Viewers will call shots in TV revolution

19 Jun 2008

Ireland is emerging as a force to be reckoned with in the evolution of home entertainment, where viewers can be their own producers.

Did you ever shout at the box? That missed goal, the politician’s lie. Until now, you only had the power to switch channels or turn the TV off. Now you can do something about it!

There is a revolution sweeping across the digital entertainment world that will give viewers greater powers to partake in and influence events, as well as producing their own content.

Imagine participating via video in a heated debate on Questions & Answers or putting together your own commentary on the European Cup Final with input from friends on another continent. Or capturing a criminal activity on your mobile phone camera and broadcasting it to Crimeline?

While a number of consortia bid for the various digital terrestrial television (DTT) licences, visionary Irish-based technology firms are already looking beyond multiple TV channels to a near future where TV will be a two-way interaction.

Anyone familiar with YouTube will know all about the growth in user-generated content but the next step in this evolution will be enjoying and taking part in programmes from the TV in your living room or the mobile in your hand.

Television companies are now developing TV sets which connect directly to the internet using wireless networks. Such televisions from manufacturers like Intel, Sony and Samsung have begun to appear as prototypes at major consumer electronics shows.

Intel in Leixlip will manufacture the next-generation chip codenamed ‘Canmore’, which will do to home entertainment what the Pentium did to the personal computing world.

“We believe the next major phenomenon is going to be on television,” said Eric Kim, vice-president in charge of Intel’s home entertainment division, on a recent visit to Ireland. “Until now, TV has been a one-way, broadcast-oriented device. There’s no reason why it can’t be a two-way communications device with the ability to connect and share content and services in a ubiquitous fashion.”

“Hollywood and the TV business are moving towards giving the full movie and TV experience, plus interactivity. This will be the start of a whole new era for TV.”

Ireland already has a global success story on its hands in the shape of Cork-based Digisoft which employs 45 people and has sales offices in Sydney, Denver, Singapore, Christchurch in New Zealand and Manchester in the UK. In 2005, Riverdeep founder Pat McDonagh invested €2.5m in the company, along with 4th Level Ventures, the venture capital arm of investment firm Dolmen Securities.

In recent weeks, Digisoft struck a deal with one of the biggest video retailers in the South Pacific. The Video Ezy/Blockbuster chain in Australia and New Zealand will deploy the firm’s new method for delivering the latest movies to consumers.

The deal includes the provision of an in-store kiosk with movie library, branded USB or iPod-type storage system and in-home Java set-top box. The deal gives Digisoft access to over 1,200 stores and some eight million customers. Another deal was struck last week with Thai operator Win TV that will see Digisoft’s IPTV service offered in 10,000 stores across Thailand and China.

DigiSoft executive chairman, Tom Higgins, explains that the company decided 18 months ago to strike up key partnerships with some of the world’s biggest technology companies, including EDS, Sun Microsystems, Tech Mahindra and Harris.

“Our strategy is about enabling telecoms operators and next-generation entertainment companies to achieve profitable new revenue streams.

“The world is moving to high-definition television. What’s pushing that is demand from consumers for higher quality television viewing. You will see that a lot of the Olympics will be broadcast in high-definition.”

While Dublin is home to electronics companies like Shenick, which is making security products for internet television, and RedMere, which makes semiconductors for high-definition cable systems like HDMI, the latest web TV start-up revolution is clearly a regional affair.

In Limerick, a new start-up called Web TV already employs 10 people in creating a high-definition TV service that allows internet users to pull together their own TV channels from media sharing sites like YouTube and MySpace and broadcast from the internet to TVs and mobile phones.

The company, set up by ex-DJ Alx Klive (pictured), has enabled over 35,000 people from 168 countries to set up their own TV channels. The site attracts more than 250,000 unique users a month.

“People are starting to put their own shows together, ranging from music compilations to genre-specific channels such as extreme mountain biking,” Klive explains.

Users simply identify the YouTube or MySpace video and can drag and drop the video file into the playlist.

“The interface is something we’ve worked very hard to make easy to use. There’s no learning curve required. My mum’s made a channel and if she can, anyone can.”

