Interactive Video, Using a TV, is BROKEN

We are HUGE fans of bringing video to the living room using IP. We talk to existing and potential clients about this each and every day. We have dozens of devices, from the original Apple TVs to new ones, from old Roku’s to the newest ones (which are pretty awesome), Boxee, and most recently, the Google TV. An amazing assortment of devices, each with its strengths and weaknesses.

In experiencing the different plays on “interactive television,” the one thing that I am certain of is that bringing social streams (twitter, flickr, facebook) onto the big screen – especially while watching video with others – is broken. It’s out of place. It distracts from the social experience of television.

As my wife and I watch some of our favorite shows, we each have some sort of computing device open. Perhaps we each have our own laptop open. Or iPad. Or mobile phones [Yeah, our house is sort of crazy like that]. Regardless, each of us is able to interact with a variety of services while we watch the “big screen” together. This is key – my wife would get very frustrated watching my twitter or facebook stream on screen. She would go insane trying to follow my ADHD brain as I bounce through IMDB and Wikipedia trying to track each actor.

If interactive television, however, is to connect my personal device, be it an iPhone, iPad, Android or laptop, together with the programming on screen, than we have a HUGE WINNER. I can follow my own whims while my wife can have her own interactions. However, the social aspect of us watching Glee together remains. We can both sing along. We can laugh. We can pause the video and comment. It is an experience that has been with us for our entire life and is comforting.

A couple of Castfire clients are about to launch products that will incorporate behind the scenes footage and additional video on iPads, iPhones and Android at the same time as it is airing on broadcast. The audience can be fully immersed with not only the broadcast, but can explore additional streams in conjunction. An amazing first step.

The future however, will utilize IP delivery and the processing power of the set top device (or directly in the television) to enable audience members to move content from the “big screen” to their personal device. It will keep “companion” apps in sync with the big screen, pushing relevant information to those who display interest. Want to learn more about that Lexus advertisement? How about being able to open a driving simulator on your own device. Want to purchase that same shirt that the star is wearing? What if the Gap store opened in conjunction on your laptop? Want to find out Tim Lincecum’s stats for pitching to left handed batters? Want to know how your fantasy football league is doing in real time? And on and on and on…

In the near future, the majority of people will carry a touch device with an internet connection. These devices should be leveraged to provide the interactive in interactive television. These devices should be the connection between both the content creators and the advertisers with the audience. These devices will allow us to enjoy the television experience together while connecting to our different circles online.

Television is social; social media is personal. Don’t confuse the two.

Apps, Apps and More Apps

One of the greatest areas of technological growth over the last two years has been in the development of apps. The term ‘app’ is short for ‘application program’, the flip side being a systems program. Many vendors like Apple (iPhone, iPad), Google (Android) and now Microsoft (Windows Phone 7) chase developers to create apps in their environments so their devices will have better functionality…and they can in turn sell more devices.

Apple far and away has not only helped create this market, but continued to catapult it along. A recent estimate says there are over 50,000 app publishers and over 200,000 apps in the US App Store alone. Apps built on the Android platform are growing, as are Blackberry and Nokia (Symbian). Microsoft is well behind, but it is reportedly offering some developers revenue guarantees even if the new Windows Phone 7 fails. A completely new market for apps are also being built on the growing number of tablet computers that are or will soon be sold. Though the operating systems are the same (iOS and Android), the apps being developed for tablets can be very different than the apps on their phone counterparts, and are often much more media rich.

A huge ecosystem is building around supporting the App development industry. From app developers, to app exchanges, to app aggregators, and of course app stores; many different businesses are popping up to support the app industry. The growth we see continuing to flourish is in that of publishers of informational or entertainment content. Virtually every show or brand that has any kind of content where they need eyeballs will eventually need an app if they are to remain current– and they will need apps across devices. Granted, they may not think they need an app for every single phone or tablet, but any device that has sold millions, they will want to get there. Anything from news to sports to weather to fantasy football to full length shows are available from many of the apps that have been specifically built by the owners of that content. These apps are generally made available for free, and there is a huge competition amongst networks, brands and content owners to get the most downloads for their apps.

The decision of what apps to provide can be extremely difficult, however. For instance, a network like CBS may want to build apps for CBS Corporate, CBS News and CBS Sports separately. They may even want to provide apps for specific shows like Survivor or 60 Minutes– or for categories of shows. And then for each of these decisions, they must decide if they are making apps for all the devices out there. Costs to develop all these apps and publish content to the devices can really add up, and it is important that the content owners have a way to monetize all of their shows published to apps moving forward. The mobile ad industry is still in its infancy and will continue to grow and hopefully flourish over time. A platform like Castfire enables publishers to monetize and analyze consumption of audio and video across all platforms by integrating with any ad server; even if the ad server is set up to work within Flash. Therefore, publishers can continue to use their same ad system and same ad ops they use for the web and monetize their content no matter what apps they decide to develop and publish content. Another host of companies like Transpera are focusing on the mobile ad market and rich media ads, and provide other ways content producers can monetize their apps.

One thing is certain: apps are here to stay, and they will only grow in numbers in the foreseeable future as more and more smart phones and tablets hit the market. Those publishers that create the apps that are easy to find, fun to use, and can advertise there without being intrusive will be the ones that win over this ever growing consumer base that will demand more and more mobile content moving forward.

