Interview: Alticast's New Interactive TV Social Media Platform, AltiConnect

At the CableLabs Summer Conference Innovation Showcase earlier this month (see the article published on itvt.com, August 18th), interactive TV software specialist, Alticast (whose areas of expertise include DVB-MHP, OCAP/tru2way, EBIF, IPTV and mobile TV), unveiled its AltiConnect Social Media platform, which it says lets pay-TV subscribers interact with sponsored Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare campaigns from their TV set.

According to the company's Innovation Showcase materials, AltiConnect enables programmers to "provide an interactive social media experience that maintains the viewer's focus on watching television"; enables operators "not only to measure subscriber participation and monetize success, but also to measure the campaign's success within social networks"; and includes "lightweight EBIF and OCAP application templates as well as Web-based campaign management and measurement tools that implement the CableLabs SaFI specifications."

In this RECORDED EPISODE of [itvt]'s talk radio show, "Radio [i]tvt" (note: an unedited transcript of the interview is also available below), Chris Ulmer, Alticast's director of application solutions, and Anne Dirkse, the company's director of technical services, application solutions, provide a detailed overview of AltiConnect, the strategy behind the new platform, and Alticast's plans for it going forward.


TRANSCRIPTION

[itvt]: Welcome to the show  Chris and Anne!  How are you?

ULMER:     Thanks, Tracy.  We're happy to be there.  We're doing great!

[itvt]: Hi, Anne.  Are you out there?

DIRKSE:     Yes, I am, as well.

[itvt]: Well, obviously there's a lot going on in this space  At Alticast, there always seems to be some new platform that you are introducing.  It always seems to be a company that's percolating and innovating and trying to really improve the TV process.  I guess I don't hear about all the bad stuff.  It just seems like it's an energetic company.  

Before we go into this new platform, can you explain a little bit about the developer community and why it's in South Korea?  Why that's a significant contributor to the innovations that happen at Alticast.

ULMER:     Sure.  Yes.  Absolutely.

As you mentioned, we do have a large developer community in Korea.  The market is standards-based across cable, satellite and IPTV.  That's unique.  So Korea's done a great job of adopting the GEM-based standards.  We have tru2way and GEM-based IPTV, and GEM-based satellite, as well.

What we're starting to see now is, a lot of the major operators are adopting these advance platforms; and the emergence of a lot of great services.  What we're starting to see in the market is the major differentiator between operators is that level of service.

Everybody's been able to take advantage of the advance platforms, so it's been great.  Being from the US, when we get to visit Korea, it's been a great opportunity for us to see really where these services can head, because it is an interesting market.

[itvt]: Have they really embraced the Connected TV model in South Korea?  What kinds of technologies are over there right now that you get to see all the time?

ULMER:     Yes.  They have embraced the Connected TV model.  Actually, convergence, in general.  So we're seeing advanced services.  Things like healthcare stocks, a lot of lifestyle-type applications.  And games -- things like karaoke are very popular in Korea.

We're also seeing expansion of things like TV Anywhere.  In fact, we've got a partner called KT Telecom, and we're developing a TV Anywhere strategy with them that's been deployed.  It allows subscribers to log into their account and watch streaming, live content from their PC and mobile devices.

[itvt]: So the platform we're discussing today -- AltiConnect…  Can you, in your words, explain a little bit about what this is and why you have decided to develop it?

ULMER:     Sure.  Absolutely.  I'll talk about what it is, and I think Anne is a better person to talk about our thought process and why we developed it.  So I'll start off by saying AltiConnect is an interactive social media platform that allows cables, satellite and IPTV subscribers to connect with the content and brands they like through the television experience.

So we've been developing this for almost about 7 or 8 months now, and we've seen a lot of traction in the market.

DIRKSE:     The focus of AltiConnect is on simple viewer interaction.  We think there's a lot of power in social media, and there's also a lot of power in existing ITV platforms today.

So our first take at this really -- our first version of AltiConnect -- is focused on simple sharing scenarios and simple connection scenarios between a content provider and a viewer.  That's something like being able to share content on Facebook and being able to follow someone on Twitter, and being able to establish connections via Foursquare, as well.

To achieve the widest possible base of potential users...we've focused on this very simple experience.  It's a one-click experience from an authorized set-top box that allows the viewer to  connect to these brands.


[itvt]: There are a lot of companies in our space that are trying to develop, build or have built a Facebook app or Twitter app, and people have flirted with the idea of making them ready for cable set-top boxes.  A full-blown platform for this; maybe not.

In the connected-TV space, people are able to produce that kind of experience.  But in the cable world, obviously it's more challenging because it's a more delicate network operational experience.

