PARC to Make TV Watching More Social

Olga Kharif

Have you ever wished your buddies were right there, watching the game with you on days other than Super Bowl? The cheering, cursing and yacking that occur in front of the TV are precious, but most of us are too busy nowadays for too many such get-togethers. Soon, though, we might all be watching TV virtually, thanks to a technology called Social TV.

Being developed by scientists at the famed Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), credited with inventing the Ethernet and the laser printer, Social TV will allow geographically dispersed friends to chat and watch TV together.

The Social TV project is in research stages right now. But the idea is that, with the help of a bit of software, perhaps a keyboard or two and several strategically-placed microphones, people can remotely discuss a TV program while they are watching it. You’ll be able to see which of your buddies is watching which program in his or her house, and join into the viewing. Or, you might start a program-watching session of your own and invite friends.

Indeed, in many ways, Social TV will be similar to the Instant Messenger you already use on your computer. Only it will be more dynamic: Social TV software, located on a device like TiVo or even your TV set, might notice that your and your buddy’s yacking has gone well past the commercial break. The software would conclude that you are no longer watching the show and, perhaps, pause the program until you are ready to resume, says Nic Ducheneaut, member of PARC research staff.

The project is still in research stages, and lots of glitches are yet to be worked out. Last summer, PARC’s scientists placed two groups of people into separate living rooms and observed them as the subjects watched a TV program together. The rooms were equipped with microphones, so the group members could hear each other. The communication didn’t go too smoothly because the users missed out on each other’s body language. Here’s an example: When a commercial is over and you want your friend to stop talking, you’d normally turn your face toward the TV screen to indicate that you want to resume watching the show. The researchers are still looking for ways to enable the same with Social TV.

PARC researchers plan to conduct more experiments this coming summer and then develop a working prototype. After all, the idea is likely to be a hit with TV services providers, worried about loosing younger viewers. Many young men, a prime television advertising audience, increasingly opt to spend their time playing interactive video games. Teens are spending more time text-messaging each other. Perhaps a more interactive TV could reverse that trend and drive TV viewership up again.

Besides, many of us would love to have the social aspects of the Super Bowl experience without the dropped popcorn and the spilled beer.