What is interactive TV

What is interactive video and TV?


Interactive television has been a rather ambiguous term. Due to superfluous industry speculation most people have been expecting some kind of product, or service combination, which has never really been popular, with a a few notable exceptions (e.g., YouTube, TiVo). Here, we propose that interactive TV (iTV), besides a product, is a very interesting and growing field of academic study. In particular, interactive TV research encompasses a rather diverse body of work (e.g. multimedia, HCI, CSCW, UIST, user modeling, media studies) that has accumulated over the past 20 years. The research and development community of iTV meets once a year during the EuroITV conference series.

Introduction to Interactive television

For a long time, the answer to the question “what is interactive television” has been dependable on the discipline or the industry concerned, which might have been one source of ambiguity when the respective disciplines had to coordinate: TV as infrastructure: A telecommunications engineer assumes digital broadcast, return channel or broadband Internet infrastructure (e.g. IPTV), TV as user terminal: A multimedia designer refers to interactive graphics and dynamic rendering on the user terminal, TV as media format: A media manager describes new content formats such as betting, interactive storytelling and play-along quiz games, and TV as social actor: A sociologist’s definition focuses on the interaction between people about TV shows. While none of the above definitions seems to agree with each other, each one stands for an approach followed by interactive television researchers, so far. In particular, each one makes some assumption about one or more of the following elements: infrastructure, user terminal, content format, and social behavior, respectively. Therefore, in order to set-up a unifying definition we need to abstract from the particularities of disciplinary approaches and their implicit assumptions. Understanding Interactive TV research and practice In brief, we have found that there are two high-level approaches for defining interactive Television (iTV): iTV as an artifact, or experience holds the following properties: mash-ups of fixed (pre-edited) video-clips, which have linear narrative low to mild levels of user input, and dynamic graphics that are employed mostly for video-overlays. Nevertheless, the borderline between other media formats (e.g., videogames) and iTV is sometimes vague. For example, there are song-contest videogames that follow the format of the respective TV-shows. At the same time, there are iTV formats that have been modeled after adventure videogames. For the sake of consistency within this article, we do not treat borderline applications, but we provide a few references to developments from the industry and mainly focus on the academic treatments of iTV.

iTV as an area of academic study, investigates the interaction among users and video-clip based content, which is presented on networked multimedia computers. Therefore, iTV research builds and extends upon established disciplines such as Human-Computer Interaction, Multimedia, and Communication Science. Again, there might be borderline cases, in which research methods in iTV have been transferred from other disciplines. Nevertheless, iTV research focuses on those interdisciplinary cases that have guided researchers to leverage existing disciplinary methods, in order to address the development and use of iTV systems. Some notable Interactive TV systems and user behaviors The user activities that surround television content - creation, distribution and viewing - have been interactive long before the digitization of television systems. For example, viewers compete mentally against remote quiz show participants, or in co-located groups. Moreover, users record vacation movies, they share broadcast content with friends, and discuss about TV programs either in real-time, or afterwards.

Nonetheless, the digitization of TV systems and TV content has only increased the opportunities for interactivity in the value chain of TV content: creation, distribution and viewing. The most successful use of interactivity in TV has been achieved by external means, such as the VCR, and the DVD. In fact, interactivity on the DVD players was in creative terms had larger impact than any concept devised by the broadcast industry. It was so good that at one point it seemed as if the DVD middleware would become the default standard for all TV platforms. Another successful story has been the one of the TiVo service. It provides an effective user interface for storing and discovering programs and has been popular in several countries. Most notably, the distribution video on the Web (e.g., YouTube) has created a new class of applications and TV viewers. Lately, the manufacturers of TV sets and set-top boxes have been introducing integrated internet access (e.g., Apple TV, Samsung/Sony Internet TV, Intel Smart TV), which is usually realized through downloadable widgets. The popular TiVo system (a combination of set-top box and service) provides a combination of pre-recorded content and suggestions about what to watch, based on collaborative filtering. Apple TV is a set-top box and service for on demand downloading of TV and movie content. YouTube has been introduced as a video sharing web site for user generated content, but it has also attracted mainstream broadcasters, due to the big user base it has created.

Although several iTV developments (e.g., Web-based TV, IPTV, and broadcast TV) have followed parallel or even competing paths, we prefer to elaborate on the common themes from the viewpoint of the human, as a creator, distributor and viewer of content. For example, broadcast developments have been in competition with video streaming approaches, and the TV as device has been in conflict with the PC. Nevertheless, the convergence of network and rendering platforms has made such distinctions somewhat superficial. Even though there are still significant differences between the networking and rendering platforms, those differences regard mostly to the context and the preferences of the user, rather than to the capabilities of the technology. In summary, in contrast to the broadcast TV area, the current networked TV one has been initiated on pragmatic expectations, feasible infrastructures, and most importantly lower barriers of entry for researchers and users.

Where interactive television came from

Several aspects of interactive television have remained an unfulfilled promise for a long time. We have realized that academic researchers have studied iTV behavior or have been developing iTV systems, all within their disciplinary boundaries. At the same time, the industry and broadcast service providers have been developing, testing and offering several products. As a matter of fact, iTV has been either pushed to users as a product, or studied as behavior towards traditional TV systems, or developed as revolutionary digital system. In contrast, we suggest that emerging TV practices might be evolutionary rather than revolutionary. Ιn the next section, we explain how editing, sharing and controlling content is just a super-set of the established practice of creating-distributing-viewing content. Moreover, it has been found that the most effective approach towards iTV is a multidisciplinary one that concerns technology, user behavior, and content design.

