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Summary:

I have seen the future of TV and it is called “Zeebox”. The next project from Anthony Rose, the technologist who built KaZaA and BBC iPlayer…

Zeebox's Anthony Rose and Ernesto Schmitt
photo: Robert Andrews

I have seen the future of TV and it is called “Zeebox”. The next project from Anthony Rose, the technologist who built KaZaA and BBC iPlayer in to some of the most disruptive digital media plays, is due to go live in October.

Topped by Peoplesound founder and ex EMI SVP Ernesto Schmitt as CEO, the pair’s startup raised $5 million in seed funds from unidentified investors in June and has been operating in stealth as “tBone”. But it has been renamed and has just located at offices at London’s Covent Garden, where it has a staff of almost 30 (including former iPlayer engineers) and where the pair showed me an exclusive demo…

What is Zeebox?

Attempting to ride both the multi-screen TV engagement trend and the increasing adoption of internet TVs, Zeebox is a real-time system for social TV viewing and for engaging deeply around those shows that depends on recognising sofa-based second screens as the place for innovation.

The free Zeebox app for iPad (and, later, iPhone and Android) is a TV guide that displays what shows Facebook and Twitter friends are watching. Owners of compatible connected TVs can flip channel straight from the app, as though it were a remote control. Although the command takes place over the internet, the change happens as quick as or quicker than some standard infrared remotes.

Viewing together

Notifications appear on-screen to indicate friends’ presence in channels. Users can chat in the iPad app and send invites to join one another for simultaneous viewing – accepting an invite results in the channel changing. “Jack, come and watch The Apprentice with me,” Schmitt tells me, by means of example.

As well as these personal connections, Zeebox users’ collective actions can shape the experience. The app displays real-time data for which shows are “trending” up or down. In a scenario Rose presents, a notification appears to say Top Gear is currently “hot” (perhaps Jeremy Clarkson has said something particularly egregious). The opportunity to surface breaking news in this serendipitous way is clear, along with the prospect of improving TV ratings measurement with actual real-time data.

Making TV hyperlinked

But this “second-by-second” approach is the fabric of more than just Zeebox’s social interaction. Using both commercially licensable broadcast metadata and frame-by-frame analysis of live TV pictures and audio, Zeebox will apparently understand exactly what is on the TV screen at any given moment (“just as Google (NSDQ: GOOG) spiders the web”), in order to serve up all manner of related material on the handheld app.

As example, Schmitt shows how, whilst Tom Cruise is interviewed on Top Gear, the app will auto-display “infotags” for spoken topics (say, “Ferrari 458″, “Abu Dhabi”, “Sebastian Vettel” and “Tom Cruise” himself), as Cruise is speaking. Each topic becomes an in-app link to a corresponding piece of online content, on Wikipedia, IMDB, iTunes Store or whatever.

The method involved is Zeebox’s “secret sauce”, the subject of a pending patent application, but it’s called automated content recognition (ACR), a field with several vendors including Civolution.

“As context emerges on TV, these infotags just keep ticking up,” Schmitt says. “I find this so unbelievably exciting. Anything being discussed on TV is right there for you.” Or, as Rose puts it: “It’s like crack – you just keep wanting stuff, and getting it second-by-second. TV just becomes better.”

One of the intended uses of “infotags” is commerce. Schmitt wants viewers to be able to buy things relating to what they see on screen. As I flip channel to QVC, he assures me Zeebox will know what’s on-screen is a cubic zirconia ring – and offer me more information, as well as ways to buy that ring.

Programme context

Rose wants in-app TV show pages to display live tweet streams as well as broadcaster-owned HTML “widgets” for custom show engagement. “BBC Red Button’s non-interactive, a bugger to author for and a bugger to use,” he says. “Imagine a next-generation Red Button toolset that allows people to author things for an IP age.”

From these show pages, Zeebox will also offer links to available on-demand episodes. They could be played on the tablet or smartphone, but Rose tells me users may eventually be able to use those handhelds to invoke playback on the TV. “I don’t have a full answer to these things yet, but we’ll experiment with the full infrastructure,” he says.

How it works

At its most basic, an iPad user can “check-in” to shows manually (though Rose and Schmitt hate the GetGlue- and Foursquare-style gamification concept). To automate that process, the app can listen for shows’ audio fingerprints, Shazam-style. Connected TV owners get the full automatic experience because those TVs already know what shows are on.

“The browser in connected TVs lets you create HTML overlays and widgets,” Rose says. “We’ve created a lightweight, Javascript-based plugin that, on many 2011 and 2010 TVs, can be software-updated and user-installed.”

