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Going off grid: Changing viewing habits

Sky Q - Top Picks - living roomTV viewing habits are changing and so is the television user experience. Andy McDonald looks at how the industry is helping viewers to tap into the wealth of content that is at their fingertips.

The rise in multiscreen viewing and internet-delivered content is ushering in a new era of television – one that is less tethered than ever before to the traditional TV guide.

On-demand viewing means service providers are looking to ever-more personalised and data-driven ways to deliver content that will keep viewers engaged. The success of Netflix has highlighted the power of algorithmic recommendations and new technologies like voice search point to powerful new ways viewers can navigate programming choices.

As technology evolves, so too will the user experience that greets viewers when they turn on their TV, tablet or smartphone. While the linear electronic programming guide (EPG) still serves an important purpose, more sophisticated approaches to search and recommendations will arguably help operators to stand out.

But how are these service providers working hand-in-hand with technology vendors to tackle the advanced user experience and how dramatically will this space change in the coming years?

Sky’s the limit

Earlier this year Sky rolled out its next-generation home entertainment system, Sky Q, promising a “whole new way of watching TV”. The new family of products – which includes new Sky Q set-top boxes, wireless Sky Q Mini boxes for additional TV screens and a Sky Q tablet app – are designed to give viewers a “fluid viewing” experience across screens and types of content.

Sky’s director of new products, Andrew Olson, who was responsible for the design and development of the service, explains that navigation was key to Sky’s revamped UX, and that a new interface and touch remote play important roles.

“What we’ve really tried to do is create something where it’s clear on screen to people what is available to them to draw them in. Then once they are there, it’s clear to them without having to stop and think and analyse what they want to do next,” says Olson.

The executive said that Sky ran trials to tease out whether new functions, designed to make the viewing experience easier, would be picked up intuitively. He said he also read lots of books about neuroscience during the development stage.

Sky Q intelligently creates user profiles based on viewing habits at different times of day across different devices and Olsen says that the system uses recommendation algorithms to “bring forward the best thing for each customer, at the right time, from that incredible library that we have”.

Universal search is available – though not for Sky’s new online video section, which features YouTube and Vevo and a curated service featuring content from the likes of GQ, Vogue and Red Bull Media House. “In terms of universal search, we provide this for all the content that’s our traditional TV content today,” says Olson. “YouTube search is its own destination within YouTube. What we’ve found so far is that YouTube is an ocean and if you want to go into it, if you’re not careful you can drown in information.”

Sky is also working with a technology partner to introduce voice search later this year – once the technology gets to grips with “the amazing range of different regional accents here in the UK”. Olson says that voice control is “something that people are becoming more and more used to in other parts of their lives and so it’s something that becomes intuitive for them to try to do – to look for the button or to try to ask a question of a device.”

Apple introduced its Siri voice control in its latest version of Apple TV and this type of technology is gaining traction across the industry. Amazon’s Fire TV has a voice remote with built-in mic, as does the Roku 3 streaming box, and pay TV operators are looking to do the same – for good reason. Last year comScore suggested that 50% of web searches by 2020 will be done with voice.

TV technology company Rovi is already providing a natural-language spoken-voice interface for US satellite TV provider DISH. The voice technology is being integrated into the DISH Explorer second-screen app for iPad, into a new voice remote for DISH’s Hopper DVR, and into the DISH Anywhere app for on-the-go viewing.

Rovi’s senior director, international marketing, Charles Dawes, says that this conversation-led discovery is an important development and will start to roll out in Europe with some “very big customers” in the near future.

This comes after Rovi announced a deal with speech technology provider Nuance Communications at IBC last year, with the latter’s voice recognition, text-to-speech and voice biometrics now being integrated with Rovi’s cloud-based Conversation Services.

“One of the things that we’re now starting to see coming through is that move into voice as an interaction method,” says Dawes. “Being able to speak and say something is really great, but you need to be able to get the results that you expect back from it. Having something that’s just very command-based, as we’ve had in certain implementations, isn’t a great experience.

Rovi’s focus is on surfacing content through natural conversation – “as if you were sat on the couch next to your partner, and said ‘what’s that programme that’s on Sunday night at nine?’” This also includes the ability to go from one query to the next without confusing the system.

“If you can express, and the system can understand, what you’re saying and the intent of what you’re saying, then I think it’s going to make a huge difference. We’re starting to see that come through,” says Dawes.

