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June 2005

"Me" TV

HP Labs researchers explore customized TV viewing experience


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If you watch a lot of world soccer, the service might offer you a Real Madrid channel or even one dedicated to David Beckham.

by Simon Firth

When most technology researchers design a new product or service, they have a tech-savvy user in mind.

Not so HP Labs’ Jim Rowson.

“The guy with a sleeveless T-shirt, a beer in one hand and a remote in the other,” says Rowson, “that’s my user.”

Rowson has been thinking about the future of television. Along with a small team of fellow researchers in the HP Consumer Applications and Systems Lab, he’s been asking how the TV viewing experience might become highly personalized to match a viewer’s interests.

But Rowson and his colleagues also want such an experience to require nothing more complicated of its users than pressing a few buttons on a TV remote to make it work.

“For the purposes of the research,” Rowson explains, “we took an extreme position." For example, the team decided not to put a menu on the TV screen.

Despite such self-imposed limitations -- and in some ways because of them -- Rowson’s group has come up with an elegant design for a simple but highly personalized television experience customized to viewers' tastes.

TV you want to see

Television today is just about the opposite of personalized. Even cable TV, which offers its subscribers a multitude of channels, doesn’t let them determine what goes on to those channels. Viewers must find something to watch from the schedule they are offered, rather than having a schedule that offers only what they’d like to see.

Digital recording devices such as TiVo move a little way towards a custom experience by predicting what shows you might enjoy and automatically recording them for you.

But to watch those programs, a viewer must go into the machines' menu systems and pick the shows out, one at a time. That’s a far more active experience than the HP research team thinks most people want when they watch TV.

Your own channel

Like TiVo and similar devices, the researchers' proposed new service would use a digital hard drive and automatic, personalized recording, but it wouldn’t require that you go and find each show it has stored.

Instead, it would offer you a string of shows that it predicts you will like bundled into a single customized ‘channel.’

If you started watching a show and didn’t like it, you’d simply click past it with your remote control to view the next.

Every subscriber to such a customized TV service could have a number of custom channels, Rowson suggests. If you like sports, news and nature shows, for example, the service would provide you with a channel that features personalized picks for you in each content category.

Cable TV subscribers may be offered anywhere up to 500 channels, says Rowson, but typically they will only watch a dozen or so channels regularly. “Since that’s the case,” he argues, “let’s just make it a dozen they actually care about.”

Show surfing

When you skipped a show on one of your personal channels, the HP customized TV service would take note.

“This is how we learn your preferences,” Rowson explains. “If you’re always skipping a show, we won’t offer it to you any more.”

Those remote control skips — what Rowson calls ‘show surfing’ — could also be matched against the skips of the entire community of customized TV users. The system would then figure out whom you most resemble in your viewing preferences and use that information to decide what else to record and offer you.

The service could also offer new custom channels based on your viewing. If you watch a lot of world soccer on your sports channel, for instance, it might offer you a Real Madrid channel or even one dedicated to David Beckham.

Designing a personalized show

The HP team believes that all this personalization could happen with little effort by users. They envision providing TV viewers with a simple system they operate using only five buttons on a remote: two to surf up and down through the channels, two to surf back and forward through the shows on a particular channel, and one to click okay to accept a new channel when it is offered.

Researchers also see the potential for offering individual, custom television shows on particular channels that are made up from clips that the service assembles for the viewer. One such show might be a compendium of morning news, for example, tailored to your commute, or a sports show that gathers clips of your favorite teams from all over.

The system would use digital editing technology to design shows that retain a professional look, Rowson suggests. “There would be a narrative structure to such a show,” he explains, “and it would make decent transitions from one clip to another.”

That part of the project has benefited from a close relationship the team built up with the new Interactive Media Division at the University of Southern California’s Film School. The team is also collaborating with other groups within HP Labs. Data-mining researchers, for example, helped develop the algorithms behind the collaborative filter that is at the heart of the system’s ‘recommendation engine.’

Test system to come

So far, customized TV exists mostly as a system design, although Jim Rowson and his team are currently building a test system to more fully explore the reactions that the technology might provoke in its users.

In the future, though, they see the service potentially operating as a subscription offering, like cable TV, possibly with advertising targeted to individual interests.

Before then, the team has some significant technical and economic problems to explore. It isn’t yet clear, for example, that the system really will be able to make effective viewing recommendations simply by observing a user’s clicking habits. Getting all the players in the TV industry to work together to make the service a reality would also be a monumental task, Rowson acknowledges.

“We’re looking at this from the customer’s point of view,” he notes, “but there are implications on patterns of content distribution, and on the way that material is recorded and referenced — things that go all the way back to the studio.”

But he also believes this could be the way to make TV highly personalized while retaining the low-stress experience people expect.

“When we show this idea to consumers,” Rowson says, “they say, ‘Yeah! I don’t want to argue with my television. I just want to watch TV.'”

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