Anxo Roibás, Riccardo Sala
Imagine a context of ubiquitous communication in which users will be free to choose the most appropriate interface to interact in the digital world . In other words, users will be able to exchange almost any kind of information, with anyone, on any machine, at any place and time. Inevitably, this incoming scenario will affect the TV experience: Users will not only be able to interact with TV programs with their own mobile devices, but also will have access to TV content and formats across these devices and outside the domestic context. But ubiquitous iTV, with the changes in production processes it necessitates, will create new social and technological challenges, not least in terms of usability and accessibility.
User behavior is changing: People are spending less time at home watching TV fixed to a monitor. As some popular reality-TV formats, such as Big Brother and Pop Idol (American Idol in the United States) have proved, the integration of wireless devices (mainly SMS and WAP) can become an extension of the TV experience outside the home.
These reality-TV programs show another phenomenon: how TV opens doors to members of the public who are interested in having a primary role. Democratization is taking place backstage too, as TVs develop mechanisms to increase viewer participation and feedback. These trends can be characterized as the evolution of viewers to participants. This movement is being fostered by the diffusion of interactive TV technologies  (See figure 1).
iTV gives these newly active viewers the opportunity to extend their use of the television to activities more familiar to the Internet. They can browse information on topics of interest, personalize their viewing choices, play interactive games, conduct ecommerce-related activities (shopping, banking, betting, etc.) and contribute increasingly to broadcasting. However, iTV cannot simply be seen as a fusion of the Internet and traditional TV: It has its own dynamics.
The United Kingdom has emerged as the European market leader in the consolidation of the interactive TV industry. However, some obstacles must still be overcome in order to accelerate the diffusion (or acceptance) of iTV in Europe in mainstream audiences.
The existing interface of the conventional remote control falls short of providing the full potential experience of an interactive system. The current experience is limited to one viewer of a set at a time. In addition, the TV remote control doesn’t track the interaction of each user, so it can’t provide personalized services.
With the introduction of interactive television, the act of watching television will be transformed from a linear interaction into a two-dimensional surfing experience. In this new environment, the user will be able to multitask between different screens and applications as they currently do on the PC . This will be possible, however, only with clear navigation and careful arrangement of all the navigable objects so the text is legible on the screen display . The TV remote control, which has had no substantial improvements during the 50 years of its existence, is overdue for a new design approach.
Most iTV systems also provide a wireless keyboard to facilitate typing whenever the application requires data entry (e.g., for chat or e-mail). This interface presents the typical accessibility problems of any keyboard (such as lack of tactile or acoustic feedback).1
Most iTV users don’t have much experience with the Internet . Moreover, recent surveys have shown that interactive viewers don’t want to replicate the Internet navigation behavioral system (which is related to a PC environment) when they interact with interactive TV .
Ubiquitous iTV, incorporating, as we predict, mobile devices such as mobile phones and personal digital assistants, might improve on existing remote control mechanisms in three ways:
- Overcoming current limitations on iTV remote control (and keyboard) interaction such as one control shared by many users. Each member of the audience has his or her own interactive tool, without need of sharing it with others. Moreover, for some suitable TV formats, such as multiplayer games, users can easily interact with TV programs in public places.
- Offering context-sensitive information and activities through tracking the user’s personal activity history and preferences (using artificial intelligence processing) on wireless handheld sets, so that content is related to the particular location, time, identity, and state of the user. This asset can become powerful for different purposes such as interactive ads, emergency and health, travel information, and learning.
- Studying how users might use their handheld devices to create (taking pictures, shooting video) and share created contents, becoming "producers."
Research in Europe has already demonstrated improvements to the traditional remote control.
Technical improvements to third-generation (3G) devices will endow handheld devices with features such as high-resolution screen, good audio performance, high memory, and long battery autonomy. This opens the possibility of new functions such as video streaming and music downloading on handsets. It is then easy to imagine how it will be possible not only to reproduce particular formats of TV programs in mobile devices, but also to create personalized programs to the user’s preferences. The successful reality-TV formats will find their highest expression in ubiquitous interactive TV systems.
If we look to the future of 3G technology, when Universal Mobile Telecommunications System (UMTS) technologies will allow the convergence of four different mediaInternet, mobile Internet and in-car navigation, iTV, and the smart-home systemwe may expect to approach a scenario of ubiquitous communication. TV, as one of the most powerful media, could easily benefit from the ubiquity of this technology.
Much work still needs to be done in order to create relevant ubiquitous iTV formats and to reach a satisfactory level of usability and accessibility for these ubiquitous interactive systems. Organizations such as the European Telecommunications Standards Institute should have a primary role in the standardization of the technology so it can be more easily implemented across systems and encourage more standard interface controls.
U-TV (ubiquitous TV) research discussed in this paper is based on findings conducted at the SCIMS, University of Brighton, and the School of Design, Politecnico de Milano.
Anxo Cereijo Roibás is Senior Lecturer at the University of Brighton and Contract Professor at the Faculty of Design of the Politecnico di Milano University. He holds a Ph.D. in Industrial Design from the Politecnico di Milano. He holds a MSc in Design Direction from the Domus Academy, a Licenciatura in Industrial Engineering from University of Navarra, and a Laurea in Management and Production Engineering from the Politecnico di Milano.
Riccardo Sala is a freelance new media HCI designer. He holds an MA in Interactive Media from The Dublin Institute of Technology, and a post-graduate degree in Communication Design from the Politecnico di Milano.
1 Recent experiments of accessibility testing at the usability labs of the School of Computing of the Univerisity of Brighton have confirmed that TV users prefer typing with their own mobile devices accompanied by a readable on-screen keyboard.
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