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The Touchable TV
The idea of a touchable TV is nothing new: it’s almost as old as television itself.
In 1953, before my father was even born, a show first aired on CBS called Winky Dink and You that most consider the first ever interactive television program. The show’s creators, Harry Prichett, Sr. and Ed Wyckoff, had quickly realized one of the fundamental differences of television versus the movies as a medium: that television sets were in people’s living rooms, and that kids could walk right up and touch the screen, like they could any other piece of furniture in their house. The show prompted millions of kids to get involved in the animated adventures of a boy named Winky-Dink and his dog, Woofer, by drawing on a small piece of plastic that stuck to the TV’s screen with static electricity, using a special set of crayons, all sold as part of a Winky-Dink Kit, available in toy stores or by mail. At critical points in the show, kids could get involved by drawing, for example, a bridge for Winky-Dink to cross, or trace letters onscreen to reveal a secret message. While wildly successful, and one of the most popular children’s shows on TV, this early experiment went off the air four years later in 1957, among concerns about
radiation and complaints from parents about kids who were drawing directly on their TV screens (sometimes with permanent marker). Over the next fifty years, televisions became enshrined as untouchable objects in the household – built into cabinets, placed on pedestals, and eventually hung on walls as flatscreen art objects, becoming more and more like the large movie screens they were once such a revolution against. And over that same period of time, a small but creative group of people within broadcasting, producing, cable and technology companies have tried any number of methods to keep the dream of interactive television alive. For many years it was the one-screen, set-top box-driven applications, popular in Europe, that seemed like the working model: driven by an interactive layer of enhanced content, polls, trivia, games and on-demand video, delivered over a cable or satellite connection and controlled by remote control, but this was always limited by adoption and standardization of set-top boxes, especially in the U.S. in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the widespread adoption of text messaging worldwide allowed for SMS-driven interactive TV, most notably in American Idol, which became the first interactive TV broadcast to become truly mainstream, even if the interaction was limited to voting for contestants on the show.
Meanwhile, a hit series that was perhaps closest to the spirit of Winky Dink debuted on Nickelodeon in 2000: Dora the Explorer. The bilingual show is produced with natural pauses for young children to talk back to the screen, sing along with the characters and solve puzzles, and while it employs no actual interactive technology, anyone who has watched Dora with a child knows this is no real drawback: the young viewers vividly imagine the connection, and play interactive Dora games on their computers or their parents’ phones, seeing it as a continuous experience with the television show. But in the mid-2000s, a truly interactive form of video storytelling emerged, not on TV, but the Internet. The rise of YouTube and original web series delivered by podcast and flash players, consumed largely on web browsers, personal media players and mobile phones, for the first time put content in a produced, serial video format within reach of a mouse click, and over the years creators have made the experience increasingly interactive. Hotspots within video, such as YouTube’s Annotations feature, have allowed producers to create linked videos, branching storylines and choose-your-own-adventure plots, and even games built from videos, such as Barely Political’s wildly popular “Chris Brown Punch-Out” and “Rush Limbaugh Punch-Out” YouTube games.
T H E TO U C H A B L E T V
Experimentation in online video has included interactive films and music videos shot in 360° Quicktime VR, allowing the viewer to pan and scan in any direction during the timeline; interwoven stories with multiple simultaneous plotlines, such as HBO’s Voyeur, which allow you to look into any number of windows of an apartment building in a “Rear Window”-like storyline; and experiences like ChatRoulette, which blur the line between channelsurfing and two-way communication.
For the first time in history, we’ve put a two-way storytelling device capable of connecting millions of people worldwide in people’s hands. For producers, inventors and engineers, this should be a time as exciting as those early days of TV, or the first years of the Internet: the era of touchable TV.
Now, with tablet computers, there’s a perfect confluence of elements for interactive video: a wireless Internet connection, a big, touchable screen and a processor powerful enough to enable almost any interactive experience storytellers can devise. The earliest forms of entertainment were interactive, as dramatists and poets tailored stories to the audience’s real-time responses. Two thousand years of technology, from paper to the printing press to radio and TV, made broadcasting – a one-way form of storytelling – our dominant medium. But now, for the first time in history, we’ve put a two-way storytelling device capable of connecting millions of people worldwide in people’s hands. For producers, inventors and engineers, this should be a time as exciting as those early days of TV, or the first years of the Internet: the era of touchable TV.
The question is, what will we create? How will TV look different when people can take it into their own hands? Imagine: branching storylines, or multiple perspectives on a story, could be chosen by a viewer. Extras in the background, formerly set dressing, could be new characters you could tap with your finger and suddenly shift to follow their story. The world-building we typically see in games or novels, especially in genre storytelling, could become part of TV, even allowing fan-filmed stories to become linked into a show (imagine clicking on a few Stormtroopers in a scene from Star Wars, for example, and launching into Kevin Rubio’s great 1997 mockumentary, Troops.) While watching sports, concerts and other live entertainment, viewers might be able to choose in real time from multiple camera angles, and touch players, teams or areas of the field for enhanced information. In a CGI-animated scene, you could touch and drag to pan and zoom a virtual camera. And, harking back to the days of Winky Dink, viewers can finally draw on the screen without driving their parents crazy; the backgrounds and sets of our future’s Dora or Sesame Street could include graffiti from their most loyal viewers, drawn from locations all over the world, as well as a layer of annotations, response videos and fan fiction left by everyone who’s watched before, making every episode a wiki-like collaborative story. Thanks to the iPad, and more tablets to come, touchable TVs are out there. The question now is, what will we create?
Tim Shey runs Audience Development at Next New Networks (nextnewnetworks .com), the first department of its kind in online television. He’s focused on building the largest, most loyal and engaged audiences for every Next New Networks property, working with producers and partners across the web to promote episodes, to optimize and scale the company’s distribution platform, and to design better experiences and interactions with its viewers and communities. Tim has been working as a designer and producer for projects in television, mobile, and the web for more than 15 years. He is also an academy member and has served as a judge for all three of the Emmy Awards, the Webby Awards, and the Streamy Awards.
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