Fast Talk: Wising Up the Idiot Box

If you think the changes in TV in the past five years--TiVo, digital cable and satellite, and video on demand--are radical, you haven't seen anything.

Scott Maddux

VP of product marketing and consumer applications
AgileTV Corp.
Menlo Park, California

Maddux, 42, markets Promptu, a voice-powered remote control for television that will be available this month. Until then, you'll just have to continue flexing your index finger.

"With hundreds of TV channels and thousands of shows available on demand, people are lost. Six years ago, our founder, Paul Cook, who's 81, realized this and thought, 'How are people going to be able to find anything to watch? Voice recognition would be a great way, because it's intuitive to ask for things.' So the company was founded with this sole purpose of improving navigation, and it has taken us four years to develop the technology.

My team here is responsible for defining every aspect of the consumer experience, from the remote control to the graphic onscreen interface. I started out in Silicon Valley building new consumer technologies for Apple and Hasbro toys, and learned great lessons about the importance of maintaining a very tight relationship between the consumer and engineering. Not just focus groups, but rich prototypes where we do usability tests and find that if an idea doesn't work, we go back and do it again. Some of our design breakthroughs came through our usability testing. For example, you can do voice-activated channel surfing because users suggested it. I can say 'scan documentaries,' and then automatically it scans through all the documentaries that are currently on TV, changing channels every three or four seconds; I just have to say 'stop' when I find something I want to watch.

We have heard from users that they love the serendipitous discovery part of voice-powered search. They find shows they never knew existed on channels they never even knew they had. For example, I recently did a search for Bob Denver, who played Gilligan. You'll see the results and you'd expect Gilligan's Island to show up, but you also find that he shows up on The Love Boat. Who knew he was on The Love Boat?"

Blake Krikorian

Cofounder and CEO
Sling Media Inc.
San Mateo, California

This past July, Krikorian, 38, launched the Slingbox, a $250 gizmo the size of an extra-large chocolate bar that redirects your home TV signal to your laptop or desktop PC.

"A few years ago, my brother and I had been traveling extensively, and being Bay Area natives, we didn't want to miss San Francisco Giants games. We realized there was really no way for us to access them. I'm a mechanical engineer by training, he's an MBA and lawyer, and we had started a firm five years earlier in which we were incubating products and then spinning them into large consumer electronics and tech companies such as Microsoft and Toshiba. We thought, 'Let's go for it.'

The idea was something we've now coined 'place shifting,' which means letting you watch your TV wherever you are. Basic cable, DVR--whatever you have in your house is the service you'll get on your computer. If you're sitting in a Hong Kong hotel room and you want to tune in to Desperate Housewives, you can simply watch as if you were on your couch back home. We've actually had a few requests from users to put a special 'boss' button in place on their computer so at the stroke of one key, a spreadsheet pops up. We have a joke here that part of our goal is to destroy office productivity.

The unthinkable part wasn't the technology but creating a new consumer brand and selling hardware products at retail. A typical VC or industry pundit would say that's crazy when you're competing against these huge corporations. The thing is, we really wanted to see this sucker done right. Too many times we had seen a new product that was spun into these huge companies, and it either would never see the light of day or would not be executed to the level of excellence we were looking for. We launched nationwide in every single Best Buy and CompUSA retail location. Now competition is going to start coming from the big consumer-electronics guys like Sony and Samsung that have billions of dollars to promote. I take them very, very seriously. So we have to continue to innovate. Our success is up to us."

Dmitry Shapiro

Founder and CEO
Veoh Networks Inc.
San Diego, California

Shapiro, 36, launched Veoh, a peer-to-peer television infrastructure that lets anyone broadcast her own TV show over the Net, in September.

"I'm very much an activist. I grew up in Russia during the height of the Cold War, a very restrictive communist society that didn't allow the individual to have a voice. Since moving to this country when I was 10, I've always had this drive to democratize the human voice. Technology is just a tool, and the Internet will be our tool to democratize television.

