The future of search on your PVR
26th May 2009 | 17:21
Blinkx CEO on Google, set-top search and Project Canvas
Blinkx on its rivals
Blinkx is a video search engine with a difference. Where its rivals search results span mainly from keywords, Blinkx helps you look for video on the web through some futuristic means.
Using face and speech recognition as well as normal text analysis, the search service allows its user to dig deeper into video content than ever before and offers search for around 35 million hours' video.
While Blinkx has been around since 2005, its recent announcement of a link-up with Miniweb – who currently offers interactive services through BSkyB – means the service will soon be available on a set-top box near you.
With this in mind, TechRadar sat down with the founder of Blinkx, Suranga Chandratillake, to speak about the state of the online video industry in both the US and UK and how search is the secret to make VoD a success…
TechRadar: How does Blinkx differ from, say, Google Video?
Suranga Chandratillake: Google Video is actually one of the most limited video search engines around. This is primarily a strategic thing, because Google owns YouTube. Google has a huge deal of self-confidence where it ideally wants you to use its search service and then go to watch the video in YouTube. That way it gets you as an audience member.
If you compare us more usefully to AOL and Yahoo, the main difference is the way we process the video.
Everybody else depends on metadata – whether it is the title or tags, the description, that kind of thing. We are pretty unique in the fact that we process the video content ourselves. So, our software uses speech recognition, visual analysis, facial analysis and we can automatically extract and use all that information to give a better understanding of what is going on.
TR: What difference does this make?
SC: It makes a big difference if you think about it. Even on a professionally news site like the BBC, a four or five minute news clip may only have a two sentence text description. And while this will be a great description as the BBC has good editors,, it doesn't cover the full plethora of concepts from that video.
But if you can listen to the video and 'hear' every single word, you will pick up a lot more. So we get a lot of accuracy doing it our way.
TR: Will your video search service make a clean transition to set-top boxes?
SC: The eventual of platform of use doesn't matter. It's all about breaking the linear experience of search. At the moment, we allow you on the website to click on a number of different ways to search video – from facial recognition to actual keywords. There's no reason why this wouldn't work just as well on a set-top box.
It'll be great for things like news, where you would be able jump to certain topics rather than just scrawling through the news. It is something that you will be able to do with Blinkx's technology.
TR: Can you give us an example of this?
SC: We have some great demos of this technology working with movies. So, you can type in "the name's Bond, James Bond" and it will jump to the exact moment that is said in the whole library of James Bond movies. But while this is a really cool thing to do once or twice, after a while it's actually a pretty limited use.
But when it comes to formative content, it's extremely useful. If you type in Marrakesh, then the search will pick up every time on travel programmes that the city is mentioned, eventually building up a whole stack of content centred around one subject, which is really useful.
You will be able to define what you are interested in and essentially create your own compilation clip show catering to your interests and needs.
TR: With the announcement of a link-up with Miniweb it was mentioned, you will be able to integrate target advertising into the search service. Is this wise considering the backlash Phorm has been getting?
SC: The way that Blinkx does its advert targeting on the website is not through profiling but through contextual targeting. So when you are watching a video about a holiday to Morocco, it knows what the video is about and can suggest a banner ad about a hotel that is available in Morocco right now.
I actually think that is a better way to do it. People don't seem to mind that. If anything, they seemed to appreciate some sort of target advertising based on what they are reading or watching.
It's very different to the sort of advertising where you are watching people's habits over time – that's an altogether more spooky experience.
Blinkx on the future of broadcast
TR: Do you think online video will overtake broadcast eventually?
SC: The current broadcast methods of distributing video are still very powerful. Satellite works very well, cable works extremely well. Broadcast is pretty efficient with what it does and will not be going away anytime soon. But internet TV is going to get bigger and bigger, and more TVs will be equipped with Ethernet cables, so I am a fan of both ways to get content.
TR: You must be happy with the web-connected TVs trickling on to the market at the moment…
SC: It's definitely a good thing, but a lot of them are incredibly 'walled'. If you take the Sony one, you can only really look at content that it wants you to look at. Which is great if you want to watch Spider-Man but not so good if you want more content.
It's only a matter of time that someone will build a more open web-connected TV service and then things will get interesting.
TR: Do you think the UK broadband infrastructure is ready for an explosion of online video?
