Friday, 24 August 2012

Interactive TV: Expensive, Invasive, Orwellian

At the Edinburgh TV Festival, an interesting contrast of ideas arose between separate events on separate days.

In the main foyer of the venue was an X-Box display, demonstrating new technology and software based around the Kinect system. Microsoft were also in attendance at a presentation of new TV technologies the next day. In between visiting these, documentary maker Adam Curtis was holding a master-class.

Most of Curtis' talk was little to do with technological developments. Briefly, though, he answered a question regarding interactive television.

It is, Curtis said, self-selecting, anti-narrative, and more concerned with engineering than content. The stats in the Festival Programme state that sixty percent of households have a games console. Of this percentage, it isn't stated how many have a Kinect device, and of those how many actually use their Kinect regularly. Certainly the audience for interactive TV is based on those who actively pursue it through their hardware purchases, although the first of four presentations demonstrated software that aimed to increase that audience.

Josh Atkins, one day later in the same room as Curtis, stood up on behalf of Microsoft to talk about their developments in interactive television programmes. Streaming a specially written episode of Sesame Street showed us how a child can have an outrageous amount of fun interacting with Grover and the Cookie Monster. It was undeniably impressive, but a niggle remained despite Atkins' insistence that it wasn't a game, it was a television programme. It can be watched without interaction.

No, it is still a game', went the niggle. It's an interactive game the like of which is already available on DVD. What's been added to is the option to turn the game off and just watch. Just because it's streaming from the net doesn't alter the fact that it already exists. The delivery is altered of an unchanging medium. It's a limited audience and won't work for fiction as a mainstream form of entertainment without compromising narrative or, at best (from its point of view) becoming a fad like 3D cinema hopefully is.

None of this changes the way most people watch television. What will change - if this technology is used for, say, game shows - is the speed with which viewers can interact. At the X-Box stand I was introduced to the idea of complimenting games with occasional Kinect flourishes (e.g. in Modern Warfare there are plans to allow you to construct your own gun using floating 3D images of parts and hand gestures), but it's hard to see how complimenting existing technology represents that large a revolution.

Presented by Suveer Kothari and Tristia Clarke respectively, Google TV and You View also utilise existing technology. The latter is a piece of hardware that allows access to the on-demand content of multiple channels at once, complete with 500 GB hard drive to record them onto. Currently plans exist to add more providers of content, and 140 channels have expressed an interest. Unlike some IPTV services, it will also include radio stations, and seems fairly intuitive to pick up. All you need is a broadband connection, a telly, an aerial, and a You View box. The drawback here is that the boxes currently retail at £299, but will come as part of Talk Talk's broadband packages. It seems convenient than downloading on-demand apps for games consoles, but then that was the ambition of the Phillips CD-i. If a similar system gets bundled in with other companies hardware - and it seems hard to believe this won't eventually happen - then it might well prove an increasingly hard sell.

Google TV will come built in to hardware (it is currently available in Sony LG box sets), and is essentially an version of Google's Android system designed for televisions, including a range entertainment, news and lifestyle apps. It recommends You Tube videos to watch on TV in HD, and has search engines and tools for immediate social network sharing. The Redux feature allows experts to curate a session of programmes on certain subjects, complete with information text, allowing the viewer to discover new programming. THUUL is a curious piece of software which monitors which sporting events are available to view and how exciting they are. It's these extra apps that differentiate Google TV from just plugging your computer into a telly and using the internet. Google TV also comes with an app for The Guardian, who presumably are too excited about innovative new formats to remember all that fuss about Google's privacy settings (which you'll now be able to read about on Google TV).

There was also a presentation from Anthony Rose, the founder of Zeebox, an example of the rise of 'second screen' technology. Zeebox is a free mobile app that searches for popular shows, links up with your social networking accounts, and allows you to interact with other viewers so you can watch a show with them even when home alone (Rose described the experience as 'Veg 2.0', adding 'You don't have to watch alone', even though, technically, it's just you and two screens). It tells other people what you are viewing (unless you turn this feature off) so they can interact with you. It also uses targeted sponsored advertising associated with certain phrases so that a link will appear to a product or song when it crops up on screen, instantly attainable. The aim is to integrate different things (Twitter, IMDB, stalking, isolation) together so that the process is streamlined.

Host Marcus Brigstocke pointed out that these capabilities were already available, with only the tiniest amount of online research, and without targeted adverts. The reply came that Zeebox was 'frictionless' in moving from viewing to purchasing, the links making it easier to make immediate purchases. Zeebox creates a desire to buy. Which didn't really answer the question satisfactorily. If anything, it made the device seem more Philip K. Dickensian.

It's like Twitter crossed with Letters to The Metro crossed with rampant predatory capitalism.

Their adverts, you may have noticed, are as funny as a prolapse at a funeral.

Frankly, fuck Zeebox. Fuck it right in the eye. Except that if you did it would probably try to sell you some sort of Eye Fuckery Enhancement device.

If you have it downloaded then please destroy the smart phone or tablet device you downloaded it on to. With magnets. Just to delete every last trace of it.

After this pitch, it was disappointing news to hear that You View - an sensible but potentially flawed idea - was looking to introduce second screen technology at a later date. All of these devices have their uses, but the reality is that they are minor enhancements to television and gaming. Content, as Curtis said, is not really being changed. It's like being told that your door opens slightly faster than it used to, even though it's still a door. Only now it's spying on you.

If you need me, I'll be watching telly and tweeting about it on my laptop like an outdated freak.

August 2012.

(On the subject of Letters to the Metro, this is somewhat calming)

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