Enhanced E Books — The Evolution of Reading

The notion of enhanced E Books has been around for years, but it is the proliferation of E Book readers, and more specifically tablet devices like the iPad and the unreleased Samsung Galaxy Tab that will truly transform the way some people view, consume and read books.  Many may ask what the heck an enhanced E Book is.  The definition is still being worked out in the publishing industry, and the formats are certainly far from being defined.  But the premise is simple:  include additional links, data, video, audio, or even software to “enhance” a book above and beyond the typical text you would see on the screen.

So curling up with a good book in bed can also include all kinds of extras if and when you want: an audio track of the author reading the prose, movie trailers, videos of book critics or additional explanations, links to related articles, games or contests, or even promotions for book signings or giveaways.  Some might find it sad that we as a society want to merge a good book with mass media, but I find it very exciting.  And I do believe that it will eventually lead to more book sales, can actually spur people to read more by making it a little more fun, and will certainly assist with the dissemination of information.

Devices like the Kindle and Nook do enable some enhanced features to be added to E Books, but the real game changers are the highly successful Apple iPad and all of the new tablets based on the Android platform set to be hitting retailers over the next 12 months.  These devices can really bring all of these other enhancements to life and provide a broadband connection for the ease of serving media elements.

The current trend is for the publishers to develop an app for the enhanced E Book, and the app will be device specific (iPhone, iPad, Galaxy Tab, etc).  Of course this adds to the complexity and cost for publishers.  As more and more of these devices hit the market, decisions will have to be made to determine what apps they will provide and what devices they will support.  Standardization will be difficult as each device will have it’s own specs and SDK.

Enhanced E Book apps can be very large in size as well if a great deal of video or audio is embedded in the app.  The market will trend in the future to try to limit the size of the apps for both magazine and E Book apps.  The hard drives on tablets are not very large and really are not designed to hold vast amounts of data.  Some of the apps for magazines and E Books I have seen recently are over 1GB in size.  Think about it….that means that if I have a 16GB iPad, I could only have 16 books or magazines on it at a time!  It will be imperative that publishers think about this as they are developing their E Book Apps.  Embedding large video or audio files in the apps will not be sustainable over time.  Utilizing a media publishing platform like Castfire can enable these apps to serve media content to the Enhanced E Books and can publish audio or video to the multiple different devices you are targeting. These apps should be designed so that as much data as possible is coming from the cloud so that the file size is minimized.

Publishers really seem to be rushing to develop and nurture the enhanced E Book market right now.  I don’t think anyone knows what they will look like even in the next 12 months, but I know that I’m excited to read, listen and watch them as they rapidly come to market.

Mobile Web Mile High WiFi Club

I just took a recent flight and was shocked by the number of people I saw toting their iPads.  What struck me wasn’t just the number of iPads I saw, but what many people were doing with them — watching video.  The individual right next to me was actually streaming a Netflix movie on-demand.  This would have been impossible a short time ago, but the mobile web is truly becoming a reality.

With the $37 Million Row 44 just raised coupled with the deep pockets of Aircell (GoGo Inflight Internet) more and more airlines will be outfitted with WiFi.  Most major carriers have installed service on key flight segments, and Southwest just announced every plane will have WiFi soon.  Each airline seems to have very different pricing models for what they charge however.  The flight I was just on (Alaska Airlines) was only $5 for a domestic flight using the GoGo service, and I hope that most carriers will follow suit.  At that price it is just a no-brainer to turn on any device you have and enable the WiFi.  It just opens up the doors to productivity and entertainment.  I wouldn’t be surprised if some were streaming movies on their Android or iPhones for such a low entry point.

Thank you FCC for approving WiFi in the air….improving our lives and entertainment one mobile connection at a time.

Apple’s HTTP Adaptive Protocol

In June of 2009, Apple introduced a new video format that provides adaptive bitrate over http.  If those words don’t sound like they should go together – or in that order – don’t worry. It’s actually not as complex as it sounds and is a really cool technology.

Adaptive bitrate allows the quality of the video to adjust depending on your internet connection speed. The faster the connection, the better quality the video will be. While it has been executed in a number of ways on the desktop, this is the first implementation for mobile devices. Additionally, the implementation uses a standard http connection – a very basic building block of the internet. This protocol is very easy to scale and requires no additional software.

While the adaptive bitrate does have advantages, there are three specific disadvantages for publishers:

  1. It requires quite a bit of transcoding, as you need to transcode a minimum of 5 times per episode. If you chose to do separate profiles for iPad and iPhone, there are 12 or more transcodes required.
  2. The only tool Apple provided for transcoding is a command line tool for OSX.
  3. The spec is quite unfriendly to advertising!

Castfire utilizes a custom transcoding engine and queue that distributes the work across many different processors and servers. We are able to quickly divide the workload across available machines to process as quickly as possible. The queue enables each client and output profile to maintain a different priority to ensure that the most important episodes and profiles are completed as quickly as possible. Since Castfire acts as the origin server for your CDN, there is no need to be transferring all of the files between servers or to your desktop – it is completely automated.

Rather than tinker with the encoder from Apple, we built our own encoder for our LAMP infrastructure. We have now transcoded over 1600 hours of http adaptive video — almost 2 years worth — using our custom encoding solution. We are extremely happy with the quality and the performance of it.

Lastly, we have utilized our existing infrastructure, that enables ad insertion from any VAST enabled ad server, to allow publishers to monetize ads in the http adaptive format. Clients like CBS Mobile and the Washington Redskins are using this today to monetize videos across all of the iOS devices.

If you would like to view the http adaptive profiles from some Castfire customers, check out: