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Rethinking Interactive TV -- I want my Coactive TV   

A White Paper by
Richard R. Reisman, President, Teleshuttle Corporation
September, 2002

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Looking for new media in all the wrong places

Interactive Television (ITV) remains "just around the corner," as it has since the early 1990s. Recent expectations, in spite of the dot-com meltdown, were that the world was finally ready for this next stage in media evolution -- one that would converge TV and the Web to deliver the best of both. But now, continuing lack of traction, most prominently at AOL Time Warner and other cable services, is tempering those hopes once again.

But what if we have just been looking in the wrong direction. What if a powerful interactive blend of TV and the Web is waiting in our homes, ready to be turned on?

The industry has been stalled by a "chicken and egg problem." People don’t really understand how wonderful ITV can be so there is no demand. They can’t see how wonderful it can be because the advanced digital set-top boxes (STBs) needed to demonstrate it are too expensive. Cable companies can’t invest in the STBs because investors are no longer ready to bet that if you build it they will come. Which comes first?

Consumers are non-plussed by all this because they don’t get what ITV is. Most media professionals think they get it, but if you ask three of them what ITV is, you will get at least four answers. And one of their answers may be that the problem is that "interactive TV" is an oxymoron, there can be no such thing, because viewers don’t want to interact with their TVs after all (the hardcore couch potato theory).

The skeptics are half right. We don’t really want to interact with our TV (except to make it show what we want). But we have missed the point: what many viewers often want to interact with is not their TV sets, or even the programs that are on the TV sets, but other content that is related to what they are watching on the TV. The term "coactive TV" directs our thinking to this experience of coordinated media multitasking – to how we can interact in a Web-like manner with content that relates to what we watch on TV.

So what is Interactive TV?

There are three very different kinds of interactivity.

From this perspective, the technology challenge of interacting with our TV is a red herring--a problem we need not solve. The problem we do need to solve is how we can create this coactive media experience – how can we interact effectively with content related to what is on our TV. That is actually less daunting, and largely a matter of software.

A vision of coactive TV

Imagine the following scenario.

Of course you might not want to do that kind of interaction all the time -- sometimes you just want to relax and go along for the ride – but wouldn’t it be nice to have that capability whenever you do want to be more active?

Stuck in our boxes

The TV and PC industry have not made that happen. They have failed to make even the more conventional visions of ITV happen in any significant way. Why not? Because they have ignored the essential difference between coactivity and the other forms of interactive TV, and because they have worked within their boxes. By thinking outside the box, we can find a way to get more than we expected.

Much of the TV world naturally thinks in terms of giving you ITV on their box—a set-top box (STB), either a cable box or a satellite box, that adds intelligence to make your TV act like a computer. They had thought you could be induced to pay for advanced digital STBs to make this happen. But in these troubled times they are not so sure, and no longer able to gamble on that. So now they are looking for ways to provide more limited interactivity on less advanced STBs, and are pushing Video-on-Demand (VOD) as a more lucrative short-term offering. They are waiting for the good times of real interactivity to come a bit later.

But even when things change, they will have the wrong tool for the job. Viewing simple menus on a TV screen for a few moments is OK, but more intensive browsing of text and interactive content just does not work well on a TV screen -- especially when your family or friends are trying to watch the show in what is left of the screen. Brief references to Electronic Program Guides are just barely workable and may arouse the ire of others. Compared to viewing Web pages on an up-close, high-resolution PC monitor, the TV screen just does not work. WebTV and similar products have proven that Web-on-TV is something only the TV industry could love. Interaction with your TV set may be simple, and interaction with TV programs, if and when that happens, may be simple, but coactive interaction with TV-related content will often go beyond what we care to do on our TV screen.

The PC world has done little better -- but some TV programmers have taken a step in the right direction. Programming networks like ABC, CBS, PBS, and MTV, have tried to offer interactivity on the Web that synchronizes with programs on TV. You can play along with Jeopardy or get enhancements for CSI or Monday Night Football, or for MTV. The PC industry would love to build on that, but they need the TV industry to produce the content.

