Erik Schwartz hates tickers. Whether it’s sports scores scrolling through the bottom of the screen on ESPN (s DIS) or news headlines on CNN, (S TWX) he just doesn’t want to see any of it. At least not on TV. “Sending data through video is a really stupid way to send data,” Schwartz told me last week over a coffee in downtown San Francisco.
TV viewers would be much better off if they received that data separately on their second screen, he explained. Bay Area-based Synchronize.tv, a company founded by Schwartz about a year ago, wants to make the second screen smarter, and in turn, declutter the first screen.
Schwartz has been thinking about TV interactivity for close to 20 years now. He was one of the pioneers of interactive television in the early 1990s, working at a company called ICTV, which is now known as ActiveVideo Networks. He also briefly headed Yahoo (s YHOO) Entertainment, and has been telling people it’s better to present information on the second screen ever since. The only problem is that no one really wanted to listen back when a “second-screen experience” meant sitting with your laptop in front of the TV.
But in the last two years, the pieces of the puzzle started to come together. Apple (s AAPL) introduced the iPad, making the second screen look sexy. Heavyweights like Google (s GOOG) entered the connected TV space. And social TV services like Miso and GetGlue encouraged people to interact with content on their phones or tablets while watching shows on the TV set.
One of the most advanced implementations of this idea is arguably IntoNow, a TV check-in service that uses acoustic fingerprinting to automatically recognize the show you’re watching. IntoNow essentially uses the microphone of your iPhone or iPad to listen to your TV’s audio output, then compares this data with catalog of known TV shows. Schwartz loves the attention the subject is getting through IntoNow, but he’s dismissive about the technology. “The audiosync functionality is a short-term hack,” he told me, if only for the fact that it drains your device’s battery life.
His company, Synchronize.tv, instead wants to deploy code directly to TV sets and connected devices. He didn’t want to reveal the startup’s secret sauce, but he hinted at using some of the additional information embedded into a TV signal, like closed captions and other metadata.
But Schwartz doesn’t want to compete with social check-in services like GetGlue, Miso and others. Instead, he wants to power their apps (see how Synchronize.tv works in concert with GetGlue in the video embedded below). Synchronize.tv is developing an API that will allow anyone to build applications for tablets and mobile phones to know what’s happening on TV. It’s this type of contextual awareness that will really change second screen apps, according to Schwartz. “When second-screen apps become TV-aware, they become more powerful,” he said.
So how will Synchronize.tv make money? Basic access to the API will be free, said Schwartz, but advanced contextual information, including the names of the actors on-screen at any given time, will only be available to commercial customers.
But the real money will be in using all the data Synchronize.tv is providing for advertising. Schwarz argued that the days of traditional TV advertising are numbered, as more and more people watch content on demand or simply skip ads on their DVRs. Much like the tickers on TV, he argues ads make more sense on the second screen. Synchronize.tv’s technology could be used to one day build something like an Adsense model for tablets, pulling up relevant offers on your tablet while you watch products on a TV show. Check out this video for a demo of the company’s contextual information API:
There are plenty of challenges for Schwartz ahead. The biggest one will be to actually get on CE devices. However, it’s getting easier, thanks to device makers adopting advanced application platforms. Schwartz told me that he plans to be on Google TV devices a few weeks after the company makes its SDK available to allow the development of third-party apps. He’s also talking to MSOs, and toying with the idea of partnering with a CE maker to build a simple device that would just tell your iPad what you’re watching at any given time.
It’s still a risky proposition, especially because set-top box manufacturers and companies like Google could at any moment decide to simply roll their own version of his service. However, Schwartz has his eyes set on a goal worth fighting for, he told me: “I know we have won when you can watch a sporting event with nothing overlaid.”