I see this has cropped up again on the various roadmaps out there, and it’s high time I got my two pennies out there.

This is probably the 4 or 5th time in two (three) companies that this has come up as a user feature for a Digital TV (DTV) service… and nobody has built it yet, well they have, but I’ll come onto that.

The chief issue that I have with this idea is that no-one is entirely sure how it’s actually going to work!

Ok, hold up, from a technical viewpoint it’s entirely doable, with the emergence of technology that has it’s roots in the Internet world appearing on the DTV platform it’s perfectly possible to start having some form of user session to target content (and ads!)  to you.

If it’s that easy you ask, why haven’t we done it ? Well it comes down to something a bit more fundamental: How do people use a TV ?

The TV is not the Computer

That’s an obvious statement isn’t it ? When you use the computer or more accurately, sit down in front of the keyboard, mouse, and monitor, there is only one person using the computer. You. The websites you go to that you login into are all making the assumption (logically) that as you are the only person at the keyboard and screen, that you are indeed the person you say you are. I’m not planning on going into a treatise on security here, but it is a basic tenet of personalisation that you might have some token representing “you” that is then used to tie your content to “you”. When you then logoff and leave the keyboard, screen and wired rodent, the next person logs into “their” websites/accounts/etc and the user has changed to them.

When it comes to TV we behave differently, for a start, it’s an implied group activity, although it might  not be. The interaction from the user is less, much less, the TV delivers things to you, you don’t look for content. The searching you do is done in the EPG, with a view to finding something that you then watch for a period of time. The input is different, you don’t have a keyboard (with apologies to the 3 Sky subscribers who do… 🙂 )

This is the basis of the “sit forward/lean back” model (the words appear interchangeable, sit back/lean forward is another name for it as is lean back/lean forward), it is broadly based on our interactions with the system in front of us and how they shape our experience and expectations.

But people have done personalisation on TV ?

They have, and two examples spring to mind, HomeChoice and BARB. Used for different purposes but with equal issues.

Ok, HomeChoicewhich is now Tiscali – was a fairly novel idea, it was the first large commercial attempt in the UK to deliver TV and VoD over ADSL i.e. not on a traditional broadcast network. When you got the service, you logged in using your account details and you then set up a profile, you repeated this for every person in your house. In theory this means it can then “learn” about what you want and tailor its content (much like TiVO) however there was a subtle flaw…

…if the users are anything like the people I know who had it, one person logged their profile in and never logged out.

So we’re back to square one, a TV with n people in front of it and no idea who they are.

Why BARB ? Well they work on a similar principle, although slightly less sophisticated (or more depending on your viewpoint) model where each person in the household has to log their id into a box to indicate who is watching at any time. This is then fed into a system to interpolate the viewing figures.

The issues with this are fairly obvious and can be the subject of many posts, but they do indicate a need for some physical interaction between the user and the TV to say who is in the room.

This is not part of the current TV experience!

So how do you get personalisation to work ?

The first point is to recognise that this is not entirely a technical issue. First and foremost it’s a User Experience or Human Interaction challenge.

The solution to this will come when someone brings the kind of thinking that produced the iPhone to the TV. It will need a new way of interacting that uses a familiar interaction, but allows you to enable the new functionality.

The second point is that adding user ids to broadcast systems that are broadly ignorant of them is HARD. This is not something that can be bolted on, it will be a long and difficult project which will need some very clear direction on what personalisation means. Thankfully we can look to our brethren in the Enterprise sector who have had to do similar exercises before now.

The third is that this will open up a can of worms. Will you use User tracking ? Do you have sticky profiles ? how much data have you captured ? What the regulations around it ? What do you do about Adult content ? Targeted ads ? Who controls this ? Will you have targeted content with DRM ? How will you interact with third parties ?

The last point is that the UI challenge is also there for convergent platforms, where the idea of Live, Time-Shifted, On-Demand and Shared/User Generated content has come together, and this would have to also cope with these functions.

To take this forward, it’s time to see what people can do with the UI, it will need to be ambitiously creative and be a ubiquitous part of the TV. I’d really like to see people push this. Imagine your STB was more like the XBox or PS3 as a functional device (albeit without their quirks!), imagine what we might see ?

So, if you think you’re ‘ard enough, come make it happen!

Currently Listening to: Oakenfold – Ready, Steady, Go