However, the TV programmers tend to see this as only a stopgap until the "real" ITV thing can be achieved. They see too many limits in this "two-screen" "sync-TV"—it is just too dumb. You have to point your browser to the particular site for the program you are watching (if there is one). If you change channels, watch VOD, or use a DVR you have lost it. If it was a channel change, you could take yourself to another Web site (again, if there is one). Soon, when advertising gets smarter, with personalized "addressable" ads that show you the BMW ad while your neighbor gets the Pampers ad, the Web site won’t reflect that. Furthermore, only a fraction of viewers currently have a PC convenient to their TV. Perhaps even more important, TV programmers question whether there should be any provision for deep interaction that might distract from their TV programs.

So the TV programmers see two-box sync-TV as just a learning experience, as prelude to the coming one-box nirvana. Even though it is widely accepted that access to a second box may become more widespread as wireless PCs and "Webpads" arrive, two-screen ITV has been viewed primarily as a temporary solution.

Similarly, in partial recognition of the problem with one screen interaction, some in the TV industry have begun to think of second screens (such as special "Webpads") driven by their set-top boxes as a possible direction. In theory, this could be the way to go, but it is an expensive theory, and it is not clear how it might work, and more importantly, who will pay for it.

Missing the point

But the question of this box or that box misses the real point. As imagined above, what if we look beyond the boxes to what it is that we really want to do. Right now, we can’t do substantive interaction on TV screens, even if we wanted to. Will we really want to in the future? Maybe we will want to interact on our TV screen sometimes, when we are in a "lean-back" mood and just want to do some simple interactions. But often we will want to lean-forward to do some serious coactive interaction, at least many of us will. We may be heavy media users or heavy Web users who are happy to multitask. We may be avid sports fans, checking stats and scores and playing fantasy games while we watch, possibly flipping channels between multiple games. We may be avid movie fans and want to go from credits to filmographies to reviews. Much as TV programmers shudder to think, we may not always want to be 100% immersed in their program. Often we have only casual interest (maybe we have seen it before), and want to do other things.

Multitasking happens. A September, 2002 study by comScore MediaMetrix found that among the 45.1 million wired adults that have television and PC in the same room, 76% use the Internet frequently or occasionally while watching TV.  At present, most of that activity is unrelated to the program they are watching.  (Would programmers really want their programs to only be seen by those who are 100% immersed? Would they like Nielsen to report their ratings accordingly?)  Wouldn't they do well to offer Web content that maintains and extends their connection with the viewer?

The TV industry may lack confidence that supporting flexible interactivity – coactivity -- makes its content more valuable and compelling, and might fear losing eyeballs. But perhaps they will like what they hear from advertisers, when they begin to see what can be done with ads for a considered purchase. Think of an ad for a car or a vacation or a financial service—what if we could effortlessly find that our laptop or tablet had set itself to a Web page that expands on the offer, and lets us investigate, explore alternative offers, analyze, configure or set options, and buy? (And, just to be safe, they could encourage viewers to delay deep, coactive interactions by making it easy to bookmark the action and defer it until after the program is overor to pause the TV program with a PVR – a sort of semi-coactivity.)

What people really want to do is interact with media content, not with computers or TVs (once we get beyond basic viewing controls). As emphasized by the idea of coactivity, what we want to interact with may not be the content on the TV, but some content that relates to that. We don’t care what box it comes in to, what we care about is how it comes out -- how we can apply our available user interface devices to view and interact with it in the way that works best for us. Sometimes we want to lean back with a TV screen and remote (one user interface device set), sometimes we want to lean forward with a laptop or tablet screen and keyboard or stylus (a complementary user interface device set). Our preference for which we use might change from moment to moment, depending on the content and on how we choose to respond to it. Our boxes of technology should empower us, not confine us.