Can you talk about why this platform works in that sort of larger, big-time environment?  I believe it's also EBIF-enabled.  Correct?  Or it could be EBIF-enabled?

DIRKSE:     Yes.  Currently we've built out EBIF and GEM-based platforms.  That applies to EBIF, of course, OCAP or tru2way and Blu-ray and MHP.  So we've tried to achieve the widest-possible base.

Your question about the other IPTV applications that are doing Facebook and Twitter today -- we see those as very intriguing experiences in a lot of ways.  But they're very similar to what you see in terms of a user experience from Facebook.com or Twitter.com, where you have access to pictures your friends have posted, status updates about what people are doing.

We think that's really intriguing, but for a wide deployment, it's going to be about simple experiences first, and then focusing on more-complex experiences, later.

So what we've really tried to parallel is the Like button or the Re-tweet button or the Share button that you'll see on web pages today, where the focus is on content, as opposed to Facebook.com.

[itvt]: You bring up an interesting point.  Do something simple now and move into the complex, later.  Why do you think offering people something simple now is the way to go?  Is it because millions of people out there are not used to using the Internet or used to using complex Facebook applications?  So...you're sort of making sure you're enabling this for the common denominator?  Or is it just because -- like I said -- the cable or satellite networks are complex, and you don't want to shoot something down the set-top box that's too complex?

ULMER:     Right.

I think one of the things that we're looking at is, we're paralleling two things, here.  We're looking at how content providers are connecting with their target audiences today.  We're also balancing that with the capabilities of today's networks across cable, satellite and IPTV.

With that, the main navigation device today is the remote-control.  I know there's a lot of talk about iPads, and we can obviously bridge to those devices when they come online.  But really, if you take a look at those key areas, content-providers are using social media to connect with their target audiences today.

But they say it's a 2-screen or a 3-screen type of experience.  And operators have a large footprint of boxes across their networks.  We thought that the way for them to get the most out of this system and to create business models to help them monetize this service…  We wanted to hit the largest footprint possible.

[itvt]: Let's talk about that.  This is not middleware.  This is another layer that would sit on top of the middleware.  Correct?

ULMER:     Yes.  Basically it's an interactive application.

[itvt]: Now since this is a social-TV experience and you're calling it a "platform," rather than just a simple app to produce Facebook or Twitter…  It's a full-blown social-media platform…  What are its advantages?

Can it grab the data from the cable or satellite operator or the IPTV operator?  Can it do more?  In other words, could it potentially manage commerce experiences in the future?  Because the thing about Facebook is that there's a lot of opportunity for fan-based communications about different TV shows.  Is that part of the future of this application where it could be a social-TV platform, where fans could talk and perhaps buy things from each other or from the broadcasters?

Am I thinking too far in advance about that?

DIRKSE:     No.  I think we see a lot of trends that are emerging in social media, and just the connected world, in general.  Clearly, commerce -- both through social media and apart from social media -- is a huge target. When we look at the potential for these social networks, I think we're only starting to see it at the cusp.  We look into location-based services -- virtual currencies, et cetera…  There are so many opportunities that this is going to provide. So by achieving the widest-possible platform initially, we think that we're really opening the doors for that.

In terms of your question about advantages, though, I think what we tried to do with AltiConnect is to encapsulate a lot of the complexities.  Both on the social media side and on the ITV side, as well.  So we've all been working with ITV for a long time, and while our expertise is clearly in the GEM-based platforms, we think that having the widest possible profile is going to be advantageous to monetizing this and to making it something that consumers widely accept.

So to that end, we're trying to be flexible initially and drive toward these additional monetizable opportunities in the future -- including commerce.  Some examples of that would be that we're focusing on -- specifically -- application templates.  Making it very easy for a content provider to take an existing campaign that is on social media or the Web, and to directly integrate that into the TV experience.

One example that we've been using there is sharing a clip on Facebook.  You can leverage actually an existing video clip that's on a Web site or on YouTube, and actually share that on a Facebook page.  Potentially even driving the viewer back eventually to cable, etc., and Web-based DVR systems.

[itvt]: So in this environment they can be much more selective about the aspects of the different social networks they want to use, or other resources -- like you said…  YouTube…and integrate the two and perhaps be innovative.

There's room for a whole group of third parties or developers to come in and explore this platform and the resources on the Web.  Correct?

DIRKSE:     Yes.  We believe very strongly that convergence is a very real and important trend.  There are, of course, multiple connected devices that have exponentially increasing support for advanced services.

When you look at things like Augmented Reality that obviously you're a big fan of on mobile -- [3G] experiences and the television experience…  We see that as pretty much a holistic experience from the users' perspective, as we move into the future.

