Over a decade ago, I remember reviewing the interactive shopping service BSkyB offered its subscribers when it launched what was then called its Open… service. The Sky box had (and still does) an analogue dial-up modem which, when I wanted to try browsing the Somerfield supermarket shelves, spent a good 15 minutes connecting and (apparently) attempting to download the entire product range via the phone-line. I was underwhelmed.
I recalled this experience when I visited ANT Software’s stand at the IPTV Forum today and saw a demonstration of an interactive TV application which allowed the user to buy a DVD or a book from Amazon related to the channel or programme being viewed. The contrast, a decade on, was staggering – and provided a convincing example of at least one way the Ethernet port now being added to many broadcast digital TV set-top boxes could eventually be monetised.
ANT’s application – in this particular emulation – works like this. First, the user has to link his or her Amazon account to the service, and assign a PIN to the TV application. The Amazon application subsequently signals to the user when it is available for a particular channel or programme, and – when the action is paused – an Amazon-branded window is automatically called up showing a range of books or DVDs related to that content. These can then be purchased by navigating to the relevant title and entering a PIN at the point of sale. Amazon’s back-office then does the rest, and the title is delivered to the user’s home in the normal way.
In the example I was shown, the Nascar racing channel was the one being streamed and then paused, so Nascar-related books and DVDs were displayed. Richard Baker, ANT’s executive vice president of sales and marketing, who demonstrated the concept to me, noted that the application could in principle be tied to any piece of EPG meta-data associated with the content being viewed: for instance, if watching a movie where the meta-data contained the actors’ names, the Amazon window might show relevant biographical titles or DVDs they had starred in.
Baker also noted that the ‘pause’ trigger was just one idea. Pressing ‘info’ or perhaps the red button on a remote control could be used instead.
A number of things are significant about ANT’s approach. First, the broadband link’s speed is being exploited to offer more than just over-the-top video – one of the major applications being touted for the IP port at this year’s Forum event. Second, while retaining Amazon’s distinctive branding, this is clearly a TV-tailored version of the online book-store, which respects the constraints of a window within the TV display. Third, and perhaps most importantly, the call-to-action is contextual.
One of the major misconceptions behind Open… was the assumption that allowing impulse purchases via the TV screen was a killer app in itself. This was largely based on a misinterpretation of the success of impulse pay-per-view into the US cable market, where buy-rates shot up as soon as it became possible to purchase movies through the remote control instead of ordering them over the phone. What was forgotten (or ignored) was that a pay-per-view purchase is necessarily contextual: the consumer is buying video through a device which is optimised for … displaying and promoting video. That does not (necessarily) apply to non-video-related products.
Those lessons were learnt by Sky some time ago – but the technology, in terms of the power of the set-top box, learnings about the design of user interfaces, and the speed of Internet connections, has taken a decade to catch up.
ANT is by no means the only company exploiting this fact – but it was encouraging to see an interactive TV shopping application that, for once, looked as if it meant business.
(NB in the initial version of this post, I inadvertently promoted Richard Baker to CEO. ANT’s CEO is, of course, Simon Woodward. Apologies)