How our second screen habit is changing TV forever

Social & interactive TV apps

One relatively recent innovation is the social or companion app. There are several available, with Zeebox – which is partly owned by Sky, ComCast and NBCUniversal – one of the most well-known, though there are others, like the US-centric GetGlue. Zeebox is basically a platform to chat about live TV shows and follow celebrities' TV-watching habits, though it's most skilful at showing where 'the buzz' is. It was invaluable during the Olympics when it was often difficult to keep-up with where and when a plucky Brit might make a play for a medal. Zeebox on a smartphone or tablet also remotely controls a Sky or Virgin TiVo box as well as smart TVs from Sony, Samsung, Panasonic and LG, and fully integrates with Twitter.

Zeebox is a companion app for TV broadcasts

Zeebox is a companion app for TV broadcasts

The second screen thus far is a place to surf the web or YouTube, watch catch-up TV, or join-in a Twitter debate about a live TV show, but getting apps in-sync with a live TV broadcast is where interactive apps could really come alive.

UK tech start-up Capablue has worked with Channel 4 and others on ways to develop engaging yet properly targeted, unobtrusive second screen advertising, including for Fonejacker and Made In Chelsea. So far they've been largely proof of concept apps, but the technology is intriguing and already polished; Capablue's Connected platform uses audio watermarking to synchronise with a linear broadcast. The mic on a phone or tablet hears the audio watermark and cross-references that with a cloud database to have the app showing content related to the relevant few seconds of the TV broadcast. It works for live TV, +1 channels and time-shift recordings.

Audio watermarking also underpins the BBC's new 'guess the value of the really old thing' Antiques Roadshow Playalong app that activates only when the programme is being broadcast live, while music recognition service Shazam can now trigger advertising overlays where audio watermarks exist in 'first screen' adverts.

Micro games, adverts and links to catch-up TV content are one thing but when will 'second screen' interactive apps move beyond mere novelty and experiments? "When they start to make money," Tom Cape, CEO of Copablue, told TechRadar about this completely new space for advertisers and broadcasters. "We will see a move from 'content' apps – ones which provide additional content as part of 360-degree commissioning – to ones that actually are built to promote and monetize TV better."


YouTube is attempting to establish itself as a bone fide broadcast platform

For now the watermarking requires producer or broadcaster involvement to place the tags, so third-party apps would lack syncing capability. However, there's nothing to stop the technology spreading. "Third party apps could work with advertising if watermarks are placed in adverts by the media agencies," says Cape. A third party that wants to provide synced content must encode all forms of live TV on the hoof with its own digital fingerprint, which is exactly what a rival video watermarking system called TVsync does.

Digital fingerprinting

Based on a system designed to track the progress of pirated video content around the internet, Vobile's TVsync system monitors hundreds of thousands of TV each day, automatically inserting a unique digital fingerprint in every single movie and live TV broadcast. With an app opened, point a smartphone or tablet's camera at any content playing on a TV screen, laptop, phone or other tablet, and the fingerprint in that video is recognised. Second screen content – or a website – is immediately launched.

The system has the downside of requiring line-of-dight to the TV, though it also works with a single frame of video, as well as audio.

TVSync isn't a consumer product, but instead a technology – like TiVo – that could end-up in apps, smart TVs and set-top boxes offered by well-known providers. "Imagine this embedded on a smart TV chip, synchronising and monitoring – and recording – what's on and what's being watched," says Devon Child, Vice President of Products & Solutions at Vobile.

Whether viewers will actively reach for a smartphone to trigger extra content is debatable, but new services that requires only the microphones on handheld devices to be switched-on at all times are passive enough to catch-on (security concerns aside). Either way, perhaps it's time we swapped 'smart TV' for 'smart screens' as we prepare for the second screen's second coming.