New ACR Strategy Gives TV Nets Way to Drive 2nd Screen iTV Apps

Dan Eakins, CEO, Zeitera

Dan Eakins, CEO, Zeitera

September 24, 2011 – A new partnership pairing a leading interactive applications management platform with automatic content recognition (ACR) technology is providing TV programmers a way to bring interactivity directly to consumers without tie-ins to set-top boxes or specific service providers.
 
Ensequence, supplier of the widely used iTV Manager platform employed by programmers and service providers in EBIF (Enhanced TV Binary Interchange Framework) and other subscription service environments, has tapped ACR supplier Zeitera to enable synchronization of apps between second-screen devices and TV sets in any viewing environment. Starting with Apple IOS-based iPads and iPhones, the companies are using electronic fingerprinting identification techniques to enable tablets and smartphones to respond to what the viewer is watching by triggering Internet delivery of an app specific to that program or advertisement.

The ACR solution gives TV programmers a new way to engage audiences that exploits the popularity of multi-tasking to their advantage, says Aslam Khader, chief technology and product officer at Ensequence. “Offering synchronized interactivity on tablets and smartphones is a great way to complement the programming and adverting offered on the TV– which ultimately keeps viewers more deeply engaged with content,” Khader says. “The Zeitera solution combined with iTV Manager solves a huge problem for programmers and advertisers who are looking for one workflow to manage all of their connected device applications.”

CTAM, Harris Interactive, Nielsen and others have recently issued reports confirming that over half of all TV viewers now regularly engage with some other device while watching TV. Harris Interactive, for example, reports 56 percent of U.S. TV viewers multi-task, with the number hitting 68 percent among people aged 18 to 34. Nielsen, which puts the percentage of people who multi-task at least once a month at 57 percent, says they spend an average of two hours and 39 minutes simultaneously viewing TV and using the Internet.

ACR, which first gained market traction with Shazam’s song identification app for cellphones, has found its way into other applications, such as online advertising and, in the case of Nielsen, tracking of TV viewing. As previously reported (May, p. 16), the technology has also been drawing interest from TV programmers in response to new ACR platforms designed by suppliers such as Zeitera and Civolution to support ITV.

These vendors employ audio and/or video fingerprints or forensic watermarks associated with the TV content to trigger recognition by client software on a tablet or smartphone, which then communicates via the Internet to app servers for delivery of prompts and applications that are tied to what the viewer is watching. This approach contrasts with other companion device ITV initiatives employing EBIF or other set-top linked triggers, which coordinate what the viewer is doing on the second screen with what’s shown on the TV through a direct Internet connection to the service provider’s EBIF management system and the various programming and app suppliers that are tied into that system.

Zeitera’s ACR technology is based on audio and video fingerprinting, which algorithmically identifies unique audio or visual patterns within a content segment and stores those “signatures” in a database. When the signature on the signal coming into the device via an embedded microphone or camera is picked up by client software, the client communicates over the device’s Internet connection to trigger a search for a match with signatures stored in the database. Once that match is discovered the system can drive a separately stored application that matches the viewed content to the user’s device, completing a process that takes just milliseconds from start to finish.

Strong demand for an ACR solution in the ITV space drove Ensequence to get involved, says Kevin Hurst, the firm’s vice president for marketing and product management. “ACR allows the synchronization of apps with TV programming, which is absolutely huge,” Hurst says. “Our customers have been asking about this technology, and we’re responding by integrating with folks like Zeitera.”

While iTV Manager is most commonly used to coordinate the applications and communications processes employed with ITV in the EBIF domain, the same workflow management capabilities are required in the ACR-based ITV space, Hurst notes. “In the past year we’ve seen a lot of movement to two-screen and alternative-device connected platforms,” he says. “Ensequence has been in the process of expanding the scope of iTV Manager so that we can manage apps on all these connected platforms.”

So far, Hurst adds, Zeitera is the only ACR supplier Ensequence has teamed with. “We’re being driven by our customers,” he says. “If they ask us to partner with other providers, we’ll try to respond. With Zeitera we’ve really enjoyed first mover advantage. Their technology is great.”

However, as explained by Zeitera CEO Dan Eakins, great technology alone isn’t enough to move the market. “One of the biggest hurdles we see isn’t so much implementing the technology and getting it in devices but, rather, integrating in broadcasters’ backends and the whole production workflow,” Eakins says.

