Interactive Television (iTV): Talking Back to TV

With a free update that becomes available today (Dec. 6th, 2011), a device (already hooked up to 35 million TVs) will start listening to users - allowing the viewer to search for games, movies, TV shows and music by simply using voice commands and gestures (e.g., moving your hands to scroll through options) from the couch.

The updated Windows XBox live controller that launches today isn't as good at voice recognition as Apple's Siri: Live television control isn't available just yet and the XBox service does not recognize "natural language" (instead the XBox listens for keywords like "pause, fast-forward and rewind"). Still those innovations cannot be far away - and the launch of this new XBox interface, coupled with Apple's breakthrough with their voice-controlled Siri personal assistant and other recent developments (e.g., changes in user behavior like the "two-screen phenomenon") - clearly signal that we are about to enter an era where the user interacts with TV in a much more natural and nuanced way.

New levels of interactivity bring new concerns [So that normal conversations don't send your TV into fits, users can say "Cancel" to stop their XBox from listening - until they turn it on again by saying "Xbox"]:

When these devices are in every home - who will be listening to what we say and what will the listeners do with the data?

How will content and advertising change in this new age of interactive television?

Some of the answers to these questions can be found in a whitepaper on interactive television, just published (December 2011) by the Interactive Advertising Bureau.

That IAB report defines interactive television as the evolving "participatory television viewing experience that allows a user to send or request information back to the programmer or advertiser."

iTV (the acronym for Interactive Television - not to be be confused with any Apple-branded product) has long been a dream of cable providers and advertisers (remember the QUBE experiment from the 1970s?).

Tellingly, the Interactive Advertising Bureau December 2011 report was paid for by online advertisers - IAB member companies are responsible for selling 86% of online advertising in the United States - who see a solution to the decline in viewership of traditional TV ads in a world where almost 40% of US homes have a DVR and a viewer who knows how to use the fast forward button to bypass ads.

But iTV also has a huge potential in programming, "where viewers can be polled about story lines or given options to interact with richer, more customized supplemental content."

Obviously, interactivity with the content on the TV screen predates today's roll-out of the XBox voice controller. For example, voting via mobile devices for American Idol and tweeting with Beyonce during the Video Music Awards about her baby bump are experiences that have a proven track record - fans have come to expect and appreciate a growing amount of interactivity with TV in recent years. Voice control of TV via the Xbox controller - and the advances in natural language recognition signaled by Apple's Siri - are more fuel for a fire that has already begun burning.

The heat around iTV is drawing attention from advertisers - who suspect that interactive commercials will be much more successful when the user is already in a "leaning-forward" mode thru voting or communicating with a character on the screen - and filmmakers also see opportunities in this New World of interactivity.

The fundamental promise of iTV (its added value) is engagement. But no one really knows how fans will want to engage with content. Will iTV simply become a platform for advertisers? Will talking to the TV still result in a mostly passive experience? If users start interacting with content other than ads, will the creator still remain in control of all the outcomes? Or will user engagement bring on a new age of participatory storytelling? Will users soon be using voice commands to fashion their own stories using new tools and a few raw materials provided to them onscreen?

Yesterday's technological challenges seem less daunting and recent changes in consumer behavior (e.g., USA's second screen app that allows users to engage with content on different screens simultaneously) suggest a new era of user engagement with TV (iTV) is at hand - or at voice command.

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