A Silicon Valley executive whose previous venture was
synonymous with Internet piracy has found a way to play nice
BitTorrent Inc. co-founder Ashwin Navin is working with
television networks and consumer electronics companies on a
new technology called Samba that aims to deliver enhanced
viewing on Internet-connected "smart TVs."
Navin said his experiences with BitTorrent and the backlash
engendered by the file-sharing pioneer spurred his decision
to work in collaboration with the entertainment industry -
instead of pursuing a path of business disruption.
"You can get a lot of great press, you can get all the
bloggers and social media folks really excited with
statements like, ‘I'm here to kill cable,' " said Navin, 35.
"But that doesn't actually work. It's not productive, because
cable and subscription television is subsidizing and paying
for the programming we love."
Navin's San Francisco company, Flingo, draws from the same
body of academic research for Samba that underlies the U.S.
Department of Homeland Security's face recognition technology
to teach smart TVs to "see" the images flickering on the
Like an infant opening her eyes for the first time, the
software is trained to recognise actors' faces and objects on
the screen. It uses these visual cues to identify a show in
real time by comparing it with a database of hundreds of
channels of content.
Once Samba determines what a viewer is watching, it delivers
contextually relevant content, such as casting information or
social media conversations, directly to the TV - as well as
to other screens in the room. The software synchronizes the
devices automatically, via the Internet, so the consumer
doesn't need to download a special application. The
supplemental material is available through a Web browser
running on a tablet, smartphone or the TV itself.
"From a consumer point of view, (Flingo's) doing a nice job
of stitching these things together based around a TV-centric
experience," said Paul Gray, television research director for
NPD DisplaySearch. "And not trying to be a PC in your living
room - which is the big danger."
Flingo is one of several companies seeking to serve as the
technological glue that connects the living room TV with the
smartphones, tablets or laptop computers that millions of
consumers have in their hands, along with their TV remote
One Nielsen study found that 86 percent of tablet owners and
84 percent of smartphone users said they check these screens
while they watch TV. Television networks have been grappling
with the intrusion of these small screens, which compete with
the TV for viewers' attention.
"If we can find ways to connect those screens, we can deepen
the engagement with the show, we can remind people that they
are watching TV," said Hardie Tankersley, Fox's vice
president of platforms and innovation. "Being able to match
the ads that you're seeing on your laptop with the ads that
are running on TV - that has tremendous potential for brands,
who advertise both on TV and the Web. To be able to
synchronize up is really powerful."
Companies such as Zeebox, Yahoo's IntoNow and Shazam
Entertainment offer smartphone and tablet applications that
identify TV shows and deliver supplementary content to this
second, smaller screen - including cast lists, a plot
synopsis and interactive features such as polling.
Flingo's Navin is placing his bet on a different screen: the
TV. Announcements of partnerships with device makers are
expected next month at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las
Smart TVs are moving from a novelty to the mainstream, with
shipments expected to grow 15 percent worldwide this year,
according to NPD DisplaySearch. Some 43 million of these
devices - TVs that connect to the Internet and provide access
to services such as YouTube, Netflix or Hulu - are expected
to ship globally this year. That number is projected to reach
95 million by 2016.
This momentum is less obvious in North America, where
Internet-connected TVs have been slower to catch on than
other parts of the world, Gray said. That's because purchases
are linked to media consumption habits. In China, for
example, consumers watch free Internet content - and favour
TVs with built-in browsers, which make it easier to watch
Similarly, in Western Europe, where half the households
receive TV programming via over-the-air signals, broadcasters
provide past episodes free online for consumers to do
catch-up viewing. That's helped spur demand for
Internet-connected TVs, Gray said.