“You have to have everything easily curated so that the system can identify the appropriate application for a given viewing experience, whether it’s a coupon, a response to a request for information or some other app,” he explains. “If you have a dashboard that interfaces with your backend with all this stuff built in, you can produce and manage those apps on a mass scale. Ensequence has done a lot of work in this area. So this is a big win for us and the industry.”

For its part, Zeitera has addressed another big barrier to practical, mass usage of ACR in the ITV domain by positioning its ACR technology as a turnkey solution that takes a lot of the operational hassles off the backs of TV programmers and other clients. Zeitera offers its Vivid fingerprinting system as a standalone technology solution but also operates the system as a hosted platform that can be scaled to support ACR apps across millions of end devices with rates of queries into the search database occurring thousands of times per second, Eakins says.

“This is hugely important to TV programmers,” Hurst notes. “The more their vendor partners can provide these backend support systems the happier they are.”

Of course, he adds, it’s also important that programmers who have the in-house wherewithal to host their own fingerprinting signatures and perform operational support tasks have the option to license the technology without subscribing to the hosted service. “It’s up to the customer how they want to use the technology,” he says. “The important thing is that the software base is now available to use ACR with iTV Manager.”

Flexibility in all aspects of the ITV business strategy is vital to making ACR a viable opportunity for programmers, Hurst notes. “There’s a fundamental difference between what we’re doing and what you see with solutions where maintaining the brand and control over how things are done is a core goal,” he says. “I don’t think closed ACR systems will work out in the long run.”

Adds Eakins: “When you come in to talk to these programmers, you learn they want to brand the experience, to control how their TV show appears. It’s a matter of creative control.

“Most ITV platforms with ACR make it easier in some ways – just add water and stir,” he acknowledges. “But you end up with apps that are really very much the same from one brand to the next, whether it’s on the Weather Channel or Grey’s Anatomy.

“We say to clients, ‘You guys handle how you want it done. We don’t want to monetize it or run a social meeting platform underneath.’ With us you have the ecosystem for managing your apps provided by Ensequence and for running ACR provided by Zeitera, so you can have a coupon vendor or an eBay come in and allow all parties to contribute their strengths to what you’re trying to do without you giving up control.”

So far, programmers appear more interested in using the support offered by Ensequence and Zeitera to facilitate applications that complement the programming content as opposed to advertising-related apps. “The networks have always said no one is going to use this technology if it’s just for ads,” Eakins says. “ITV has to deliver a compelling experience to users, which means you lead with programming to build mass engagement. Once you have that and can measure usage, then you can move to improvements in your iterations of advertising with CPMs that make the opportunities worth pursuing.”

The two companies have been careful to make sure programmers understand they will be in the driver’s seat as to how the technology gets used, given the possibilities that exist for outside parties to leverage the technology in ways that would undermine programmers’ control. “We want to be broadcaster friendly,” Eakins says.

“There are a lot of ways this technology could be deployed that programmers wouldn’t want to see happen,” he notes. “We’re saying we want you to have control over the inventory and advertising. It’s a longer term sell on our side, but it avoids situations where a provider tries to aggregate audiences and mediate TV content by sticking themselves in the middle of the process.”

Polling, trivia questions, information about actors and directors, out-takes and the like are the low-hanging fruit most TV programmers are looking to exploit, many in conjunction with driving viral marketing through social network connections, Hurst says. “There are tons of creative possibilities,” he adds. “It’s very challenging when we get to meeting with programmers about what they want to do, because they all want to go in different creative directions. The challenge for us is we have to be flexible enough so that each programmer can uniquely brand their apps and tie them back to their content in ways that set them apart.”

The fact that ACR opens a way for programmers to drive interactivity across all viewing experiences is inspiring greater focus on ITV than ever, Hurst notes. “There’s really a frenzy of excitement over this,” he says, declining to name customers.

But he acknowledges many will be coming from a familiar list of players in ITV. “There’s a ton of interest among leading programmers that have historically been on the cutting edge with ITV on set-top platforms,” he says.

“We’ll see a lot of tire kicking going on for a while and then see them turn to scaling and solidifying their applications. It hasn’t gotten to the level where they’re building whole shows around it, but we think we will see that in the future.”

Needless to say, ACR is not an either/or proposition in comparison to activating ITV apps through EBIF. “We’re simply expanding what you can do with the same types of applications using connected devices,” Hurst says. “With the workflow in iTV Manager you have programmers doing things in EBIF, but that’s not all they can do. Instead of EBIF triggers, Zeitera allows us to use fingerprints as the triggers to make the second-screen experience more synchronized and relevant to the TV content.”