SC: It's difficult to tell. The BBC's iPlayer is performing really well without ant changes to the infrastructure. Britain is actually really good at spotting these things early. The whole Digital Britain thing may have its critics but at least there is some discussion about it.
I live in the States and no one has really thought about the problem yet; everyone is waiting for it to hit them. I think at the moment we have the infrastructure but if popularity grows, which it will, then we will have to build on what we have.
The biggest question will be if it can be made worthwhile for the likes of BT. ISPs are desperate to get a slice of revenue from the popularity of online, but it is how to do it without affecting the relationship with customers.
Blinkx on UK versus US
TR: Do you think the US with Hulu is ahead of the UK with making online video accessible to consumers?
SC: It's not necessarily much further ahead. iPlayer compares very favourably to Hulu. It may only get video from one source, but the BBC is a pretty big source.
The funny thing is, if Hulu were to get all four networks on to the platform it could also potentially suffer from the monopoly commission as well [currently the website is owned by NBC, ABC, and Fox. CBS is the other main broadcaster in the US]. The US monopoly commission is just as stringent as the UK's.
TR: So, when will we see Blinkx technology in set-top boxes?
SC: The Miniweb integration will hopefully be done by the end of the year. We would like to have the technology ready for launch then. It's difficult to predict when it will actually be in the living room as that depends on Sky and all the other distribution outlets and their own cycles.
TR: How you going to market your video search concept to people?
SC: That's a great question and there is no answer to that yet. What will probably happen is that we will launch it as a free add-on to any sophisticated user that wants to try out the service.
If you are a person who is already savvy with their PVR, then you might suddenly find that you get an invite to try this brand-new thing out. It may be through a letter or electronically, I don't know. But it will almost be like a closed Beta to begin with.
TR: Will the service be free?
SC: Whatever you want to watch, there will be an option by pressing a button to delve further with searching. Sometimes this will be ad-funded searches on the web, other times it will be pay-for-view.
So you will sign up to a number of pay-for-view libraries and, to go back to the travel show example, you will have an historical archive of content you can access on any given subject for a pound or two.
TR: How do you see online video improving in the future?
SC: The quality will increase and get better. I was visiting Seoul recently and they have a very fast network, where close-to-HD online video was the norm.
That sort of thing will eventually happen over here and it will be pretty mind-blowing when it does.
There's still a perception about online video in the UK to overcome, however. If you speak to the man on the street about internet video they will immediately say YouTube and think of grainy video, where it can be full screen and look pretty much indistinguishable from television.
As for the future, the content will also improve. You will see a lot more exclusive things hitting the internet, lots of first runs. This is happening in the US with shows like Gossip Girl and it is working really well.
Blinkx on Project Canvas
TR: The big talking point at the moment is Project Canvas, what are your thoughts on this?
SC: We actually took part in a consultation process, and have provided some private feedback.
The core idea [of Project Canvas] is actually quite good. We have always wanted Blinkx to offer a TV-like experience and since we started the business we have wanted that to be a reality.
The problem is that there are so many players in the eco-system when it comes to TVs. There's the people that make the set-top boxes, the ones that make the TV sets… there's so many companies, each with different motivations and points of view that it is really hard to put something together.
We got to a stage in our plans where we thought that we would have to build the entire thing ourselves, including opening and LCD factory in Taiwan, to get Blinkx into the TV market. We felt it would have been easier than getting 20 people to agree on one thing.
TR: And now you are with Miniweb...
SC: That's one of the reasons that we have gone with Miniweb, as they actually have a decent chunk of the process sorted out, so we can therefore get plugged into it.
So, saying all that, Canvas ought to be a brilliant thing. If they can pull it off and define a good solid standard for a web-connected set-top box solution in the UK, then it is great. Everyone will know what they are building towards.
We would all have to compete to be a part of it – us against other search providers – but at least we will all know what we are doing. With that in mind, Blinkx supports Project Canvas.
The only question is: how much control will the founding partners – BBC, ITV, BT – have in the process? To what extent will they try and control a standard?
In some areas, it will be great but there are rumours that the BBC want to control the entire User Interface, and I don't think this will be a good idea. Although the iPlayer has a decent interface, it is not the be all and end all of user interfaces – it needs to be open.