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Your TV experience is about to get a whole lot more social, with government researchers partnering with the ABC to bring Twitter and Facebook integration to virtually any show on any channel.

The technology, developed by the Australian Centre for Broadband Innovation, displays tweets about a show overlaid on top of the TV image and is also able to recommend shows based on previous behaviour and on what the viewer’s Facebook friends are watching.

“It’s about allowing people to engage a little more than they have been able to in the past with what they’re watching,” said ABC’s manager of new media services, Chris Winter, in a phone interview.

The system also recommends shows based on what friends are watching and your previous behaviour.
The system also recommends shows based on what friends are watching and your previous behaviour.

“One of the great prompters of conversation is what you’re watching on the telly. In the past we sit in the lounge room and talk to the person sitting next to us, in the future it will become easier and easier to engage with people who are not in the same room.”

The first trials are due to kick off in June, and the government researchers are even developing special set-top boxes that they are considering spinning off into commercial products.

The ABC has in recent years been showing curated tweets during its Q&A program on Monday nights, with the ABC revealing yesterday that one million Q&A tweets had been sent from 75,000 accounts since 2009.

The system can display social media information alongside program listings for each show.
The system can display social media information alongside program listings for each show.

But this new technology takes it a step further by adding a recommendation engine and the ability to view tweets or friends’ status updates for any show, not just those selected by the broadcasters.

“It’s a great step to have a few curated tweets during the show but that’s the first step only,” said the social TV project leader at National ICT Australia (NICTA), Sebastien Ardon.

Ardon said years ago families – and in some cases whole villages – gathered in front of the one TV, creating a more social experience. He said this was now “more or less gone” because people watch TV on their computer or separate TVs in their bedrooms, limiting the social aspect.

But many Australians are using second screens like mobile phones, laptops and iPads to tweet and post to Facebook while watching shows.

The Nielsen Australian Online Consumer Reporter released in 2011 found that, of 5886 people polled, 60 per cent of Australians watched TV simultaneously while using the internet. US researchers have separately found that commenting on US shows via Twitter increased 362 per cent during 2011.

A recent Yahoo!7 survey of 7741 people around Australia found 41 per cent reported posting on Facebook while watching TV, while 27 per cent said they had watched a show based on a recommendation from a friend via a social networking site. Yahoo!7 has a social app, FANGO, which allows people to “check-in” to their favourite TV shows and discuss them using Facebook and Twitter.

But Ardon said this was all “a very techie way of doing it” and his technology reduces the “friction” created by forcing people to use separate apps to join the social media conversation.

“It’s all about integrating TV content with Facebook and Twitter so you can see what your friends have watched, see what they’re watching and chat to them about it,” he said.

“We have basically live tweets over shows, so if you’re watching an episode of any program and someone tweets about it then you’ll be able to see that tweet on the screen live – if that’s what you want – on top of the video.”

NICTA is demonstrating the technology today at its Techfest 2012 in Sydney.

Ardon said he was about to sign off on a deal to trial the social TV technology with students at a large university campus. The first trials will take place in June.

The first trials of the technology will use laptops or desktop computers and work via a web browser but Ardon, who visited the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January, said the second set of trials, in January, would use a special set-top box NICTA was developing.

After that NICTA would potentially seek to partner with TV makers such as Samsung and Sony to have the technology built into the TV set itself.

“We’ll have a recommendation system built in so that we can recommend shows to each user … one signal that we use is for example if we see you tweet a lot during this show,” he said.

Ardon said, like several other NICTA projects, the organisation could spin off the social TV technology into a standalone company.

Unlike the current tweet stream broadcast with Q&A, with this new technology the set-top box, computer or the TV itself handles the social media feed – which means the tweets that are displayed are not moderated or curated by the broadcasters.

This means spam or nasty comments may slip through, Ardon said, but this was no different to anyone looking at a stream of tweets on their computer, phone or tablet.

“Here the rules of the internet apply,” he said.

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