What will your TV look like in five years' time? The screen in your living room may be about to be transformed by the union of television broadcasting and online social networking.
This week, Google's chief Eric Schmidt announced that in the next month or so Google TV will go live in the US.
Google joins a host of other internet companies that want to transform our viewing habits by integrating TV with interactive web features. So far, all have failed. The trouble is, services like Apple TV and Roku tend to allow us only to stream stuff on-demand from the internet, but without any live TV. Others, such as TiVo and Microsoft, provide live TV, but with only limited access to the web. Google claims it will bring together live TV and unfettered access to the web for the first time.
Yet many researchers and tech analysts say the most profound change to our TV habits will come via technology that allows us to share and socialise via our screens. The winners of the battle for digital domination in our living rooms, they argue, will be those who work out how to draw on the success of social networks such as Twitter and Facebook. New Scientist has spoken to some of the activists of this potential social TV revolution to get a glimpse of what will be on the box tomorrow.
The premise of social TV is simple: allow people to easily share and discuss the shows they are watching, no matter where they are – be it recommending the next episode of True Blood or participating in a goal celebration.
Some people think of TV viewing as a solitary experience. But, says Marie-José Montpetit at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who is developing an experimental social TV system called Nextream, ever since the birth of TV we have been talking to each other during broadcasts. And now we're using online social networks in the same way. "The Twitter servers were brought down by the World Cup because people were exchanging views about it," she says.
Social TV could soon usurp TV guides, because the huge number of channels is so overwhelming to navigate, says Greg Goldman of Philo, a social TV application launched in July.
According to a 2008 study by consultancy Parks Associates, based in Dallas, Texas, 20 per cent of people in the US want TV recommendations from friends and to chat with fellow viewers. What's more, a quarter of them are happy to share the stuff they watch.
Rate, recommend, comment
The seeds of this social revolution are already sprouting. The BBC's iPlayer now allows users to rate and recommend programmes through the likes of Facebook. Others like Philo and Tunerfish also use existing networks but are more interactive, by pushing comments to a smartphone app.
Boxee goes a step further by integrating social and video features on the same screen through a computer media player. However, the content is limited to online on-demand sites like Netflix.
Herein lies one of the major hurdles to social TV: the availability of content. Broadcasters are unlikely to hand over their programmes to social TV without getting a sure reward, says Montpetit. However, social TV could make it easier for advertisers to target particular social groups, Goldman points out.
Another big issue is design. User studies have shown that people dislike cluttered comments on their screens, says Montpetit. Nextream's solution is to use a touchscreen smartphone to control the TV, and to read or make comments.
Google has far kept quiet about whether its TV will include social networking, but it has hinted that Jinni.com – a site that creates themed TV channels based on user feedback – will play a role.