Creating a simple user experience is “a fairly difficult thing,” says Motorola’s Metcalf. “The one huge key is trying to make it not like it’s instant messaging or a PC on your TV, but like it’s sharing an experience.” Based on earlier user studies, her team is now experimenting with specialized software installed in smart phones as the interface between users and their TVs. But they haven’t yet hit on a solution that’s ready for mass adoption, she says.
The Motorola and BT groups are also both working on how to tie such systems into existing social networks and on filtering access to users’ information and ranking recommendations from other viewers. “It will probably be a subset of your normal social network,” says Patmore. “I probably have 130 or 140 friends on social networks, but they’re global, and not necessarily people I would chat to about what I was watching on TV.”
All of this should be solvable, says Marie-Jose Monpetit, an invited scientist at MIT’s Research Lab for Electronics who has studied social TV for several years. “At this point none of these things is a technology issue,” she says. Programming interfaces such as Facebook’s FriendConnect make it easier for third parties to create software that draws on information from social networks, and interactions between cable and other broadcast operators have been simplified through initiatives like the Open Cable Application Platform. “The real question is–is there anyone who could find a business model for this,” she says.
The answer is most likely yes. Despite the technical hurdles, more and more consumers are canceling their cable subscriptions and figuring out how to connect their computers and TVs. “If the cable operators don’t have something more to offer, they’re going to lose to the Internet,” Monpetit says.
Both BT and Motorola are in the advanced stages of prototyping and testing, and although neither company’s representatives would discuss specific plans, both said it’s likely that the first fully integrated social TV systems will be available to consumers later this year. “Companies all believe that this has value for them, and people are stepping into this space fairly quickly,” Metcalf says.
Patmore agrees. “Things will move very rapidly [in social TV],” he says. “These days, it’s very noticeable–technology is probably going to give you only three or four months of commercial advantage over the opposition.”