Talking television

Talking to your TV is arguably just part of a broader move towards big-screen personalisation. As Laurent Van Tornhout, Zappware’s vice-president of product and marketing argues: “The best user interface is no UI interaction at all. Your TV ecosystem should become your best friend; it just knows you.”

Zappware supplies end-to-end TV ecosystems for telecom operators, broadcasters and entertainment service providers. The firm recently launched a multiscreen IPTV deployment for fibre-internet provider Massey Communications in Trinidad and Tobago, while Belgian service provider Mobistar – soon to rebrand as Orange – is also using Zappware to power its recently launched cable TV service.

“Every conversation that we’re having now with service providers revolves around identity management,” says Tornhout, claiming this is a “key cornerstone at the foundation of personalisation”. He believes that the way forward is to build the foundation for identity management first and then use that to manage recommendations and eventually targeted advertising for “relevant individual users, not only households”.

Last year Zappware introduced a new personalised home screen that lets users browse both live and on-demand content, with the size and the position of items indicating the appropriateness for the viewer based on their user profile. It also partnered with natural language company SemanticEdge to add voice search to its offering – something that Tornhout calls a “second layer” of functionality that will appeal to some, but not all viewers.

Over at Liberty Global, vice-president of video products Mark Giesbers says that while the “jury’s out” on whether gesture controls will prove a meaningful augmentation of how to control devices, he believes voice control will soon be commonplace. “A couple of years from now we will probably look back [and say] ‘do you remember when we didn’t control our search with our voice’,” says Giesbers. He claims that this will be how users both search and interact with their TV sets.

Giesbers oversees Liberty Global’s advanced TV platform Horizon, which it first launched in 2012 and is currently deployed in six markets including Germany and the Netherlands. He says the firm aims to pass the two million Horizon customer mark this year, and that, as its platform of choice, it eventually aims to deploy it “in some shape or form” in all of its European markets.

Using RDK as an underlying platform of choice and putting as much functionality into the cloud as possible for all of Liberty’s markets is the plan going forwards, he says. “The future is definitely a harmonised set of products” with a focus on “one next-generation TV ecosystem for the group.”

However, with “no huge hardware launches” planned for this year and a legacy user base to cater for, cutting-edge technologies like voice search look likely to elude Liberty’s Horizon customers for the time being.

Instead, Liberty has focused on enhancing its Horizon UI and has introduced functionality like its Replay TV backwards-scrolling EPG and a Watch With Twitter app that lets Horizon TV customers follow live tweets relevant to the programmes they are watching overlaid onto the TV screen.

“What we set out to do and really also see happening in the market now is to help facilitate the change from the traditional TV experience into a more holistic entertainment experience via our set-top boxes and gateway devices. Meaning of course that our customers increasingly use them to consume other types of content also besides normal linear TV watching,” says Giesbers. “If you look at the Horizon user interface today that is optimally geared to also support that – live TV, Replay TV and catch-up on-demand and increasingly also web content or TV apps.”

Beyond the EPG

At IPTV and VOD software firm 3 Screen Solutions (3SS), founder and managing director Kai-Christian Borchers says that the company is working towards something he terms ‘linear 2.0’.

“When you sit in front of the big screen you want to be entertained. You do not want to have a lean-forward experience where you always constantly have to search for something you want to watch,” he says. “The key is to present a user experience to the end-user that is lean-back, that is like TV, but is being composed of VoD content.”

As a viewer, Borchers says that he would be “super interested” in being presented with  personalised, linear-style themed channels, made up of content from all different sources. So much so that 3SS is already working on a project that is “going in that direction”.

Borchers believes that the way forward is for all kinds of programing to be grouped together and categorised into “useable, navigational focal points”. An end-user, he argues, usually knows what they want to watch – the problem is how to find it when they are overwhelmed by choice.

“The UX at the moment is unfortunately broken,” he says. “The challenge is, how can the UX be designed to make it a navigational journey for the end-user to find exactly the sort of content he is looking for. That is the big challenge that we are being confronted with in the industry at the moment.”

This is a challenge that 3SS is working on with Swisscom. The Swiss operator rolled out its 3SS deployment in April 2014 and is now on the third version of its UX. The firm has adapted the home-screen based on analysis of user behaviour and the latest version is now “super-practical at increasing user-experience,” says Borchers.

