How Anthony Rose Plans to Revolutionise TV

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 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.”

By By Robert Andrews, PaidContent