Apr 082006

Cannes ©Gary HayesFirstly there should have been a big award to Brian Seth Hurst for being a major part of making the International Interactive Emmy Awards happen – there have been far too many parochial, slightly sycophantic national interactive awards over the past 8 years or so. These awards, regardless of the quality of the projects, the general isolation of the ceremony (read: not integrated yet into mainstream media awards) or the relatively small scale of the event – are truly a step change. The international perspective, judges and nominees, combined with the broad scope – from individual interactive formats, pioneer awards, interactive services and channels.

The event was well organised and joyously and irreverently hosted by Desperate HousewivesÂ’ Roger Bart, who knew a thing or two about interactive services – it seemed. Mark Burnett also strutted his stuff as a presenter. I was sat next to a great ambassador of interactive futures, Dr. Simone Emmelius – manager of ZDF Vision, one of GermanyÂ’s two public service broadcasters and it was great catching up with her. Also an old BBC colleague Nic Cohen (BBCÂ’s 24/7 commissioner) and soon to be LAMP mentor and all round web 2.0 pioneer David Jensen shared our table – which we quickly found out to be the Interactive Programme Judges table. Without giving too much away 😉 my scores were well placed and the user driven, organic ‘CultÂ’ show took the premier award. Their table was next to ours and it exploded in true jubilant French fashion at the announcement. Both Sky and BBC were placed in a couple of categories but we, the judges were I believe looking for services more forward looking and audience embracing – both Sky and BBC entries have been pushing similar formats for a good three or four years. The other two awards went to Hello D (S. Korea) for interactive service and the granddaddy of Broadband TV, Video Networks (London) for Interactive Channel – well done to Roger Lynch for that.

I do not think it is who wins the first few years of a new International Award, but that it becomes recognised as the one to get and it keeps going from strength to strength. Again thanks to the International Academy of Television Arts & Sciences – there are many minor awards around the world for so-called innovative services, but as progressive media becomes mass audience and mainstream the enormous effort in reaching tens of millions rather than hundreds should be congratulated. I am sure the BBC and others will win with more innovative services in the coming years, a Jamie Kane with major TV component for instance would have gone down well. Perhaps Gold Rush will be there next year – Mark Burnett was here as I said presenting the Pioneer Prize to his mate Jonathan Millar (CEO of AOL), well deserved because as we know (and were told on at least 20 occasions) that Live8 has changed the landscape of TV, the internet and mass entertainment.

The three categories strongly suggest that it should snugly fit into the larger TV EmmyÂ’s. I also think that there could be several other categories – for example Interactive Programme could cover everything from participatory and user generated TV through to game, documentary, news and sport genre – but there is always next year!
Posted by Gary Hayes ©2006

Oct 012005

Pelican Santa Barbara ©Gary Hayes 2005I have been in a philosophical, darkish corner the last few days. Things happen. In a related respite I remembered one the first interactive services I produced at the BBC – a broadband PC & connected CD service (current version) about the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Based on a TV series called “A State Apart”, the brief was simple, to tell the history of the separation of north and south Ireland – while focusing mostly on the long bloody and political battle between republicans on one side and the loyalists and British ‘occupation’ forces on the other. Right. After studying the history for several months something struck me – but first.

Sometimes life can be called routinely serendipitous. We expect random things to happen. Life carries on routinely day after day and then bang, the unpredictable. These can be personal events. You fall head-over-heels for someone totally unexpected, then a little later you hear news that an old friend overseas has contracted cancer. They can be global personal events. I still remember the shared confusion of a late afternoon in a BBC office on Sept 11th 2001 and recently in Australia the shared shock in a hotel lobby late at night as bombs went off in London. All have personal significance. All are part of being human, responding to regular and random external stimuli – being inter-active. Why then do we create so-called interactive services that are so dull? – the point of this post. How do we make interactive services more like life?

First let me meander a little more. Life is often called tedious or routine by ‘most’ people unless they occasionally get bolts out-of-the-blue, These can be good or bad, in fact the more good or bad the more we grow – a life led chained in the dark alone, safe and sound is not normal and we wither. A hundred thousand years of evolution has bred into us a fear of the unknown and to expect the unexpected. I won’t go on apart from saying good storytellers know how to introduce the unexpected when least expected because that motivates us to hang in there to see the resolution. We love to resolve and in doing so think we are more prepared for next random event – good old experience (we are fooled into thinking we get that from Hollywood blockbusters, how we are duped ;-). Speaking of unexpected blockbusters a ‘what the bleep’ diversion. Our brains strive to record significant out-of-the-ordinary events by creating odd cross-associated neural maps – we personalize them. In fact the more dis-associated the better so the memory is better protected, and unlikely to be confused with similar traumatic events. Suddenly falling in love is associated with Egypt and CD’s? Who knows?

