At IBC people kept asking: what’s your product?
Now we don’t have a NoTube product – nor should we have – this is a pre-market project – but the common follow-up question ‘what is your goal’ is a very reasonable one, and we should be able to answer it.
As with many large EU projects, once the project has started it is many months – if not several years – since the proposal was written; some of the original writers will have left or gone on to other things, and technology will have moved on substantially, and will continue to do so during the three-year lifetime of the project. At the start of the project and throughout, there’s therefore a need to reevaluate what it is that we want to do; what the parameters and scope are, what our skills and interests are: basically, how we can make the best of what we have, constituting a large amount of tax payers’ money.
We were lucky enough in the ‘Social Web and TV’ workpackage to have experienced writers who understood enough of these problems to leave the tasks relatively open ended. This is what we said we would do in ‘WP7c':
- To design and develop a component for sharing of information and recommendations
- To design and develop a component for sharing of personal profiles
- To design and develop a component for new programme information
- Integration of the BBC Memory Share Component with the NoTube architecture
That’s what we promised to do: there’s much detailed text explaining how and why. We were lucky: these deliverables do not constrain us in ways that disasterously tie us to obsolete technologies, and where they do tie us down it’s to something external, public, and user-focused. The structure of the project is important here too: the ‘Usecase’ partners guide the technical work of the rest of the project, and all three usecase workpackages have spent time on working out what it is that people actually want.
The experience I brought to this job was my three years at Joost, the IPTV startup. I was product manager there for a while and I spent a long time thinking about TV and what it could do if it was mixed up with the web in user-facing ways. I also product-managed the widgets work we did at Joost for a while, and I’ve learned a lot from thinking about what did and didn’t work there (Joost was very forward thinking in many ways, and I learned a lot).
Here are some of the things I learned:
People don’t want lots of stuff on their ‘TV’ screen
That’s partly because they are watching it, though that’s not the whole problem, because quite often they are not watching it, or not fully. I personally think that on your laptop it has to do with visually flipping between something that’s moving and has perspective and something that’s flat text. There are all sorts of problems with these kinds of things on a big screen (changing between near and far, text entry, annoying people who are watching with you). But regardless: widgets on the screen you are watching are not welcome.
Closed worlds aren’t as good as the real thing
The best Wikipedia is Wikipedia, not Wikipedia where you’ve had to remove the links or the images. The best chat client is whatever chat someone’s already using, not a new one that’s not really about chat but about TV. The best social network is the one you’re already in, not a new one that we made up to increase uptake of our product.
If you hide stuff away, no-one uses it
Now, there is a case for widgets on TV, and that’s where you can customise the UI or content of the UI to your liking – let’s say you want to show your friends’ recommendations onscreen. What works is to show them in the main UI. What doesn’t is to put widgets on a separate screen which needs actions to pull it up. Very few people will bother, or even find it.
Web and TV
I think in some respects at Joost we fell into the same trap as many of the manufacturers at IBC in thinking that the Web was a tool that could be used to enhance (our) TV, not a thing that TV had to deal with smartly to remain used at all. IBC was a jugganaut of 3D TVs of various kinds and sizes. Not surprising perhaps – it’s a trade show essentially, which is why we kept getting asked about our product – but also kind of silly:
People often watch TV. They like watching together and talking about TV. They watch to relax. They often watch while doing something else, often with a laptop.
Any or all of these might give pause for thought about the 3D direction as the lifesaver of the industry. The kinds of ways people use TV when its in 3D are not the kinds of ways people currently use their TVs.
But back to our goals. This is what I wrote when I recently had to summarise the social web part of NoTube for a BBC document:
“EU collaboration demonstrating APIs for linking the Social Web with broadcast and on-demand television, using linked data from broadcasters, audiences and across the web, to help make social content navigation applications and active TV communities.”
Yes, this is what we are interested in technology-wise, what we think are the right directions to take. Actually though, it’s the people (or ‘audience’) -facing element of our work that’s by far the most important. Dan asked a good question early on – I’m paraphrasing – what’s the difference that NoTube can make to the development of the industry over the next five years? What do we expect would be different because NoTube existed? I think the answer is that we can help show what a Web connected TV might enable people to do that they actually want to do. And being a research project we also have the opportunity to try things out, get things wrong, and show what doesn’t work as well as what does.
This is how the ‘Usecase’ parts of the project were designed to function within the project: and so that’s our goal in the ‘Social Web and TV’ part of NoTube: take the user perspective, and talk about what we learn.