Zeebox is currently in demo on Samsung Smart TV and Rose, the former CTO of the YouView connected TV consortium, says: “YouView’s got a nice underlying architecture that will allow the Zeebox plugin to run on it, so we look forward to those discussions in the fullness of time.”

A Zeebox open API is also proposed to empower developers to build similar functionality in to their own apps. “There’s a shitload of technical work that needs to be done,” Rose says. “Getting there is non-trivial. We want to go to the moon.”

Innovation Dead-Ends:

Anthony Rose: “TV has been closed for decades. Broadcasters created aggregations called channels that they all got together to decide upon in a particular order. Flipping through the channels is a dreadful way of watching.

“Now we see the rise of a new power broker, the device manufacturers – they now also decide what they want on their app store. So your TV, for the foreseeable future, will remain closed.”

Ernesto Schmitt: “The one place where 98 percent of media is consumed has, for the last decade, miraculously been protected from all this digital change by this walled garden, in the absence of internet connectivity. Television is still the same thing it was 10 years ago.

“Even catch-up TV in the form of iPlayer is a very limited, restricted view of what the opportunities are. All it is is a PVR on steroids. The Google TV approach is not in tune with how consumers are engaging with content.”

Multi-Screenism:

Anthony Rose: “But there is a freedom to be had for consumers and it’s called the second screen. This whole notion of a second screen is going to be explosive. The smart broadcaster will be one that engages with different systems rather than denies they exist.”

Ernesto Schmitt: “The time has come for the real revolution to happen, thanks to two big megatrends – connected TVs and mass adoption of companion viewing devices.”

“If you look at youngsters you find mass phenomenon of multi-tasking across devices whilst watching TV. Almost three quarters of under-25s in the US on a daily basis watch TV and at the same time on their companion portable device be on Facebook or Twitter, doing searches, increasingly related to the content.

“What we see is not the replacement of TV. We don’t think Google TV or Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) TV – these approaches that negate broadcast television – are the right model. We think people will watch more TV than before. We think they want TV on steroids – the ability to watch TV socially, an ability to transact, to get information, to interact. It’s the enhancement of TV.

The New Watercooler:

Anthony Rose: “Once upon a time, the whole village went to the cinema and got together and discussed the show. Now, everyone sits at home alone and discusses it the next day. Zeebox brings to you all the people you are watching with right now. You can set it up as appointment to view – when you pick up your iPad, you can ping them to say ‘come watch with me’.

Ernesto Schmitt: “It brings the watercooler moment live rather than next-day.”

The Business Model:

There isn’t one, yet. Zeebox looks like a classic startup. But TV-commerce is a clear line of interest.

Ernesto Schmitt: “To be discussed and reviewed down the line. First thing we will do is enthuse millions of people with this new platform.

“We’ve got broad engagement from device makers, broadcasters. Transaction-enabling live TV; I think opportunities for revenue generating are multiple.”

How about charging for API use? “We’ll see.”

Industry Partnerships

Ernesto Schmitt: “We’re working with three of the top four broadcasters in the UK actively on ways to enable their programming to exist on Zeebox and partnering with them. We’re working with four of the top five consumer electronic makers worldwide on building the plugin in to their product range so you have fully automated communication.

“The electronics manufacturers all see Zeebox as a fantastic opportunity. I will not deny that there are a number of them currently trying to pressure for exclusive options. Where we end up will be seen in the fullness of time.”

Anthony Rose: “We are engaging with broadcasters and programme makers to create better next-gen programmes.”

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  1. Doug Ferguson Tuesday, August 2, 2011

    Is this vaporware?  I could not find Zeebox as an app on my iPad.

  2. Louis Chaussé Tuesday, August 2, 2011

    Wow, as a member of a social TV startup, I follow the news of Social TV apps and I can say that it is really the most complete and revolutionary I’ve seen in a long time!

  3. Darren Wallace Wednesday, August 3, 2011

    Does Zeebox work with recorded/on-demand programming, or just linear TV?

  4. “Users can chat in the iPad app and send invites to join one another for simultaneous viewing…Jack, come and watch The Apprentice (not really physically) with me…”

    This is the saddest thing i have read this week. 

  5. If it only works with broadcast then it’s missing the point by a mile. The really killer app will be the one that finds appropriate content from anywhere on the Internet and your shiny disc collection too.

    Broadcast is so fin de siècle don’t you think?

  6. @Simon Morice There will always be live broadcasts, and there will always be room for automated content recognition. Anyway, the future of broadcast doesn’t happen overnight. I think Zeebox’ approach is a very clever one in that it builds on what we have today, but adds some of the magic that we expect TV to have in the future, only today.

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