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Sorenson releases Spark tools to take TV to the next interactive level

Sorenson releases Spark tools to take TV to the next interactive level

Step by step, Internet-connected TVs are finally becoming full-fledged interactive devices.

The latest move in that direction is a new Spark line of tools — called Enlight, Enhance, and Engage — from encoding provider Sorenson Media that give new analytical and interactive programming capabilities to TV stations. In sync with the new releases, Sorenson is also rebranding itself with a new graphic identity, website, and orientation that now includes measurement and digitally enabled programming.

“TVs have been dumb devices with no idea of what [they were displaying],” president and CEO Marcus Liassides told VentureBeat. He added that his company’s launch of the Spark product line today is designed to make TVs into “smart devices for analytics and advertising [with] an awareness down to the frame level.”

Enlight is an analytics app that provides a real-time output of the number of sets tuned to a subscribing local TV station throughout the day, either via satellite, cable, or broadcast. Manufacturers install it on a TV during its assembly or download it to the set as part of a remote update, and it talks to a participating TV station’s server.

Many local TV stations use Sorenson’s Squeeze encoding technology, and they are potential customers for the Spark line. Liassides told us Enlight is already being used to “show exactly what is on millions of TV sets across the U.S.” via a pilot phase and initial deals with several TV makers.

A screen from Spark Enlight showing viewing patterns for a subscribing TV station.

A screen from Spark Enlight showing viewing patterns for a subscribing TV station.

Above: A screen from Spark Enlight showing viewing patterns for a subscribing TV station.

Image Credit: Sorenson Media

What about the fact that, via this service, your TV is continually reporting on what it is doing?

Liassides noted that all of the information is anonymous, and although it’s reported individually to Sorenson, it is sent to the TV stations only as an aggregate. Sorenson can identify an individual TV, he said, “but we have no idea who the person is.”

What about Nielsen?

With this kind of real-time, continuous reporting, why would anyone need Nielsen, the dominant TV watching service?

Nielsen uses diaries in 25,000 U.S. homes to measure viewing, he said, a form of high-resolution polling. Another service by Rentrak uses settop box data it gets from manufacturers. Spark Enlight focuses on local stations, but it could work for networks. If enough stations and networks subscribed, it could cover all live TV viewing. Potentially, the service could also be used to report other viewing, such as recorded or streamed video.

“Nielsen is still the currency,” he said, “but nothing else provides the broadcasters with this granularity.”

The other two products — Enhance and Engage — provide different versions of the same thing. They enable TV stations to add a small interactive visual tag in a corner of the screen over their programs.

Enhance enhances program content by adding, say, an invitation to get a full screen display of the recipe of a dish being made on a cooking show. Clicking on the tag would show the recipe onscreen, after which the viewer can return to the program. There could be an invitation to take an onscreen poll related to the news being shown, for instance, or an opportunity to score Dancing with the Stars.

If a TV station so desired, they could also use Enhance to create interactive layers that expand on program content in radically new ways, like viewing some of the evidence in a police show or reading diary entries of a soap opera character.

Hyperlocal news

In political debates, polls could accompany every candidate’s answer, providing a mass version of what selected, live focus groups with dialing mechanisms already do. Liassides suggested that “perhaps the last five minutes of local news is hyperlocal,” with overlays relating to, say, your neighborhood’s news.

The stations can use the overlays as sponsorship opportunities or simply to distinguish their programming.

An overlay in Spark Engage, for expanding program content with a poll.

An overlay in Spark Engage, for expanding program content with a poll.

Above: An overlay in Spark Enhance, for expanding program content with a poll.

Image Credit: Sorenson Media

Engage, on the other hand, is specifically designed for ads. A national spot for, say, Buick could have a small tag in the corner with the name of a local dealer. Clicking on it brings the viewer to a screen for that dealership, after which they can return to regular programming. Ads can also be automatically geared to time of day, like an overlay that suggests McDonald’s for dinner around suppertime.

Spark Engage creates interactive ad overlays.

Spark Engage creates interactive ad overlays.

Above: Spark Engage creates interactive ad overlays.

Image Credit: Sorenson Media

Interactive layers have already started to appear on some cable systems, such as CNN’s tags inviting Verizon FIOS viewers to press a remote control button to see more detail. Sorenson’s new tools will detect other layers, Liassides told us, so that there wouldn’t be two competing calls to action at the same time.

Sorenson provides the tools and an infrastructure to handle responses, but the TV stations handle the creative and ads. The stations license the platform, and Sorenson does not share in generated revenue at this time.

Sorenson, not the station, keeps personal information from viewers, such as an email address to receive a cooking show-related coupon. This comes from the Sorenson platform, and Liassides said a viewer-provided phone number is relayed to the advertiser but not currently stored by his company’s platform.

“No information leaves us,” he said, “other than to effect the action requested by the consumer.”

‘Very, very early’

Interactive layers, eventually reaching the kind of sophistication seen in websites and games, are clearly in the cards for ‘Net-linked TV. New tools like Sorenson’s are beginning to highlight the unresolved issues.

Liassides noted that “it’s very, very early in the technology and the user experience.” For example, it’s not yet clear what kind of interactive layers — if any — viewers will actually enjoy or find useful.

There’s also the issue of whether a viewer can turn off these interactive layers, either for a given program or totally — or if someone can choose not to have the apps installed at all. At the moment on Sorenson’s system, the reporting of TV viewing and the tools for interactive layers can only be turned off by declining to accept the TV maker’s terms and conditions — an obscure and clunky means of user control. And, if the terms and conditions are accepted, the manufacturer can install what it considers its updates.

And there are no standards yet for interactive layers, much less standards for what happens to info about station viewing or to user-provided personal data like a phone number.

Television spearheaded the creation of the modern media landscape, so it’s ironic that it is the last medium to become a fully realized interactive citizen. With the popularity of ‘Net-linked TVs, that transformation is accelerating — along with questions about what TV should become.

As they say, stay tuned.

Sorenson Media is an award-winning provider of the highest quality video solutions. With highly scalable cloud- and server-based encoding solutions and desktop applications, Sorenson Media empowers the enterprise, video professionals a… read more »

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