MAJORITY REPORT: SeeSpace and User Interface Pioneer Dale Herigstad bring Augmented Television to the Masses

By Will Kreth

@wkreth

Ownership.  It’s the root of the quest to make TV content more interactive – and it never seems completely within reach. Ownership has been the missing cotter pin –keeping the wheels of great ITV ideas off the TV screen. Who owns the content and what interactive rights are on the table, or not – has c-blocked US ITV innovation for the past 20+ years.

Indeed, it’s no exaggeration to say that the second-screen TV content movement would be less necessary if domestic content owners and distributors had more readily agreed upon an ITV business model. By their very nature, second-screen companion apps on consumer tablets and smartphones disintermediate MVPDs and connect fans directly with the show creators and programmers. The downside is the perpetual state of split-attention and focus. Users are asked to divide their viewing between two screens – and while innovation is flourishing, audiences are mixed on the true value the second-screen adds to the experience of, um – watching TV.

But what if we didn’t have to glance at a second-screen for additional interactive content?  What if we could both watch TV and navigate layers of rich, contextually-relevant content about what we were watching?  The programmers and MVPDs may control the X and Y axes of shows on our LCD displays – but who owns the Z axis? The Z Space? Who owns the real estate in front of the TV?   That was the question bothering user interface pioneer and 4 time Emmy® Award winner Dale Herigstad  (who, to the ITVT.com community, needs no introduction –but you can see his bio here). Herigstad’s buzzed-about new company – SeeSpace – just raised more than $100K on Kickstarter for their first product, InAiR.
 

“Today, the web is often the 1st screen that we’re paying attention to, even while peripherally watching TV. But we still love TV.”

 

Like a modern-day William J. Wilgus, (chief engineer of the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad and the father of the concept of selling “air rights” above Manhattan’s Grand Central Terminal and Park Avenue train tunnel),  Herigstad thought – why not build a platform on the space in-front of the 55” displays decorating America’s (and the world’s) living room walls?  The space that customers, ostensibly, own?

“Today, the web is often the 1st screen that we’re paying attention to, even while peripherally watching TV,” says the London-based Herigstad. “But we still love TV. Our solution is essentially Augmented Television; meant to truly augment the experience of watching TV, not replace or distract viewers from it. We virtually lift what was flat on the TV – off the screen – and place it into a new information space between the viewer and the screen.”

Basically, InAiR is a small, internet-connected HDMI device that sits between a conventional STB and the TV display. Pulling TV content-related data from a variety of web sources (such as Wikipedia, IMDB, various social networks and more to be announced), the InAiR interface can be navigated via gestural controllers like Leap Motion and Xbox Kinect, or with a standard smartphone app. “The metaphor is essentially the same either way – we’re both touch gestural and air gestural,” says Herigstad.  Working both with 3D and 2D displays, SeeSpace acknowledges that many people don’t have 3DTVs – so much of the same experience is still available in 2D, but Herigstad says the SeeSpace team is excited about the added dimension that 3DTVs can provide when paired with InAiR. “The layered look is baked into our chipset. InAiR will allow you to virtually move items around in the layers in front of the TV content.” 

 

“By changing my focus, I felt like I was almost on the [Olympic] ice. It’s what I call ‘eye editorial’ – I’m editing by where I focus my eyes.

 

For Herigstad, the road to InAiR has followed his career arc. “I was on the research team of the movie Minority Report (the Steven Spielberg film based on the Philip K. Dick novel) back in 1999, contributing to the look of the interfaces simulated in the film. I went on to work with PrimeSense, which developed the gestural technology that was incorporated into the first Xbox Kinect (the technology was eventually bought by Apple).  I later developed a gestural interface specifically for TV.   But even further back, in 1998 – while working at the Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan – I was inspired about the spatial feel of the earliest HD video and computer graphics feeds of the hockey competition. By changing my focus, I felt like I was almost on the ice. It’s what I call ‘eye editorial’ – I’m editing by where I focus my eyes.”

“So, you could see the trajectories leading to these kinds of interfaces back in the ‘90s.  With Minority Report – we were thinking 40 to 60 years in the future.  In this industry, 5-10 years from now is where you have to think.  We built a hardware device to enable the software to make these kinds of dimensional UIs possible, and while both are necessary - the magic is in the software.”

While conceptually years in gestation, the actual company came together rather quickly. “My business partner Nam Do and I first came together when he was working on Emotiv (the brain-wave controller seen at previous TV of Tomorrow shows) – and I helped him launch that product. That was more of a neuroscience play, and our new venture is not as technical – but our deep-tech is more about ACR and content-focused. He was in London about 1 ½ years ago, and I showed him my augmented TV ideas. He was quite enthusiastic about it and we’ve been working on SeeSpace since that time.  We also recruited Anne-Marie Rousell (a serial investor and former senior exec at Gartner, Sharp TV and Microsoft) and Jerry Gramaglia (former president of ETrade, CMO of Pepsi and chairman of Axicom).  Nam has both tech and business experience, and both Anne-Marie and Jerry has more venture, investment and marketing experience. “We launched both the company (at CES 2014) and the Kickstarter campaign the same week.”
 

