How Gracenote is taking control of your TV
30th Sep 2013 | 13:25
The scary interactive future of TV has arrived
Gracenote is planning to take control of your TV.
The company, ubiquitous with music metadata services, has developed a suite of technologies that take the concept of interactive TV to an unprecedented level.
From next generation programme guides to personalised ad replacement, via fluff like The Million Second Quiz, the company is reinventing the very foundation of television.
"This is disruptive tech," company president Stephen White tells TechRadar with casual understatement.
At first glance, what Gracenote appears to be doing seems innocuously clever. The company has developed a next generation programme guide, due to make its debut on LG screens this autumn.
Called 'On Now', it presents a highly graphical interface of what's available to watch. Instead of scrolling through a traditional timeline, the On Now guide presents content by programme, genre, cast or crew. The viewer navigates from there.
"What we're trying to do now is move away from the grid," explains White. "The standard TV listing is a very dated navigation paradigm, one that hasn't really changed since the 1960s. So we're bringing together all available content, including over the air, Video on Demand and catch-up. The guide's not time based because no one watches that way anymore."
In addition to LG, Gracenote's parent Sony, along with Philips TP Vision, Loewe and OEM giant Vestel are all introducing variations of the system.
"One of the things we're doing for Philips is providing a personalised recommendation platform, based on a user profile," reveals White.
"We can push things to the front of its guide interface that we know you care about, and push things away that we know you don't."
The algorithm fuelling this knowledge is based on the content descriptors in Gracenote's metadata. "We know things about the show, as you watch it. We can also deliver ads while you browse – the primary engine for all this is content comprehension..."
Demonstrations of On Now are certainly compelling, but this is just the start of what Gracenote believes will be an extraordinary change in our relationship with the boob tube.
The company has perfected an Automatic Content Recognition (ACR) platform, known internally as Entourage, which utilises audio fingerprinting to literally monitor what you're watching.
Taking advantage of the built-in microphone in tablets and smart phones, it's able to identify a TV show via snippets of dialogue and soundtrack. It's similar in some respects to rival wizardry from Shazam, but with an added important talent for synchronization.
"The idea is that the client on your mobile device is running a Classifier within an app, which listens to the audio or music on a TV show, then cross references it with our database."
Entourage works with any content, says White. "Right now we're covering something like two hundred channels in the US, a 100 plus in Europe and 14 in Japan."
Gracenote creates the fingerprints through listening stations around the globe. "We're listening to content as it's being broadcast, fingerprinting it and marrying it up to EPG data." Sony is preloading the technology on the Xperia Z1, dubbing it Track ID TV.
In the US, Entourage ARC provided the interactive backbone to hit game show The Million Second quiz. "It's an industry first," says White. "The studio integrated Entourage synchronisation into the official show app, allowing the audience to play along in real time."
The audience was given exactly the same amount of time to answer the questions as the contestants. High scorers were then brought into the studio to compete the next night. "The idea is to get the best players from the entire audience competing. It's never been done before."
White says there's been a surge from the creative community to leverage the technology, citing NBC Universal's SyFy channel as one of the more inventive.
The channel created a companion app for its Face-Off visual effects reality show that syncs with the viewer as they watch and unlocks additional behind-the-scenes content as the show progresses. NBC Universal also used Entourage to serve viewers of Sci-fi holkum Haven an alternative episode ending on their companion device.
However the most contentious development of the technology is yet to come. Gracenote is on the verge of trialling video fingerprinting. For the first time, it will be the TV itself actively monitoring what you're watching, not a companion app. And you'll probably not realise it's doing it.
The video fingerprinting tech is embedded in the TV itself, reveals White. "It takes live video out of the video buffer, compares it against our database and then fingerprints it. This effectively allows the TV to recognise what shows you're watching."
The system is extraordinarily powerful. Most significantly, it allows Gracenote to profile TV usage, allowing the company to learn specific things about your household.
"If there are cartoons on in the morning, then we'll know you'll have a kid; soaps in the afternoon probably means a stay-at-home mom."
This, along with demographic information requested when users register their Smart TV ("it's an opt-in model, the consumer has to say they want this") combined with traditional ad decision engines that utilise public sources of data, will help build an in-depth profile of every participating household.
The ultimate aim is to deliver personalised advertising. The application is so slick the viewer won't even know that it's happening. Using frame accurate insertion, tailored adverts are actually overlaid within an original broadcast ad slot, delivered via broadband.
Demonstrations of the system to TechRadar prove astonishing. It's impossible to see the advertising sleight of hand.
So when will this Orwellian innovation come to market? According to White, live trials in the US are imminent, with an as yet unnamed TV partner. Commercial applications could be in the market within the year.