, and throws in some Bananas, too. The only thing WalMart, Blockbuster, Netflix et al. do have in common is movies. Which is a bit like pedestrians, trucks and a Porsche sharing just one thing: sometimes, you find them on a road. It’s good, but not good enough.

It’s a way of thinking coming straight out of a product world. But the important thing we need to apply is the use case, and the values behind it. In the as-of-today-world, comparing WalMart (DVD buy) and Blockbuster (DVD rental) doesn’t make too much sense. Not, because of WalMart’s target group. It’s just that people, who buy DVDs almost never rent. And vice versa.

I liked the comparison between Blockbuster and the local rental store, and how the latter did carve out its niche. But Neflix is a completely different beast. Not like hey let’s get a beer and rent a movie. It’s more like HBO without a schedule and some preselective choice (I might like to watch this or that movie later this month).

So what about VoD and downloads? Those two could be closely related. But don’t have to. Look at iTunes, as an example. it’s hyperconvenient, the store entrance is always right in front of your PC. You buy your song, you download it, you (kinda) own it. But it’s a dematerialized product. iTunes gift certificates range probably even lower than mail ordering a bunch of flowers. Uhm, thanks for not completetly forgetting my birthday.

Never forget: the physical world has its treats, too. Will VoD replace local rentals? Could be, should be and in all likelihood sooner or later it will dwarf the storebased rental business. But please don’t leave too much nacho crumbles in the matter transmitter.

Addendum: The NY Times on What Netflix Could Teach Hollywood

Which tells partly the tale from the long tail – but gives you a good idea in what kind of business Netflix really is: Out of the 60,000 titles in Netflix’s inventory, I ask, how many do you think are rented at least once on a typical day?

The most common answers have been around 1,000, which sounds reasonable enough. Americans tend to flock to the same small group of movies, just as they flock to the same candy bars and cars, right?

Well, the actual answer is 35,000 to 40,000. That’s right: every day, almost two of every three movies ever put onto DVD are rented by a Netflix customer. “Americans’ tastes are really broad,” says Reed Hastings, Netflix’s chief executive. So, while the studios spend their energy promoting bland blockbusters aimed at everyone, Netflix has been catering to what people really want — and helping to keep Hollywood profitable in the process.

Five million families now have Netflix accounts, and the company has basically reinvented the concept of a quick-turnaround mail-order business.