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The real objective is to use technology to enable us to work flexibly with whatever user interface device sets we have. Our device sets should work together, to coordinate access to media content through any of them. When we finally get advanced set-top boxes, they should be able to coordinate with our PCs. Even with current basic set-top boxes, it would be great if they could coordinate with our PCs. The result would be smart synchronization that coordinated what was happening at each box. What we need is not convergence into a single box -- it is well known that multi-function boxes rarely do all things well. What we do need is "co-vergence" of our multiple boxes to work together to deliver a new, coordinated service: coactive TV

This concept of coactivity helps make the motivation for using multiple device sets more understandable. If we think of a task as "interacting with the TV," the idea of using a separate PC-like device set for that might well seem odd and unnatural. But if we think of it as coactivity with content that is coordinated with what is on the TV, the idea of using a separate PC-like device set begins to seem very natural and appropriate.

Not just blue sky

This smart synchronization is not just blue sky, and not years from feasibility. It can be done in software now. True, most homes do not yet have networks that link set-top boxes to PCs -- so how can we coordinate them? If we look outside the box, we find that the set-top box links to the cable operator’s head-end system, and that head-end can link to a Web server and it can link, in turn, to our PCs. The cable companies can enable the kind of "coactive TV portal" that was imagined above. The added Web servers are not costly or hard to develop. The software needed at the set-top box and the PC is relatively simple and compact, and can be downloaded to our current basic digital set-top boxes and to current PCs. We don’t need to roll out advanced STBs to get powerful coactive ITV services. Many millions of households can be enabled with the equipment that they have right now. Many millions more will become enabled as PCs and wireless networks proliferate, and as viewers see what their friends can do.

There is still a role for interaction on the TV screen, but maybe we have had it backwards. Maybe that is just a convenience for the times we don’t really need or want to lean forward. Perhaps we will be quite willing to pay for that convenience (to get an advanced STB) after we all see just how useful that is -- at our own individual pace, and as the costs come down. In the meantime, a world of powerful coactive TV services can change how we use media, starting now.

That is the kind of interactive TV that can empower viewers, and it can do it now. We can break the "chicken and egg" impasse, and do it in a way that evolves to work with advanced STBs (if they really do offer incremental value that people want). It will give advertisers (who foot most of the bill) a way to make TV ads work with associated Web content to be far more effective (and less annoying) than they are now. It will give TV programmers a way to make their programs more compelling and build viewer commitment. It will give cable operators new revenue for enabling coordination (whether paid by advertisers or by viewer subscription). It will also work (with some variation) for satellite and broadcast companies, thus maintaining healthy competition. It will simplify the collaboration of the TV and PC technology companies and give them a defined interface that serves as a basis for working together, instead of fighting over which one of them has control of the mythical single box of the future. (They can still fight over boxes, but on real merits in competion for users, instead of exclusionary control.) Some industry players may find that their slice of the pie gets thinner, but by making a real marriage of TV and the Web that works effectively to give users the best of both, the total pie will get much bigger.

Key methods relating to this kind of interactive TV have been developed by the author and are the subject of recent patent filings. Conducting initial development through Teleshuttle Corporation, he seeks to cooperate with all participants in the industry to apply and extend these methods for coactive TV, assist in the development of reference designs and relevant standards, and to license this technology broadly for widespread use. The trademark, CoTV™, is being used to refer to these methods and technologies.

I want my CoTV™. How about you?

Richard Reisman, President of Teleshuttle Corporation, has developed these ideas of ITV, coactivity, and hypermedia co-vergence over a number of years, and has applied for fundamental patents on key methods that enable it.

Additional details on CoTV™, including a more extensive white paper, are available at

Richard Reisman can be reached at

9/10/02, revised 11/26/02

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Copyright 2002, Teleshuttle Corp. All rights reserved. / Patent pending