Connected Home 2011: It's About People, Not Kit
At the Streaming Media Europe summit featuring heavyweights such as Virgin Media, Google TV, Samsung, and the BBC, the focus was not on technology but on the consumer experience.
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There are more than 42 million connected TV households across Europe and the U.S., according to a recent survey by Strategy Analytics, a figure which by any account is set to rise exponentially as internet-enabled TVs become commonplace and homes and individuals acquire two, three, four, or more screens.

How much is actually understood about the forces behind this adoption? In particular, there seems a widespread industry view that consumer behaviour is key to unlocking a winning business strategy, while at the same time, there are voices warning that the consumer is at risk of being at best confused, and at worst, is actually scared away by the myriad of convergent devices and services on offer. Is there a risk of inertia in the marketplace if stakeholders in the digital media ecosystem don’t come together to prevent product fragmentation?

This was the theme of a special Connected Home Summit convened at Streaming Media Europe. Chaired by William Cooper, founder of the convergence consultancy informitv, and featuring heavyweight representation from consumer electronics manufacturers, standards bodies, app developers, broadcasters, and online video publishers, the summit’s focus was on understanding the consumer experience.

As keynote speaker Ian Mecklenburgh, director of consumer platforms and devices for Virgin Media, alerted: “The barrier is not technology. The barrier is to make all of this simple for the user. It is about trying to explain the benefits of what they have bought and what they haven’t bought.”

The issue from a CE firm’s point of view, said Samsung head of content services Dan Saunders, is “building a product or service in a meaningful way that addresses human needs. Therefore, we have to understand human behaviour.”

Laying out the groundwork for the debate, Stuart Knapman, partner at Essential Research, explored the gap between market rhetoric and what the public really want and feel. “The popular perception is that the consumer wanted all their devices from PC and phone to TV morphed into one,” Knapman said. “Actually, we’ve seen that while technology converges, the values consumers attach to different screens remain very, very distinct. Each of the four screens dictates a very separate emotional and behavioural response, which means that we can’t deliver the same experience across all screens.”

Chief among these was the resurgence of the living room as a place to enjoy screen-based entertainment, said Knapman. “Over the last decade there’s been a renaissance in the living room—screen sizes have increased, home cinema technology is growing, and we simply have more kit to enable us to watch stuff we like. Consequently, there is more shared viewing in the living room.”

The TV itself was valued highly for its simplicity and stability, as well as a place for shared experiences with the real social network of friends and family, Knapman added. “That’s not to say the internet won’t have an important role, but people are resistant to anything that gets in the way of a shared experience on the main screen. Individual interactions should be delivered to devices other than the main screen.”

This lesson has already been taken on board at Virgin Media, where the philosophy according to Mecklenburgh is to treat the TV as a family unit, not a computer: “People don’t log onto TV, so we have removed the log-ons for different profiles.”

With greater access to more video and “as we become more excited about wanting more”, Knapman’s research indicates a “paradox of choice” in which “findability” is one of the services to which people attach most value.

“This sea of choice that consumers have means they still require beacons to help them to find stuff relevant to them. In that sense, channel brands are incredibly important to them,” he said.

In a nudge toward Google TV, Knapman suggested the whole idea of replacing the EPG by a giant search box was “terrifying” to most people.

In response, Suveer Kothari, head of international for Google TV, recognised that people don’t want a lean-forward experience and said, “We are working hard to modify that.” He noted that version 2 of Google TV (with no release date given) would sport a new UI.

“We are also aware of an explosion of content and channels, which will increase by a factor of 10 over the next few years,” said Kothari. “A great example is YouTube, which is one of the most-used apps on connected TV. The top five content creators on YouTube get more viewers than the top five cable networks in the U.S., and people get to that content by search.

“Search may not be the best navigational tool, but it will be one of them,” Kothari continued. “Another way is to aggregate content based on personal preference or use friend recommendations. No one has yet worked out if we do or do not need a keyboard. Voice activation is increasing if you take the iPhone as a model, and gestural-based controllers will also have a role.”

According to Knapman, the potential for interaction on TV screens is underpinned by two golden rules: build connected services and devices that deliver on a simple UI and then tell consumers about the benefits, not about the technology. That will win the battle. 

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