Like Sky, Swisscom’s focus is on the TV services it provides. While it offers Vimeo, YouTube and other services in a smart TV-style app area, this is not the focal point of the service offering. Borchers says that this type of approach is primarily driven by a service provider’s business model. From his own point of view, he says, he would like to see this type of OTT service taken closer to the heart of the service provider’s offering, including being integrated into the overall search functionality.

Seachange director of product management, Peter Hahn, says it is also currently going through a process where it is “quite dramatically trying to change the user interface”.  Like 3SS, the rival technology provider has detected that people are getting “more and more confused” by the abundance of linear and on-demand content and is looking for ways around this.

“We are building a so-called content-centric, or user-centric, UI where the typical grid and line-up, and a typical catalogue completely disappears. Which means the user, when they launch the application, or when they start their set-tops/TV screen, sees what is relevant for them at a particular time,” says Hahn.

He says that users will be able to apply advanced filtering to their choices, but will essentially be served a mixture of linear, recorded, catch-up and on-demand content. “We are completely breaking down the typical silos that you normally have,” says Hahn, explaining that Seachange instead intends to simplify the options down to a user, a time and type of content they are interested in.

The solution, which will be the latest version of Seachange’s Nitro UI will be released in mid-2016, with an as yet unnamed client already on board to launch a similar but “not as extreme” version of this concept.

“Most of the time operators or users want to have the typical grid EPG or the channel lineup, which is still available as an optional view. But we strongly believe that this will not be necessary any more,” says Hahn, predicting that the “typical catalogue concept” will disappear over time.

Getting personal

In early 2014, DVR maker TiVo paid US$135 million (€99.3 million) for cloud-based content discovery service Digitalsmiths, in a move it said would accelerate its evolution to a device-agnostic, cloud-based service provider. Since then, personalised content discovery has started to be offered more and more by video service providers, according to Digitalsmiths’ head of product, Chris Ambrozic.

“Over the last year, the industry has matured a good bit, and Digitalsmiths’ customers are leveraging the vast amounts of data they are capturing to deliver a more personalised experience. In the future Digitalsmiths expects to see much more on-demand programing, which will provide the viewer with a deeper level of recommendations since this content is not tied to a day or time.”

Ambrozic says that “catalogue blending” or the ability to merge a video service provider’s catalogue with multiple OTT catalogues is something that is “on the horizon” and is something it supports. “This will allow video service providers to be the conduit for the consumer,” he argues.

“The good news for consumers is that video service providers are evolving their new UIs/UXs to be far more content discovery-focused. The traditional pay TV grid is slowly going away and the use of personalised carousels is gaining popularity, such as ‘What’s on now’ or ‘Because you watched’.”

Israel-based Comigo is another TV platform provider that claims to be taking traditional discovery and collaborative recommendation “to the next level”.

Company CEO Motty Lentzitzky says that in the past year and a half the firm has been working on a ‘brain of discovery’ that goes beyond basic metadata and can determine content and precise scenes with that content.

Lentzitzky says this proprietary technology connects operator customer management data and information extracted from online sources like Wikipedia and IMDB, identifies what is being said at different points of the video and connects it to the operator’s catalogue.

“I think that in the future, maybe in the far future – five years-plus from now – we will see that most of the curation and most of the discovery is being done automatically,” says Lentzitzky. He also predicts that the TV guide will also eventually disappear – though “not in the near future”.

While there seems to be a broad industry feeling that the traditional user experience is moving past the grid guide to something far more personal and intuitive, opinion is split over how quickly this will happen.

Sky’s Olson says that while all products have a lifespan and are eventually replaced, he believes that live TV and the EPG grid will be with us for a long time to come. “The steering wheel on a car has been the same for 100 years – it just hasn’t changed, it does what it needs to do,” he says.

3SS’s Borchers agrees that for linear TV the grid EPG is “a very good thing” and that while an increase in millennial and generation Z viewers may allow services to depart from this system, the behaviour of older viewers will be harder to change.

Essentially the shifts that are already taking place in the industry are part of an evolution. At Zappware, Tournhout believes that that the EPG will remain, but in the future it will be “your EPG, not the EPG” as the numbered channel slots that we are familiar with today start to disappear.

Dawes from Rovi says: “When we look at some of the research that we did last year, you’ve got 30% of people who say they frequently turn off the TV because they can’t find anything to watch”. This, he argues, should not happen in this day and age.

Engagement is ultimately what all service providers are keen to capture and if dramatic changes to the UX will amplify this, change will surely follow.

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