Anyway back to the point, I apologise for drifting – things have happened a little unfocused. On a personalized media and practical level why is the internet so un-random? It just sits there, doesn’t know who is sitting in front of it and won’t do anything until prodded. At the other end of the spectrum we have so-called sophisticated console games. I remember playing the first level of Halo on the X-Box over and over to see what serendipity or chance was built in. Zip. Well so little as to be non-existent. The alien space ship landed the same time and place, I shot a few aliens. I walked around to the base over the hill and every few minutes another alien ship landed. When it all died down, everything stopped and I wandered hoping that something different would happen. Nothing did – so I pretended my character was me and did silly voice-overs (just kidding Machinima came way after me getting bored with Halo ;-). The same earlier with Tomb Raider – lets hope future games are more random. The popularity of mmorpgs suggests the key attraction is that other humans act in a kind of natural and random way – holding a sense of disbelief. But what of services that are person to machine. As a simple example lets go back to Northern Ireland and my BBC 1996 production.

Alongside the usual click, see, learn methodology I was always pushing for a few ‘random’ engine elements. I actually built three subtle, chance things into the early prototype. The first one was straightforward and used in many other services since, as you travelled (clicked) around the sounds and music tracks were semi-randomised. This helped the feel of the service no end – occasional shouts, or gunshots, or bombs, or TV news, or birds twittering, all gave it a reality. Secondly was a perspective engine. This was subtle and many users just didn’t notice it, which was great. We wanted this to be used by young people primarily on both sides of the fence. Having realised that they would reinforce their own prejudices by always looking at their side of the story (this was strongly a two sided perspective piece – lots of vox pops, formal interviews, parochial news etc) – I wanted to create a ‘tool’ that would help each side understand the other. So – a ‘perspective engine’ was the order of the day. It simply tracked what you looked at and gradually balanced your view by offering less of one side if you didn’t venture to the other – in fact some of this was made to be chance with occasional natural break interstitial moments giving alternate perspective. Knowing it was happening was great fun, watching people us it even more so – they seemed to get it.

Finally and this was the most moving part. Given the fact that over 3000 people had been killed at that time in Northern Ireland because of the Troubles I wanted to reflect that in the service somehow. As in Iraq at the moment in 2005, from one day to the next we are kept at a distance by a sanitized media from the horror of unexpected car bombs that kill 10, 20 people at a time. What is it like to stand down the street as 10 people are slaughtered? I spoke to many people in Northern Ireland that had witnessed events such as that and some who had planted the bombs. So for the final part of making this particular interactive service reflect a sense of that I built a ‘lock out mode’ – at very random intervals, taking total control of the screen, the service would quickly fade to black and in small white letters the name, age and how they were killed of one of the 3000 would sit there for about 5-10 seconds, no sound – then it would fade back to where you were and you could carry on. This really made it for me. It had a poignancy and felt natural (apart from compressing 30 years into an hour or so experience!!). It was though an important message told in a way that reflected life – sudden good or bad events. It failed really because it was all bad and in fact Northern Ireland is one of the most lovely places to live on the planet, great people, landscape and full of life. This had to be reflected too. The final product sadly had all of the above removed and turned into a typical ‘encarta-type’ service. But putting ‘serendipitous’ moments into ‘non-human’ driven interactive personalized services – is our next challenge. Many people are working on it, wonder how far we will ever get?

Posted by Gary Hayes ©2005

Sep 272005

Butterfly Beach Dog �Gary Hayes 2005It seems just as I get to post an article on the dawning of new forms of video search along comes, like the proverbial bus, two more at the same time. I have mentioned the moves Google are making also but this just out Wired Article – The Super Network – Why Yahoo! will be the center of the million-channel universe – goes into some good detail in the personalize media space…

“A billion hours of programming is meaningless without an efficient way to search it. Think of trying to find a book in the Library of Congress with no database, no card catalog, no Dewey decimal system. Today’s prominent search engines work great for Web pages and OK for still images, which usually contain captions or other identifying information. But video is much harder to sort through.” Josh McHugh

This article and a second looking at ESPN talks about to the whole long tail thing and goes a lot further in contextualizing collaborative filtering, psychographic profiling and social programming. It also talks as in my post from a couple of days ago about the importance of getting strong audio/visual data on-board as soon as possible.

“Several companies are logging closed-captioned transcripts so that shows can be searched with traditional text-search methods, and San Francisco startup Blinkx recently began captioning videostreams with voice recognition software. But computers are still a long way from watching and understanding TV. The thousands of data-center blade servers inhaling and annotating programs around the clock for Yahoo!, Google, and Blinkx are no more able to extract meaning than an ATM is able to know you’re having an affair by analyzing your withdrawal patterns. “I know how far we are from true computer vision,” says Horowitz, leaning back in his chair in a conference room at Yahoo!’s Sunnyvale headquarters.”

Horovitz is ex-MIT and founded Virage, a leading company in video analysing (again mentioned in my previous post), who are now embedded with Autonomy. Horovitz was apparently inspired by Marvin Minsky’s project for his MIT class – “get a computer to ‘see’ what is actually in a photograph”.

The important thing with this topical wave of interest in video personalization is what next? Just finding bits of film or TV down using searches such as  “the episode in Friends where Daphne has flu”  or “that film where frogs fall out of the sky” or “which films contain the phrase  “the future is already here” – is the first step. We need to get the “creatives”, you and I, thinking of the great cross-platform interactive services that are enabled by this – lots more, so much more on this to come 😉

Posted by Gary Hayes ©2005