Beyond iPlayer: What's next for Video on Demand?

Movement sensing, Project Canvas and IPTV everywhere

BBC iPlayer

Problem: six hundred TV channels, 2,000 hours of Video on Demand (VoD) on iPlayer and elsewhere … and you can't find anything to watch. After a hard day at work, it's all you can do to channel-hop until you finally settle on an episode of Top Gear that you've seen three times before.

Solution: Slump on the sofa and switch on the TV. The TV's built-in camera detects your body movements, analyses your face and detects that you're in a bad mood; it searches your home entertainment 'cloud' – its contents already shaped to your viewing behaviour – and plays you something uplifting like Apollo 13 or The Shawshank Redemption.

And if you have to go out, no problem: it will be ready to watch from where you left off in your very own "cloud", viewable from your mobile phone, laptop or games console.

This scenario may be creeping closer. As broadband speeds in the UK improve, next year will see the current online craze for video on demand (VoD) swap to UK living rooms – and with Microsoft's Natal project for Xbox360 becoming a reality sooner than previously thought, emotion-sensing TV could come within the next decade.


NATAL THE WAY: Microsoft's Natal project for gaming could be a step towards emotion-sensing TV that reads your mood and shows you TV programmes or films that match your mood

"In ten years time TVs will be able to read your body movements," says Max Reyner, a trends researcher at The Future Laboratory. "You'll control the TV by the way you're feeling instead of using a remote control."

IPTV increasingly prevalent

VoD has been around for several years, but with the iPlayer having piqued viewers' interest, the market is about to go crazy thanks to plans led by the BBC to make IPTV a reality. IPTV is all about extra content delivered to homes using broadband, and it typically includes both live and on-demand programmes.

"What iPlayer has done is helped bring an understanding of online content, but Virgin's application of VoD and Tiscali TV have been pointing in that direction for a while," says David Bloom, Commercial Director at IP Vision, the maker of Fetch, an IPTV box that will add Sky Player in 2010. "It's akin to the loosening of a pickle jar – the final blow was iPlayer, which has got a lot of coverage and has made VoD common in many homes."

IP vision

SKY TO COME: IP Vision's Fetch set-top boxes will have access to Sky Player in 2010, but are sure to embrace Project Canvas

Although the iPlayer is accessible on some commercial platforms – around a third of iPlayer hits come from users of Virgin Media's tailor-made interface – the BBC's controversial Project Canvas is an attempt to capitalise on the popularity of online VoD and make it accessible to mainstream TV viewers.

Project Canvas is currently in a consultation process, but it's likely to be approved next year. It seems likely that any Canvas set-top box will involve Freeview – and possibly Freeview HD – channels alongside a mix of free and pay-for VoD content that will either stream (SD) or download (HD) to the set-top box.

Games consoles are already at it: the PS3 and Wii all provide access to iPlayer, while Sky Player can now be subscribed to via the Xbox 360. And in what is perhaps a dry run for a Canvas-style future, online VoD services are booming. Full-length Channel 4 content will soon be shown on YouTube, Hulu has a similar deal with ITV, and Microsoft's Bing Video also has ambitions.

Seesaw, an online VoD service that uses the technology behind the ill-fated Project Kangaroo, is now in beta testing and could also be a player.

"Project Canvas is all about creating a platform that delivers quality broadband content in a user-friendly fashion with recognised brands," says Graham North, Commercial Director at set-top box manufacturer Humax.

Though initial boxes are likely to be expensive, analysts predict that a Canvas-type service will reach at least 3.5m homes by 2014.


CANVAS PLATFORM: Project Canvas will set down an industry-wide set of specifications for a hybrid open IPTV platform that any manufacturer can produce set-top boxes for

It may not be via a set-top box; integrated "Canvas" TVs could follow, while Blu-ray players are also looking for a long-term future. "Blu-ray sales aren't as high as were hoped so players are now sold with internet connections – they'll be less about playing Blu-ray and more about accessing content online," says Steve Smith at market analysts Codarc.

Content navigation is king

After VoD is adopted en masse, a complete home ecosystem is the next step – but how will consumers navigate content huge libraries? "Content search functionality will not only search the hard drive or broadcast channel lists, but also the broadband library and other devices connected to a home network," says North.

Michael Barry, Director of Programming at BT Vision, is putting a new emphasis on navigation. "The internet without Google would be impossible to use, but because the search is so good it's incredibly easy," he says. "We have the data from our users to get much more sophisticated."

With tailor-made recommendations and easier navigation, can VoD will kill-off scheduled TV? "In ten years everyone will be using VoD," says Barry, "but I don't believe it will replace linear TV schedules. Linear TV does big event TV shows well and the emphasis on that will grow, but audiences will adopt the convenience of VoD across whole genres of television, such as one-off documentaries and drama."

"The next stage is ownership of all content being in the cloud," says Bloom, "but we have a generation of consumers that have always had their TV scheduled for them, and are used to having a DVD or Blu-ray disc in their hand. If you pull the rug from under them too quickly it will unnerve them."

The VoD revolution is now unstoppable, but only for those who want it – and that's its beauty. The tech-savvy will be able to take advantage of increased broadband speeds and eventual 'cloud' ownership to indulge in some pretty nifty home networking and portability. The rest can carry on watching Top Gear on Dave.

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