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Interactive television (generally known as iTV) describes a number of techniques that allow viewers to interact with television content as they view it.

Definitions of interactive television

Interactive television represents a continuum from low interactivity (TV on/off, volume, changing channels) to moderate interactivity (simple movies on demand without player controls) and high interactivity in which, for example, an audience member affects the program being watched. The most obvious example of this would be any kind of real-time voting on the screen, in which audience votes create decisions that are reflected in how the show continues. A return path to the program provider is not necessary to have an interactive program experience. Once a movie is downloaded for example, controls may all be local. The link was needed to download the program, but texts and software which can be executed locally at the set-top box or IRD (Integrated Receiver Decoder) may occur automatically, once the viewer enters the channel.

Return path

To be truly interactive, the viewer must be able to alter the viewing experience (e.g. choose which angle to watch a football match), or return information to the broadcaster.

This "return path" or "back channel" can be by telephone, mobile SMS (text messages), radio, digital subscriber lines (ADSL) or cable.

Cable TV viewers receive their programs via a cable, and in the integrated cable return path enabled platforms, they use the same cable as a return path.

Satellite viewers (mostly) return information to the broadcaster via their regular telephone lines. They are charged for this service on their regular telephone bill. An Internet connection via ADSL, or other, data communications technology, is also being increasingly used.

Interactive TV can also be delivered via a terrestrial aerial (Digital Terrestrial TV such as 'Freeview' in the UKmarker). In this case, there is often no 'return path' as such - so data cannot be sent back to the broadcaster (so you could not, for instance, vote on a TV show, or order a product sample) . However, interactivity is still possible as there is still the opportunity to interact with an application which is broadcast and downloaded to the set-top box (so you could still choose camera angles, play games etc).

Increasingly the return path is becoming a broadband IP connection, and some hybrid receivers are now capable of displaying video from either the IP connection or from traditional tuners. Some devices are now dedicated to displaying video only from the IP channel, which has given rise to IPTV - Internet Protocol Television. The rise of the "broadband return path" has given new relevance to Interactive TV, as it opens up the need to interact with Video on Demand servers, advertisers, and web site operators.

Forms of interaction

The term "interactive television" is used to refer to a variety of rather different kinds of interactivity (both as to usage and as to technology), and this can lead to considerable misunderstanding. At least three very different levels are important (see also the instructional video literature which has described levels of interactivity in computer-based instruction which will look very much like tomorrow's interactive television):

Interactivity with a TV set

The simplest, Interactivity with a TV set is already very common, starting with the use of the remote control to enable channel surfing behaviors, and evolving to include video-on-demand, VCR-like pause, rewind, and fast forward, and DVR, commercial skipping and the like. It does not change any content or its inherent linearity, only how users control the viewing of that content. DVRs allow users to time shift content in a way that is impractical with VHS. Though this form of interactive TV is not insignificant, critics claim that saying that using a remote control to turn TV sets on and off makes television interactive is like saying turning the pages of a book makes the book interactive. In the not too distant future, the questioning of what is real interaction with the TV will be difficult. Panasonic already has face recognition technology implemented its prototype Panasonic Life Wall. The Life Wall is literally a wall in your house that doubles as a screen. Panasonic uses their face recognition technology to follow the viewer around the room, adjusting its screen size according to the viewers distance from the wall. It's goal is to give the viewer the best seat in the house, regardless of location. The concept was released at Panasonic Consumer Electronics Show in 2008. It's anticipated release date is unknown, but it can be assumed technology like this won't remain hidden for long.

Interactivity with TV program content

In its deepest sense, Interactivity with TV program content is the one that is "interactive TV", but it is also the most challenging to produce. This is the idea that the program, itself, might change based on viewer input. Advanced forms, which still have uncertain prospect for becoming mainstream, include dramas where viewers get to choose or influence plot details and endings.

  • As an example, in Accidental Lovers viewers can send mobile text messages to the broadcast and the plot transforms on the basis of the keywords picked from the messages.
  • Global Television Network offers a Two-Screen Solutions interactive game for Big Brother 8 marker "'In The House'" which allows viewers to predict who will win each competition, who's going home, as well as answering trivia questions and instant recall challenges throughout the live show. Viewers login to the Global website to play, with no downloads required.
  • Another kind of example of interactive content is the Hugo game on Television where viewers called the production studio, and were allowed to control the game character in real time using telephone buttons by studio personnel, similar to The Price is Right.
  • Another example is the Clickvision Interactive Perception Panel used on news programmes in Britain, a kind of instant clap-o-meter run over the telephone.