“For us, Kickstarter is not just about the money – it’s about having a test-bed for ideas

 

“We went to Kickstarter after facing investment reluctance from the venture community,” says Herigstad. “For us, Kickstarter is not just about the money – it’s about having a test-bed for ideas.” These days, investors want to see actually working products and interest from potential customers.   “Two models we discuss are B2C and B2B – starting with the former to prove out the concept and remaining open to the latter, through potential licensing deals.”  

And anyone who’s ran a campaign on Kickstarter knows that backers love Transparency  (with a capital “T”) – not just slick videos and slideware.  SeeSpace, with Nam’s deep tech experience – was ready to show bare-metal / circuit board rich hardware prototypes - documenting their process and the tangible nature of the development team’s work. As one of my college professors told me, “Show, Don’t Tell.”  

“Over many years, I’ve ranted about how terrible the graphics processing power has been on set-top boxes  We look at our device as something that “turboizes” the current generation of STBs and connected/smart TVs,” says Herigstad.   InAiR surfaces and reveals additional programming and advertising metadata in what Herigstad calls a “step-by-step” approach,  with the use of scaled video (or “squeezed back” video picture)  - the team knew they had to include video scaling to make InAiR usable – with smooth animations and logical interaction design.

 

[Studies] show that we’re lousy multitaskers across screens. When our attention is split, our information retention is reduced.”   

 

“We’re inviting a new way to interact with information.  Multiple academic studies (from Michael Holmes’ team at Ball State University and the late Clifford Nass’ work at Stanford) show that we’re lousy multitaskers across screens. When our attention is split, our information retention is reduced.”  Indeed - where this is dangerous is in driving our cars. Where this is mildly annoying is watching the Super Bowl and missing a big play.

Culturally – it’s possible that audiences are ready for it, with the advent of HTML5’s parallax feature, and a new crop of 3D movies that better integrate the tech into the storyline beyond “Avatar” (e.g. - Iron Man, Gravity), as well as pop culture events like the hologram of Tupac Shakur at the Coachella Music Festival in 2012 – or will.i.am’s hologram on CNN’s Presidential Election night coverage in 2008.  So, it’s possible that 3DTV isn’t dead, but it has just gone through the classic product lifecycle “trough of sorrow” –  as auto-stereoscopic technology is still a few years away.  Where the iPhone and iPad weren’t the first touchscreen devices of their kind, they did synthesize many disparate ideas into a new valuable model.  3DTV didn’t reinvent 3D (or TV), but it should have raised the bar further when it was introduced (and gotten rid of the glasses).

“We’re also about configurability,” says Herigstad.  “Both users and developers will be able to configure the data feeds and social networks of their choice.  Just like Flipboard, we configure these touch interfaces for news with the custom content and media brands we want to see.  From our cloud-based content library, we offer up choices to the user.  Our SDK (available summer 2014) will further allow developers to customize the interface. The curatorial portion of our product falls into several categories.  – It can come from the content providers themselves (with business relationships), but what we haven’t seen enough of  - yet - is parsing what the audience wants to see. It could be keyword-driven (like closed-captioning – or from trending topics and hashtags on Twitter) – the possibilities are wide open.  We will have a combination of both partnerships and our own algorithmic methods to curate the content. But over the years, I’ve stood firmly on the side of the customer.”

Herigstad promises that InAiR will also have simple, built-in gestural methods for bookmarking and tagging both ads and content for later review. This will inevitably lead to new metrics of engagement for brand experiences – available to both programmers and advertisers – revealing new monetization opportunities. The company is also watching the progress of Bluetooth Low-Energy (or BLE) tech, also known as iBeacon – thinking about ways their tech can work with it to create public-space environments.

The visual representation of music is an area that tech geeks and music geeks never quite get it right. Services like Beats Music, Pandora, Spotify, iTunes Radio and others could all bring rich contextual music metadata to the music viewing experience.  Vinyl sales are rising because younger and older audiences want to get closer to the tangibility of the music and the story behind it.  Herigstad agrees:  “The kings of album cover art in the ‘70s, folks like Roland Young, or Storm Thorgerson and the team at Hipgnosis – imagine what they could do with this technology – to embed and reveal the story behind the backstory. People want more than just the bits.”

“We’re stepping into a future world where graphics and information are actually in space,” says Herigstad.  “That could come from wearable tech (like Google Glass), but I don’t care how we get there.  I want to take that immersive experience and bring the data into the real world.”

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Will Kreth is a multi-screen interactive media strategist based in NYC, working at the crossroads of Connected TVs and Mobile experiences that are powered by innovative brands and digital storytelling.  You can reach him on LinkedIn or Twitter.