Klive says the service is high-definition capable. “We’ve employed techniques that improve the scaling and quality. It really depends on your video source. We’ve done tests where we’ve had videos running at 4Mbps and it looks stunning.”

In terms of using content from free hosted sites like YouTube and MySpace, Klive says it involved more negotiations with some sites than others and the signing of formal understandings.

“We had discussions with YouTube, for example, so it was aware of what we were doing. There is a whole movement towards interoperability between sites and creating mash-ups. We’re part of that. We provide value back to hosts in a number of ways and give them due credit and branding.”

In Wexford, another start-up called employs six people engaged in creating a new video broadcasting service that enables anyone with a mobile phone or PC to become a live broadcaster as events happen. In effect, it could turn teenagers everywhere into the new paparazzi.

“In a sense, we will enable people to speed up news dissemination,” explains Paul Kinsella, CEO of Ubcam. “If you are a teenager and you meet Colin Farrell on the street, you can interview him there and then and broadcast it to the web.

“Most content will be free but if people wish to make money out of it, we will enable a billing engine so when you start broadcasting you can set up a flat fee and open it up for $2 via PayPal for people to view.”

Users can also then push feeds onto their Facebook, Bebo or MySpace pages, tapping into a ready-made audience for their personal TV stations.

Kinsella says there are also security implications for the service. “If you witness a crime on the street and you filmed what happened, even if the perpetrator grabbed your phone, the live feed would be automatically saved to the internet.”

According to Kinsella, some 600,000 short movies are uploaded onto YouTube every day and this presents a very tempting market for to attack.

In Galway, one of the hottest tech start-ups yet to emerge in this country has quietly struck deals with six major Hollywood studios, as well as Microsoft, Toshiba and Samsung, to help the movie industry avoid suffering the same fate as the music industry, which has been crippled by internet piracy.

Portomedia has developed a new technology that allows movie lovers to access their favourite movies from petrol stations, coffee shops and video stores in an ATM machine-like manner using USB keys.

Portomedia is the brainchild of entrepreneur, Chris Armstrong, a physicist by profession. The company employs 26 people in Galway and is supported by private investors.

“Unlike the music business, which didn’t realise what the internet would do to its business, the movie industry is aware of the world going digital and doesn’t want to experience the same fate,” says Armstrong. “We decided to follow the money and we believe the money is in retail, another industry that has it all to lose at the moment.

“The technology functions exactly like a DVD, except instead of an aluminium disk, the movie will exist on a piece of silicon. The difference this time is the movie industry will have far more control over that silicon than giving it to some manufacturer in China.”

Armstrong says the technology is currently being trialled at specific locations in the West of Ireland and will debut in North America and Scandinavia later this year.

“Our investors came in organically. The Irish diaspora in the IT world is hugely influential and we were able to exploit that.

“The movie industry doesn’t see us as a threat but as an enabler,” Armstrong concludes. “A lot of people didn’t believe me when I presented the idea to them but Samsung, Toshiba and Microsoft got it right away.”

It is clear that despite all the high-profile bids for DTT licenses, regional technology companies with a little sound and plenty of vision have their eyes on a bigger prize.

Dream to create a digital ISFC could be a sound vision

Experts in digital media have called for the creation of an International Media Services Centre (IMSC) that would manage digital rights for Hollywood and the global music industry from Ireland.

Such a move could be considered as important to the nation’s economic future as the IFSC, which employs 14,000 people and collected over €700m in corporation tax since 2002.

According to Bartley O’Connor, an associate director at accountancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, the idea is that the IMSC would act as a clearing house to ensure studios could trade digital rights, while also availing of Ireland’s competitive corporate tax rate.

“There’s a good opportunity for Ireland Inc to grasp the digital media world and set it up as a centre of competence equal to the IFSC. Ireland can be a host for all kinds of digital media – content management, distribution, IP protection – if the right environment is put in place.”

Chris Armstrong, founder of Galway firm Portomedia, agrees. His company has secured a major deal with six Hollywood studios, as well as Microsoft, Samsung and Toshiba, to create a new secure mechanism for distributing DVDs.

“Trading media rights and using the Irish corporate tax break to incentivise media companies to manage global rights out of this country could create another IFSC,” he says. “We have brought this to a number of government ministers who have given us a hearing.”

By John Kennedy

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years