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The TV That Watches You

A television due out soon can tell websites and online advertisers which shows you’re watching, making Web pages more intelligent.
August 19, 2011

Many people surf the Web while they watch television. Soon­­­ the websites they visit could adapt in real time to the shows being watched—automatically presenting information relevant to the show, or even tuning their ads in response to what’s on screen.

A new type of Internet-connected television, due out before the end of the year, has built-in software and hardware that send data about what is on-screen to an Internet server that can identify the content. Web pages being viewed using the same Internet connection as the TV set can then tap into that information. The system can identify any content onscreen, whatever the source, whether live TV, DVDs or movie files playing from a computer.

Flingo, the San Francisco-based startup that developed the technology, known as Sync Apps, says the new set is already being mass-produced by one of the top five television brands in the U.S. and will retail for less than $500.

“Any mobile app or Web page being used in front of your TV can ask our servers what is on right now,” says David Harrison, cofounder and CTO of Flingo. “For example, you could go to Google or IMDB and the page would already know what’s on the screen. Retailers like Amazon or Walmart might want to show you things to buy related to a show, like DVDs, or what people are wearing in it.” Social sites such as Facebook or Twitter can use the service to connect viewers to a TV show’s official page or stream. When a user flips channels, or a show ends, the Webpage being viewed knows about it and can instantly update to the new viewing.

Flingo has made available a public API (application programming interface), so developers can build mobile and Web apps that use the television’s inside knowledge. The TV will also display pop-ups on-screen, offering further Web-retrieved information about a show, or links to apps on the set itself.

All of this occurs with the permission of the television’s owner, says Harrison. The first time the TV is switched on, it asks users if they would like to opt in to the data-sharing service. If they say yes, it prompts them to accept a terms-of-service agreement. Individual sites and apps must ask for, and be granted, permission to access the data the TV makes available.

Ashwin Navin, Flingo’s CEO and other cofounder, says he expects people to opt in because the service offers an automatic way to do what people are already doing manually. “People are doing the work to search for information to go with their viewing,” he says. “We’ll have all that information right there.”

The data generated by a television with Sync Apps is also valuable to advertisers. Already, online ads can be targeted based on the content of a Web page and the viewer’s browsing history. Navin says that his company will enable sites to match ads to a person’s TV-viewing history too, at least on sites that have received permission to use the television’s data.

“If we can improve the recommendations made in ads, people will get a better experience,” says Navin. “Otherwise, they are noise.”

Andy Tarczon, an analyst covering consumer electronics and media with TDG Research, says his research shows there is a ready audience for extra information and context about television content. “In surveys and interviews, we see that consumers want to have more information around their programs, because it’s how they find new content to watch,” says Tarczon. “Social media, ‘checking in’ to shows like you do places on Facebook, always scores the lowest.” That is, consumers want more information, but they’d rather not have to work to get it.

Tarczon notes that Flingo already has strong relationships with television companies including CBS, MTV, and Fox, after spending several years helping them develop apps for Internet-connected televisions. In this respect, Flingo contrasts sharply with Google, which has its own ideas about combining Web and television. CBS and Fox, among other content providers, block devices using Google TV from accessing their online television content, because Google TV encourages users to discover content via a Web search on their TV screen, which can point them to pirated material.

Tarczon says that Flingo’s approach fits better with the networks’ desire to use the Web to build stronger relationships with viewers while keeping their traditional business model. “They want to use the Web and apps as an augmentation to their existing content.”

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