Simpler forms, which are enjoying some success, include programs that directly incorporate polls, questions, comments, and other forms of (virtual) audience response back into the show. There is much debate as to how effective and popular this kind of truly interactive TV can be. It seems likely that some forms of it will be popular, but that viewing of pre-defined content, with a scripted narrative arc, will remain a major part of the TV experience indefinitely. The United States lags far behind the rest of the developed world in its deployment of interactive television. This is a direct response to the fact that commercial television in the U.S. is not controlled by the government, whereas the vast majority of other countries' television systems are controlled by the government. These "centrally planned" television systems are made interactive by fiat, whereas in the U.S., only some members of the Public Broadcasting System has this capability.

Commercial broadcasters and other content providers serving the US market are constrained from adopting advanced interactive technologies because they must serve the desires of their customers, earn a level of return on investment for their investors, and are dependent on the penetration of interactive technology into viewers' homes. In association with many factors such as
  • requirements for backward compatibility of TV content formats, form factors and Customer Premise Equipment (CPE)
  • the 'cable monopoly' laws that are in force in many communities served by cable TV operators
  • consumer acceptance of the pricing structure for new TV-delivered services. Over the air (broadcasted) TV is FREE in the US, free of taxes or usage fees.
  • proprietary coding of set top boxes by cable operators and box manufacturers
  • the ability to implement 'return path' interaction in rural areas that have low, or no technology infrastructure
  • the competition from Internet-based content and service providers for the consumers' attention and budget
  • and many other technical and business road blocks

Interactivity with TV-related content

The least understood, Interactivity with TV related content may have most promise to alter how we watch TV over the next decade. Examples include getting more information about what is on the TV, whether sports, movies, news, or the like.

Similar (and most likely to pay the bills), is getting more information about what is being advertised, and the ability to buy it -- this is called "tcommerce" (short for "television commerce"). Partial steps in this direction are already becoming a mass phenomenon, as Web sites and mobile phone services coordinate with TV programs (note: this type of interactive TV is currently being called "participation TV" and GSN and TBS are proponents of it). This kind of multitasking is already happening on large scale -- but there is currently little or no automated support for relating that secondary interaction to what is on the TV compared to other forms of interactive TV. Others argue that this is more a "web-enhanced" television viewing than interactive TV. In the coming months and years, there will be no need to have both a computer and a TV set for interactive television as the interactive content will be built into the system via the next generation of set-top boxes. However, set-top-boxes have yet to get a strong foothold in American households as price (pay per service pricing model) and lack of interactive content have failed to justify their cost.

Many think of interactive TV primarily in terms of "one-screen" forms that involve interaction on the TV screen, using the remote control, but there is another significant form of interactive TV that makes use of Two-Screen Solutions, such as NanoGaming [46003]. In this case, the second screen is typically a PC (personal computer) connected to a Web site application. Web applications may be synchronized with the TV broadcast, or be regular websites that provide supplementary content to the live broadcast, either in the form of information, or as interactive game or program. Some two-screen applications allow for interaction from a mobile device (phone or PDA), that run "in synch" with the show.

Such services are sometimes called "Enhanced TV," but this term is in decline, being seen as anachronistic and misused occasionally. (Note: "Enhanced TV" originated in the mid-late 1990s as a term that some hoped would replace the umbrella term of "interactive TV" due to the negative associations "interactive TV" carried because of the way companies and the news media over-hyped its potential in the early 90's.)

Notable Two-Screen Solutions have been offered for specific popular programs by many US broadcast TV networks. Today, two-screen interactive TV is called either 2-screen (for short) or "Synchronized TV" and is widely deployed around the US by national broadcasters with the help of technology offerings from certain companies.

One-screen interactive TV generally requires special support in the set-top box, but Two-Screen Solutions, synchronized interactive TV applications generally do not, relying instead on Internet or mobile phone servers to coordinate with the TV and are most often free to the user. Developments from 2006 onwards indicate that the mobile phone can be used for seamless authentication through Bluetooth, explicit authentication through Near Field Communication. Through such an authentication it will be possible to provide personalised services to the mobile phone.

