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Akamai, the Web optimization company whose servers deliver up to 30 percent of Web traffic, is setting its sights on creating a TV technology that can detect what a person is watching and stream secondary content to a smartphone or tablet in near real-time.

The aim, the company says, is to take today’s fast-growing but chaotic landscape of TV “companion” apps – such as ones delivering athlete stats to people watching the Olympics, or crime-fighting details to CSI junkies—and make it easier to create and see such additional content.

Nielsen, the measurement firm, recently reported that 40 percent of U.S. television watchers are now in the daily habit of using their smartphone or tablet in front of the TV. Many networks and shows have tried to reach such people with apps providing auxiliary content—often to encourage viewers to watch the show live and thus please advertisers.

At the same time, aggregators such as Shazam and Zeebox are cutting deals to deliver this so-called second-screen content. Shazam makes audio “fingerprints” of 160 channels of U.S. TV programs and delivers various bundles of content to people who open the app and record three seconds of whatever they are watching. “Consumers don’t want an app on the phone for every show they like—not everybody is that motivated,” says David Jones, marketing vice president for Shazam, which is based in Menlo Park, California.

But these technologies have only scratched the surface of what’s possible.  People who use smartphones and tablets while watching TV are often checking e-mail or Facebook, and show-specific apps mainly serve the most devoted fans. Only half of Shazam’s 85 million users tune into TV-related content weekly or more often.

What Akamai sees is a chance to bring some order to this chaos and make everything run a bit faster—and through the Web, not a collection of apps. Indeed, Shazam takes one to four seconds to detect which show someone is watching, and it lacks something to offer for many local channels.

The Akamai proof of concept—shown for the first time to MIT Technology Review last week—consists of a few parts. The first is a piece of software that would reside on whatever device you use, whether it’s a television set fed by a cable or satellite service, a set-top box delivering content over the Internet, or even a DVR playing a recorded show. A one-time authentication process links your tablet or smartphone to the device.

Real-time information on what show you’re watching—even as you change the channel—gets sent to Akamai’s servers. Relevant secondary information then gets streamed directly back to your smartphone or tablet in near real-time.

Kris Alexander, an Akamai strategist, demonstrated the technology while showing a scene from Mission Impossible II, in which Tom Cruise’s character was visiting a racetrack. In the tablet in Alexander’s hand, a link popped up leading to information about the Randwick Racecourse in Australia, where the scene was filmed; later, a link for buying Cruise’s brand of aviator sunglasses appeared.

A New York-based industry consortium called Second Screen Society projects that the market for second-screen apps is $490 million today and could be $5.9 billion by 2017. Guy Finley, executive director of the group, says that while he’s not familiar with Akamai’s technology, faster delivery could be crucial. “Second-screen apps are all about user interface, user experience—so anything that impacts that user experience to make it more seamless and enjoyable is going to make a difference,” he says. “It will help the whole proliferation of the format in general.”

Akamai is still demonstrating the technology to broadcasters and other potential customers. Many other players are working on new strategies; in the past year, for example, Zeebox took on investments from Comcast and NBC Universal, and partnered with HBO, to deliver companion apps.

What could a widely used, super-fast platform lead to? One can imagine deeper dives into news content, or real-time polling during a presidential debate, building on the existing phenomenon of people tweeting their impressions about television shows in real-time (see “A Social Media Decoder”). But the most popular applications of new communications technology platforms—whether the World Wide Web or Twitter—are often far from clear at the outset.

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Credit: David Talbot | MIT Technology Review

Tagged: Computing, Communications, Web, Mobile, Akamai, Comcast

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