Today, there are three primary ways to get TV content delivered: through airwaves, cable systems, and satellites. We're building the fourth way using existing broadband Internet infrastructure to deliver full TV-grade video so anybody with a digital camera, a PC or a Mac, and a broadband Internet connection can have her own TV channel. We envision artists of all sorts--cinematographers, actors, and writers--creating their own channel, which is their digital portfolio. Companies that have never before been able to afford TV advertising will be able to buy just $500 worth of Internet-based TV advertising. On the entertainment side, the Hollywood model is unscientific: Networks gamble on a few shows, and it's hit or miss. We allow everyone to publish content and then networks can track who's most popular. Because we use peer-to-peer technology, like Skype does, mathematically speaking we can hold an infinite number of channels. But we've built it to make sure there's no piracy on the network by still maintaining centralized control. We're the first system of its kind to do that with large-scale video distribution.

I hope that Veoh will let people in the United States see what's really going on in the world. Right now there are people shooting video in Darfur that depicts atrocity, but because advertisers don't want consumers to see people dying, they just show us another rerun of Friends. I don't believe in that. I believe when you show reality, the world will rise up."

Scott Newnam

CEO and cofounder
GoldPocket Interactive
Los Angeles, California

His technology lets Newnam, 33, and others create interactive-TV applications for GSN, the game-show network, and such shows as CSI and Survivor.

"In 1999, while I was at Harvard Business School, I wanted to solve the issue of how to merge TV with the Internet, and started GoldPocket. Historically, there were two challenges for interactive television to become reality. One was a technology problem: Every home had a different kind of TV and a different set-top box, so how could you create an interactive experience that would work on whatever someone had? In 2001, we began buying the other advanced technologies so we could do it.

There was also the chicken-and-egg problem. Cable and satellite operators didn't want to deploy the software to make interactive TV work without content. Programmers didn't want to spend money creating great interactive content if no one could see it. But because of the threat of TiVo, in the past year or so advertisers have been the catalyst.

One of the toughest decisions we faced was realizing we needed to be a lot more than a back-end technology company. We had to understand the Hollywood community in order to be a success, and actually live it. So in 2001, we moved our entire company from Boston to L.A. We told people six weeks before we moved, and 70% of the team came, uprooting their families. Today, our staff is two-thirds technology folks, one-third creatives, part of a new set of professional interactive-TV writers emerging in Hollywood. It's been a huge learning experience for me. I have a strong tech and business background, and discovering how much goes into creative is mind-boggling."

Pat Dunbar

Cofounder and president
The DiMa Group LLC
San Mateo, California

Dunbar, 52, cofounded the DiMA Group in 2002 to devise new advertising methods for the future of television. Clients include Best Buy and Kraft Foods.

"I've been an entrepreneur and an intrapreneur. I worked for HBO years ago, created the first online banking system for Bank of America, and had my own consulting business for 15 years, working on new technologies in the interactive space. A few years ago, I ran into [DiMA cofounder] Tom Morgan, and we started thinking about the digital landscape. Video on demand and digital-video recorders were starting to emerge, and it was apparent there was a set of advertising issues that were just going to explode. The vast majority of programming today is supported by $60 billion in advertising revenue, and that advertising model is going to have to change as the new world of TV comes about.

We're trying to help the TV advertising and programming communities do just that. We can help provide new functions for placing ads in TV content, but unless people embrace how they create ad messages for those functions, they'll fall flat. For the past two years, we've run something called AdLab, a collaborative environment where marketers, their ad agencies, programmers, and technology-support companies come together to conceive of and create new advertising test models. For example, telescoping is one of the new types of ads emerging. It's when you see some kind of an overlay or icon that prompts you to drill down so you can learn more in a program. T-commerce is when you'll have the ability to take that one step further and make purchases by clicking through your TV. We've found that the collaboration aspect is almost as important as the consumer research because what's changing is the relationship between the advertiser and the programmer. They have to understand how to develop mutually relevant content. You either believe that ads will go away and become irrelevant, or you think video as a marketing medium will continue, which we do."

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