So what we're trying to do here is leverage the power of the network more than the UI experience that's provided by ITV today.

[itvt]: Are you telling me that this could be a platform environment…?  We're calling it an application that could deliver the social-TV experience to external devices in a TV Everywhere setting.  Perhaps from cable.  And it might be able [to be integrated with] Augmented Reality?  Or is that just sort of thrown in for my benefit because you know I like that stuff?

DIRKSE:     No.  One of the features that AltiConnect supports today is Foursquare integration. One of the use cases that we've been looking at, and that we do support actually, is adding a to-do on Foursquare.  So using layers, for example, if you activate the Foursquare layer, you have access to tips that you've added when you're in the vicinity to net locations.

We think those sorts of location-based services are only going to expand.  So by being able to essentially bookmark a place when you're watching location-based content…  For example, a show that features a restaurant…  There's a powerful model there to take content that you view on television that's location-based, and to pull that into the actual world that consumers live in and purchase items in, as well.

[itvt]: You mentioned templates and things like that.  Are those going to be ready for people right away or it's [built so] templates can be developed?  How flexible is this platform so that operators working with third-party developers can create the experience that they want?  How easy is this thing to use?

ULMER:     Yes.  AltiConnect is a very flexible platform.  We do have some ETV and tru2way templates, like Anne mentioned earlier.  Those are for our proof-of-concept type of applications so that we can illustrate our points to a content provider.

Or if those people want to have just for trials and things like that. We also have the flexibility built in (and this is kind of more to your question about developers), we've got API support for the platform, as well.  So if there's an existing application developer out there, they can actually incorporate the AltiConnect APIs and incorporate that social experience with their existing applications.  We've seen a lot of traction with that, with some of the major content providers.

[itvt]: The cable operators are all excited about the iPad.  Does this application translate to developing an iPad application that would work in reverse with their TV Everywhere service?  Or are we not there yet?

DIRKSE:     Sure.  So we think the important thing that we're doing with AltiConnect is really taking an interactive experience and tying it to content.  We believe very strongly that the television experience is a unique experience and a very important experience to viewers.  So we're trying to focus on that, and provide a mechanism for connecting into that.

As to the actual device, we think that the prominence of the remote control today is an important thing to address, but we fully believe that there is going to be a multi-device opportunity in the future to create a much more integrated experience, and we are completely in favor of that.

[itvt]: Is this in trial anywhere?  Or has it been released to friendlies?

ULMER:     We are in a lot of discussions.  We had a very successful CableLabs Summer Conference this year.  Those discussions are ongoing.

I would say, "Stay tuned!"  It's probably coming to a lab near you.

[itvt]: Will we see this at IBC?

DIRKSE:     Yes.

ULMER:     Yes, you will.  Anne and Jeff Bonin, our VP of business development and marketing, will both be at IBC this year, at the Alticast exhibit.  We have a very large exhibit at IBC, so if anybody's listening, definitely stop by and they'd be happy to talk to you about AltiConnect.

[itvt]: Okay.  Great.  Are there any other services that you are thinking of integrating that you  haven't mentioned yet?  You mentioned the three -- Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare.

DIRKSE:     Yes.  I think we see those as primary services that viewers are using today.  Particularly the content providers are using them to connect with viewers today.  Those are what we've focused on because we think there's a significant momentum with all three of those platforms.

But clearly, especially when you look at the location-based space, there's a lot of competition for Foursquare.  And we're committed to following what viewers and content providers are actively doing today and in the future.  And accordingly accommodating those additional networks.  

So we support authorization via OAuth and also via OpenSocial.  That includes a lot of additional and smaller-platform and regionally-specific platforms.  We're very easily able to move into additional platforms that way.

[itvt]: I thought we were going to close with the discussion of where you're going to show, but I also forgot to ask…  It seems to also manage advertising in this context.  Is that correct?  There's room for delivering ad banners or ad campaigns inside the social network experiences.  Is that correct?

ULMER:     That's right.  Yes.  So what we're looking at now is offering a couple of different ways of doing advertising.  One is sponsorship within the client application itself.  So that could be sponsored by, say, the network operator or it could be sold off as another sponsorship that's related to what's going on in the content.

And we also see a lot of value in what we're calling "relationship-based advertising."  It's related to the Foursquare experience.  Say you're watching a program where they're featuring a restaurant in New York City and you're headed to New York next week.  By adding that "to-do," we're going to know and be able to track, using the metrics and all, and the capabilities of the system…  We'll be able to track where that to-do came from.

That can be sponsored by the content provider.  That could have sponsorship opportunities with the restaurant itself in the form of a coupon or discount, which are normal things that appear on Foursquare today.  We see opportunities for operators and content providers there, as paths to revenue.

