Standardizing the Second Screen

Can Automatic Content Recognition (ACR) do for second-screen TV viewing what GPS did for mobile applications? Flingo CEO Ashwin Navin thinks it can. Speaking at the Second Screen Summit in New York this week, Navin called ACR a critical enabling technology that will allow second screen apps evolve beyond glorified program guides and chat rooms.

“We think ACR is a really big deal, as big as GPS,” Navin said. “GPS has enabled a huge number of mobile business to be created based on location. We think ACR has the potential to have that same sort effect” for second-screen applications.

For that to happen, however, ACR itself needs to evolve. “We hate the term ‘ACR,’ actually,” Navin said. “It’s an old term, it encompasses a lot of things that more to do with anti-piracy than with enabling new businesses. We need to make ACR completely seamless and integrated with the content.”

Content recognition technology has been around for a decade or more in various forms, including watermark detection and digital fingerprinting. But its purpose has generally been to enable various types of B2B content authentications or to trigger anti-piracy measures.

It’s most successful consumer deployment has been in music recognition applications like Shazam, which “listens” to a song and sends a recorded snippet to a server to compare against a database. Efforts to use similar technology to sync second screen TV apps with linear TV content, however, have been less successful to date due in part to the inherent delay involved in the listening and lookup process, and the lack of comprehensive metadata on TV content, particularly when the content involves a live event.

As this nScreen Media demo of Zeebox in action shows, automatic video recognition and syncing can still be  something of a hit-or-miss proposition, even using what is regarded as among the most advanced second screen applications available today.

“When we looked at what was out there we found a lot of [ACR technologies] that were designed for anti-piracy or for other things but nothing that was really built for interactivity,” Navin said. “So we built that ourselves.”

While Flingo’s solution may be an improvement over previous ACR technologies, having multiple proprietary solutions in the market is not necessarily an improvement over the current situation for the broader TV industry. GPS became a platform for mobile innovation in part because it provided a standard set of open APIs that developers could build on. If ACR is going to unleash the same degree of innovation, some measure of standardization is probably necessary.

Absent NASA, however, which provided the open APIs for GPS, it’s not clear where such standardization for ACR will come from. The list of potential stakeholders is long, and includes broadcasters, pay-TV service providers, mobile platform providers, CE companies, advertisers, technology providers and developers like Flingo and Shazam. And the track record for interactive TV standards is not a promising one (see: Project Canoe).

If there’s reason for hope, however, it lies in the potential data pay off that widespread use of ACR could produce.

“Just the amount of data — the second-by-second viewing data — that ACR can provide will make it huge,” Civolution ACR solution specialist Stefan Maris said at the Second Screen Summit. “The data play alone will pay for everything else.”