The Future of TV

Dale Herigstad was first introduced to me in 2005 as one of the people tapped to design concepts for what digital, interface, and computing would look like in Steven Spielberg’s 2002 film “Minority Report.” As an Executive Assistant at my first agency job in Los Angeles, I thought this was pretty impressive. In the years that have followed I’ve come to see that this accomplishment, however glamorous, is just a small piece of Dale’s long list of accolades in the world of television. 

Today, Dale is the Emmy Award-winning Chief Interaction Officer at POSSIBLE. He is a pioneer of the multi-screen world, and was one the first recipients of the ITVT Interactive Television Leadership Awards. Here are a few of his latest thoughts on the state of television and the way we consume content.

1. CES 2013 was all about Television… connected TV, interactive TV… In your opinion what were the most interesting things to come out of the conversation at CES?

While I didn’t attend CES this year, I have been following the coverage online, and there seemed to be a lot of chatter about what could be called the "super TVs" that feature ultra high definition and even better image quality. And of course, there was a lot to see in the advancement of rich mobile devices, and how they work with Television.  

Over time, we as customers just expect better things from our gadgets and devices, and I would also say that we expect better interfaces as well.  When I look at these new TVs and smartphones, for example, I look to see if they really offer a better interaction experience than their predecessors.

Connected TVs and second screen activity was big at CES this year. My concern with Connected TV is that not enough attention is being paid to User Experience. I say that from a design viewpoint, as well as from technology. The poor technical performance of set-top boxes over the years can actually be worse on some connected TV’s—users experience  problems like choppy animation, and complex layouts.  And a major issue I have with most Connected TVs is that upon opening a TV app, the television programme disappears, along with audio.  The combined viewing of TV and app is an important feature often missing.

As many TV carriers struggle to offer a rich UI experience on set-top boxes, the audience is moving quickly to the use of tablets and smartphones. These "second screens" can allow a quicker and more efficient way to find programming, and they keep the TV screen free of interface graphics. 

A good deal of activity on second screens is not necessarily related to the TV, with the audience keeping up on Facebook, Twitter, and other social applications. An issue arising from this behavior is that people are missing TV content moments when they look down to a mobile device. A possible solution to this is coming with new advanced AR (augmented reality) technologies, like Google Glass, that can place this secondary information in the users’ viewing space.  Watch for more of this activity in the coming years.

It’s also interesting to look at what wasn’t hot at CES this year. Some previously hyped technologies were hard to find. For instance, 3D and gestural interfaces were part of background conversation in previous years. They haven’t gone away; in fact, they’re beginning to enter the mainstream as viable commercial options. I think it’s interesting to look for these sorts of slow-burn technologies that catch fire later.  It’s important to avoid the hype and look for the long-term possibilities.  
 
2. You've led quite a few interactive TV projects for us here at POSSIBLE, both in the US and in Europe? How would you describe the difference between the television viewing expectations in each region?

I’ve lived and worked both in the US and in Europe, and I think that the atmosphere in Europe lends itself to a more progressive television viewing experience. In the US, there is a standard set of carriers and what they are willing to offer customers. It becomes a business question. One factor is the presence of the BBC in the UK, a publicly financed institution providing great programming and services. They aren’t restricted to ad models because they’re funded by UK citizens. This lends itself to more freedom and innovation. For instance, the UK has had Red Button interactive TV applications for a long time. When watching Wimbledon, for example, viewers an easily move between matches, camera views and extra information. It can be argued how successful it is, but I think it provides a prime contrast to the US, which has more tightly controlled business interests. Europe is more open to experimentation.

There is more usage of tablets in the US while watching TV. People there seem more comfortable with the idea of using the two together and and penetration of tablets is greater. Second screen is growing in Europe but for the moment, it’s not as popular. I think broadband coverage affects tablet adoption quite a bit. In fact, the entire promise of the cloud and mobile tech—that users can watch anywhere—is based on great data connections.  There is a lot of work to do in providing better access and coverage.  
 
3. What are the most important changes to the interface of On Demand (VOD) content?  

I’m seeing more interfaces out there that emphasize design and interaction. This is good because we’ve come to expect the same responsiveness on TV that we get from our smartphones.

Viewers are faced with lots of choices, so it’s important to make browsing for content easier and more powerful. The project we worked on for Orange (it was taken outside of Orange and now branded as I Feel Smart) proves this point. The box is based on an Intel chip and it was one of the best I’ve seen, with smooth animation and layering. I believe that audiences expect richer and better interfaces, and the I Feel Smart is like that. It also elegantly connects with mobile devices, and has an interesting social component.

Another example is our work with Freesat in the UK.  The new Freesat with Freetime launched last year, and expresses some innovative ideas. It looks to evolve the guide to be a more useful tool to browse and discover content, with a more sensible use of time. The experience starts at what’s on Now and Next. From there, as you traverse back in time, the content rearranges by days, and provides access to various Players to view what’s missed. Traversing directly from Now / Next gives viewers access to highlights of shows coming in the future. And simple motions are used to guide the path of traversing across time.  

This is exciting for me because it means all the things I’ve been talking about for over 20 years are starting to appear in market in a viable form.

4. How do you feel about the idea of the second screen, and the role it will play in the future of TV?

The second screen is becoming an important component of the TV experience.  It provides a new way to control the TV (sometimes replacing the remote), and also delivers new content to pair with the user’s viewing.  This can enhance the shows being watched, or just allow the viewer to keep up to date on social news.

What is particularly interesting to me is that while the content on TVs is carefully controlled and regulated, the content that viewers watch on second screens is not.  In one sense, this is open territory for users to create a new combined experience.

5. I liked this quote from a Guardian article

“Two major shifts are still needed for connected TVs to become as ubiquitous as smart phones: smarter, more user-friendly electronic programme guides, and remotes that actually work."

I’m curious if you agree with the sentiment. 

Yes, generally I agree with this perspective.  The programme guides often use trite interfaces, which is why many of us are drifting to the second screen for better UI and performance.  And remotes are often confusing, with too many buttons.  I would add that most of the apps can only run full screen, eliminating the TV experience altogether while they are in use. I would point out, for example, that in the case of the new Freesat Freetime interface, the video programming is present, scaling as you move into browse mode.  And it does so in stages.  You don’t have to immediately go to a full screen guide, but can progress to one from an easily accessed mini-guide.  And the HOME area presents a menu of key areas, along with a snippet of top level content in each, allowing viewers to “browse the system” at the outset of their TV experience.  

Adding social data, and making systems smarter (learning user behavior) also makes for better browsing and finding.  And allowing viewers to use various forms of input—like touch, gesture, motion-sensing remotes, and others— can make the tasks and browsing easier and more natural. We’ve tried hard to adhere to the clear and natural tenets of direction and spatial meaning.

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