[itvt]: I can't think of the name of it, but I ran into this really great service the other day, where people get together and recommend dishes.  Actual dishes at restaurants, rather than the restaurants themselves.  So if you're looking for a particular type of food, people will tell about their favorite dishes that they found, and you can locate those.  I should let you know about that.

Anyway, it made me think of that.  Because the whole thing about the social [TV] experience is that people want to share their lives with [each other].  It'd be great to see the advertisers be able to be part of that experience and people be able to talk about the things that they love at the same time.

ULMER:     Absolutely!

One of the things we've learned is that everyone has his own way of looking at social media and social networking and ITV.  So we've built a lot of flexibility into the system to develop multiple business models.

We have models for licensing, for sponsorship, and for using metrics selections.  Things like SaFI and social media metrics.  We can actually measure success -- pay-for-success -- type models, as well.  So we've built a lot of that into the platform to provide flexibility to our core customers, which are operators and content providers.

[itvt]: You're calling this a platform.  Is this a platform or an application?

DIRKSE:     We have a series of client templates that we provide to the system, and then we have a Web-based management system, which allows for campaigns to be scheduled from a content provider, and for the various operational aspects to be managed, as well.  Then finally, of course, on the social media side, we've got separate applications which connect to those various platforms.

So we see it as a very thin-client experience where we're keeping, for the reasons at this point of the legacy boxes, as much of the logic and implementation in the Web-based management system as possible.

The client is very easily able to send a small amount of data that is interpreted by the Web-based system, and accordingly to those campaigns that are executed.  This keeps it simple for the viewer, and it keeps it simple for the content provider.  And it minimizes testing and integration for deployment with operators.

[itvt]: How easily or how quickly can this be installed?  Is this a week or a month process?  Does it require a lot of testing?  How complex or how easy is this?

DIRKSE:     At this point, we are looking to go to trial.  I think that a lot of the complexities that exist in ITV systems today is exactly what we're attempting to manage here.  So one of our major goals in going to trial is to specifically address that question, and to look at any potential issues that would make deployment more difficult.  We think there are very few.

But to address those in a trial experience, so that we have a very easy-to-use platform for operators.

ULMER:     We've got a lot of global deployment experience.  Really, I think what we've done is taken a lot of that experience and know-how and applied that to a product that we feel has a lot of traction with today's systems.  It's a mainstream value-added service that subscribers are using today through other platforms like PC or mobile.  And it provides a clear path to monetization for operators and content providers.  I think that's what we've been focused on at this point.

When you take a look at some of the templates and things that we have, we have participated in a lot of the CableLabs interops and tested it on multiple user agents and various networks through that experience.  So we've been doing a lot of testing that way.

Like Anne said, we're really focused right now on getting trials going and making sure that everything scales properly.

We see that this is a platform that can be easily integrated with today's ITV systems.

DIRKSE:     And we've also focused on standards-based implementation here.  So we have done everything possible in designing the system to make it as easy as possible to deploy.  We are integrating with SaFi Systems and really paying attention to what's happening in trials and deployments today.

[itvt]: Well I hope you will show this at our conference coming up.  TVOT NYC.  We're certainly going to have the satellite and cable operators there.  They're interested in social TV and commerce, and rolling out things that are EBIF ready or at least take advantage of the national ITV platforms.  It sounds like this might be one of those applications that needs to be discussed.

Congratulations!  I hope you get some trials underway and I'm sure we'll hear about it very soon!

DIRKSE:     Absolutely.  We're very much looking forward to your show.  You always do a great job with TV of Tomorrow, and we're looking forward to seeing you in New York.

[itvt]: Okay.  Thanks!  You, too!

All right.  Thanks so much.  I really appreciate it.  Keep us up to date!

ULMER:     Thank you.  We appreciate your time.

[itvt]: Thanks, Chris.  Thanks, Anne.

DIRKSE:     Thank you.

ULMER:     Bye-bye.

[itvt]: This is Tracy Swedlow from InteractiveTV Today.  We were speaking to Chris Ulmer and Anne Dirkse from Alticast.  That's ALTICAST.tv. And there's also Alticast.com -- correct?  Are you still there?  Oh -- they've gone.

ULMER:     No, I'm here.  It is Alticast.com.

[itvt]: It is dot-com.  Thanks so much for being on the show.  You'll be able to download this show anytime from our Web site, ITVT.com, once it's launched -- which will be very soon.  We appreciate your time.  Stay tuned for our TV of Tomorrow Show.  More information at thetvoftomorrowshow.com, and for our daily news at ITVT.com.

Thanks and speak to you next time!


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