The iTV Doctor Is In! Can We Use Robots to Monitor iTV?

Dear Readers:

Back in the day (yeah, I know--the LAST century), an advertiser would pay for an ad to run in a given program at a given time, and pretty much that's how it happened. We had the occasional make-good, but for the most part, it worked.

Pretty simple stuff.






But now, with advanced and interactive advertising, there are a lot of things that can go wrong:

  • The interactive content doesn't sync to the ad, and doesn't playout anywhere.
  • It's actually the WRONG interactive content (imagine the Burger King overlay on top of the McDonald's ad).
  • The interactive content gets clogged in the pipes in a dozen systems, and a few hundred thousand cable subscribers don't even see the trigger.
  • The mixed deployment of set-top boxes in those same systems interpret both the trigger and the content differently, and the cable subscribers don't all see the same stuff at the same time.
  • And all this time a sophisticated piece of software is capturing "in-app" data, and measuring viewer response to content delivered. Except that software makes the assumption that all the content that was supposed to be delivered actually was delivered, and that's going to skew the analysis.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the programming network studios and operating centers are staffed by hands-on folks who actually want to see what they're delivering. They need to prove that the content has been delivered on-target and on-time. And they certainly need to be notified immediately if a problem occurs.

Of course, any given programming network could single-handedly reinvigorate the set-top box business by renting a few warehouses and installing a combination of headends and set-top boxes to approximate the topography of their delivery matrix.

But that's not going to happen.

Not too long ago, we spotted a similar problem with consumers setting up their in-home networks and home theater systems. And the solution was obvious: make a donation to the local Pizza Hut and invite any 13-year-old kid to your home. Within a hour, everything will be working perfectly. Of course, the good people at Best Buy monetized that concept with the Geek Squad (who cost a whole lot more than a pizza).

Now it's unlikely that anybody could afford to hire a few thousand 13-year-olds to monitor their interactive content. If for no other reason than the kids would get bored and make mistakes. And, of course, they'd each have to watch a few (or eventually a few dozen) networks simultaneously. And then they have to file reports the size of novellas on each day's viewing.
And we know how much 13-year-olds just love to do book reports.

The solution is actually robotic monitors. Little dudes who spend their days and nights watching television (this really does sound like 13-year-olds) and reporting back what they see.

I found one television-watching robot online, and I suspect he can be programmed to achieve the desired result. And he doesn't need pizza, just batteries.'

The Web site,, makes it sound fun: "Toy Recycling! Teach your old toys new tricks by adding servos, sensors, cameras and joysticks. Don't throw out those old toys, robotize them! Add facial tracking, color tracking, motion tracking, voice recognition and more to your old robot toys." The homepage video even shows how to make a robotic Teddy Ruxpin; imagine that little guy wandering around the house at night...

But I digress. Turns out the folks at Strategy & Technology Ltd. (S&T) can provide virtual television-watching robots. If you tell the robot it should see an overlay of a defined size, color, density and duration on a given channel at a given time, the robot will simply tell you "yes" or "no." It turns out the robots can't actually read, but they get pretty close.

And those same robots can work at any stage of the iTV process: design, development, pre-test, deployment test and, of course, full deployment. And they can report back in real time and with full history, with results displayed online or on the monitor wall at the operations center. Here's a link to the S&T site that describes their "TS Monitor" product.

S&T's technical director Nick Birch told me the robotic monitoring is currently available to monitor the output of the programming network operations center, to verify that the overlay goes out at the right time on the right channel. And within a few months they'll have the same capability through the use of RF inputs at individual cable systems, which goes a long way to providing the kind of proof of performance advertisers need.

Individual in-home monitoring, it turns out, is a long ways off. So if we want to make sure our stuff is reaching the consumers, we'll need to set up corporate accounts at Pizza Hut and start recruiting at the local middle schools. But we will see more of what makes the iTV industry work (and maybe not work) at the TV of Tomorrow NYC Intensive confab on December 5th.


The iTV Doctor is *Rick Howe*, who provides interactive television consulting services to programmers and advertisers. He is the recipient of a CTAM Tami Award for retention marketing and this year was nominated to Cable Pioneers. He is also the co-author of a patent for the use of multiscreen mosaics in EPG's. Endorsed by top cable and satellite distributors, "Dr" Howe still makes house calls, and the first visit is always free. His services include product development, distribution strategy and the development of low-cost interactive applications for rapid deployment across all platforms. Have a question for the iTV Doctor? Email him at

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