The development story of closed captioning might provide further ground for understanding the shortcomings as well as the potential of iTV. In the begging, closed captioning (i.e., on-demand subtitling) was conceived as a service for people with hearing disabilities. It was implemented by exploiting an invisible part of the television signal, known as the Vertical Blanking Interval (VBI). Closed captioning was initially available to viewers through special caption decoder boxes that were attachable to televisions. There are a number of lessons to be learned by the story of closed captioning: 1) the VBI technology has been later on exploited to introduce the, very popular in Europe, TeleText service as a first solution towards accessing the Web from the television and 2) the integration of novel technologies into TV sets is necessary for wide adoption by viewers and broadcasters.

Currently, there are several offerings of TV sets that provide simple internet access through downloadable widgets, which are usually rendered in complement to the broadcast or the recorded content. Starting with Teletext systems the audiovisual experience in TV has been extended with interactivity or additional content, which is rendered at the viewer's terminal Since the early 1990’s, interactive television research has expanded across a rather diverse body of scientific subfields. Research articles have appeared in several venues, such as multimedia, HCI, CSCW, UIST, user modeling, media and communication sciences.

There are three dimensions in the development of iTV research and practice. In the early years, research has focused on technological aspects such as broadband transmission mechanisms, or middleware standardization (Lugmayr et al. 2004). Once the technology was stable, the second phase of research has focused on the immediate interactivity options, such as content navigation and interactive content (Cesar and Chorianopoulos 2009). The third frontier of research has focused on supporting sociability (Cesar et al. 2009).

Theoretical foundations of interactive television

Due to the diversity of scientific subfields, 20 years of research on interactive TV has not produced a unified set of results. Interactive TV research as a whole is a loosely interwoven body of findings, broadly divided into a collection of separate research fields (e.g. content distribution system, graphics architectures, user interface development, user modeling, etc.) and commercial products. Each scientific field brought its expertise on a separate facet of interactive TV, generating important results but not assembling them into common threads that could define how the main issues relate to one another or ideally how each finding builds upon each other. Moreover, many innovations have been introduced by the industry in commercial products, which might have already disappeared due to business failure, or might not be open due to intellectual property rights. As a matter of fact, the design process for the latter has been either undocumented, or it is fragmented in many venues.

As a remedy to the fragmentation of findings, we have identified three concepts that provide a high-level taxonomy of interactive TV research: 1) content editing, 2) content sharing, and 3) content control. We propose this simple taxonomy (edit-share-control) as an evolutionary step over the established hierarchical produce-deliver-view paradigm. Content editing corresponds to the activity of developing or organizing multimedia material, which has been mainly done by professionals but could include user-generated content, as well. Content sharing refers to all kinds of social activities that might occur around the television watching, such as chatting about television content and sharing content. Content control corresponds to the activity of deciding what to watch and how to watch it.

The proposed classification (edit-share-control) is a superset of the traditional content lifecycle (produce-distribute-view). We could demonstrate that many existing interactive television services might be described by a combination of the three basic concepts. For example, a web video uploading system, such as YouTube, is mainly intended for content sharing, but also provides several features for sociability (e.g., comments), control of content (e.g., favorites, channels, etc), as well as content creation. In this way, most existing research and commercial products could be described using this simple taxonomy. Besides the explanatory power of this model, we could also employ it in the design of novel interactive television services. Although there are many technological, creative and behavioral changes in the way TV is authored, distributed and consumed, we do not expect that the established paradigm (author-deliver-watch) will be completely replaced by the emerging paradigm (edit-share-control). Television is an information and entertainment medium that has occupied the largest share of domestic leisure time and has become a rather pervasive activity. Therefore, we expect that the emerging paradigm will complement existing practices.

How to learn more

At the time of this writing, there are several thematic books on iTV, but there are few comprehensive works besides Cesar and Chorianopoulos (2009). With the goal of being as inclusive as possible, that work takes a pragmatic view and considers both research coming from the industry and the academia.

Pablo Cesar and Konstantinos Chorianopoulos (2009). The Evolution of TV Systems, Content, and Users Toward Interactivity. Foundations and Trends in Human–Computer Interaction: 2(4): 279–374. http:/dx.doi.org/10.1561/1100000008

Thematic books Liliana Ardissono, Alfred Kobsa and Mark Maybury 2004 Personalized Digital Television: Targeting Programs to Individual Viewers (Human-Computer Interaction Series, Kluwer Academic Publishers. Pablo Cesar, David Geerts, and Konstantinos Chorianopoulos (Editors). Social Interactive Television: Immersive Shared Experiences and Perspectives. IGI 2009. Artur Lugmayr, Samuli Niiranen, Seppo Kalli 2004. Digital Interactive TV and Metadata Future Broadcast Multimedia. Springer-Verlag,

Historical review It was outside the scope of this article to provide an overview of all commercial trials and products, which are described elsewhere (Perry, 1996; Kubey 2000, Jensen, 2008)

Jens F. Jensen 2008. Interactive television - a brief media history. In Proceedings of the European Conference on Interactive Television, pp. 1-10. Robert Kubey 2000. TV and the Internet: pitfalls in forecasting the future. Knowledge, Technology, & Policy 13(2): 63-85. Perry, T.S. 1996. The trials and travails of interactive TV. IEEE Spectrum 33(4): 22-28.

Relevant Conference Series EuroITV conference series (since 2003), Springer LNCS proceedings 2007-2008, ACM DL Proceedings 2009-now