Interactive TV services

Notable interactive TV services are:
  • T-commerce - Converts a sales transaction through the television.
  • BBC Red Button
  • Ensequence - Provides solutions that enable programmers, advertisers and distributors to create and deploy interactive TV experiences that increase programming ratings, advertising response and audience reach. The company mitigates the technical complexities of interactive TV implementation and enables its customers to quickly and affordably deliver a high volume of robust interactive TV experiences across cable, satellite and IPTV.
  • TiVo
  • ATVEF - 'Advanced Television Enhancement Forum' is a group of companies that are set up to create HTML based TV products and services. ATVEF's work has resulted in an Enhanced Content Specification which makes it possible for developers to create their content once and have it display properly on any compliant receiver.
  • MSN TV - MSN TV supplies computerless Internet access. It requires a set-top box that sells for $100 to $200, with a monthly access fee.
  • Philips Net TV - solution to view Internet content designed for TV; directly integrated inside the TV set. No extra subscription costs or hardware costs involved.

User interaction

Interactive TV is often described by clever marketing gurus as "lean back" interaction, as users are typically relaxing in the living room environment with a remote control in one hand. This is a very simplistic definition of interactive television that is less and less descriptive of interactive television services that are in various stages of market introduction. This is in contrast to the similarly slick marketing devised descriptor of personal computer-oriented "lean forward" experience of a keyboard, mouse and monitor. This description is becoming more distracting than useful as video game users, for example, don't lean forward while they are playing video games on their television sets, a precursor to interactive TV. A more useful mechanism for categorizing the differences between PC and TV based user interaction is by measuring the distance the user is from the Device. Typically a TV viewer is "leaning back" in their sofa, using only a Remote Control as a means of interaction. While a PC user is 2ft or 3ft from his high resolution screen using a mouse and keyboard. The demands of distance, and user input devices, requires the application's look and feel to be designed differently. Thus Interactive TV applications are often designed for the "10ft user experience" while PC applications and web pages are designed for the "3ft user experience". This style of interface design rather than the "lean back or lean forward" model is what truly distinguishes Interactive TV from the web or PC. However even this mechanism is changing because there is at least one web-based service which allows you to watch internet television on a PC with a wireless remote control .

In the case of Two-Screen Solutions Interactive TV, the distinctions of "lean-back" and "lean-forward" interaction become more and more indistinguishable. There has been a growing proclivity to media multitasking, in which multiple media devices are used simultaneously (especially among younger viewers). This has increased interest in two-screen services, and is creating a new level of multitasking in interactive TV. In addition, video is now ubiquitous on the web, so research can now be done to see if there is anything left to the notion of "lean back" "versus" "lean forward" uses of interactive television.

For one-screen services, interactivity is supplied by the manipulation of the API of the particular software installed on a set-top box, referred to as 'middleware' due to its intermediary position in the operating environment. Software programs are broadcast to the set-top box in a 'carousel'.

On UK DTT (Freeview uses ETSI based MHEG-5), and Sky's DTH platform uses ETSI based WTVML in DVB-MHP systems and for OCAP, this is a DSM-CC Object Carousel.

The set-top box can then load and execute the application. In the UK this is typically done by a viewer pressing a "trigger" button on their remote control (e.g. the red button, as in "press red").

Interactive TV Sites have the requirement to deliver interactivity directly from internet servers, and therefore need the set-top box's middleware to support some sort of TV Browser, content translation system or content rendering system. Middleware examples like Liberate are based on a version of HTML/Javascript and have rendering capabilities built in, while others such as OpenTV and DVB-MHP can load microbrowsers and applications to deliver content from TV Sites. In October 2008, the ITU's J.201 paper on interoperability of TV Sites recommended authoring using ETSI WTVML to achieve interoperability by allowing dynamic TV Site to be automatically translated into various TV dialects of HTML/Javascript, while maintaining compatibility with middlewares such as MHP and OpenTV via native WTVML microbrowsers.

Typically the distribution system for Standard Definition digital TV is based on the MPEG-2 specification, while High Definition distribution is likely to be based on the MPEG-4 meaning that the delivery of HD often requires a new device or set-top box, which typically are then also able to decode Internet Video via broadband return paths.

Interactive television projects

Some interactive television projects are consumer electronics boxes which provide set-top interactivity, while other projects are supplied by the cable television companies (or multiple system operator, or MSO) as a system-wide solution. Even other, newer, approaches integrate the interactive functionality in the TV, thus negating the need for a separate box. Some examples of interactive television include:

Mobile phone interaction with the STB and the TV

Interactive Video and Data Services

IVDS is a wireless implementation of interactive TV, it utilizes part of the VHF TV frequency spectrum (218–219 MHz).


See also

External links

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