Switching small-screen channels

Digital designers are now competing with broadcast specialists, bringing Web-style interactive content to the television set

The world of television is becoming quite confusing. Expanding rapidly out of (as well as within) our living rooms, TV is spawning itself across a number of technology platforms, each peddling different content and targeting different audiences.

For the design industry, some claim that these changes are shaking up and blurring what were previously fairly distinct lines between screen and broadcast specialists on the one hand, and digital and interaction designers on the other. Now that almost every area of life is conducted via a screen and run by software, digital designers are trying to encroach on TV designers’ territory, sometimes forcing screen people to demonstrate more technical savvy.

Slick motion graphics and transparent overlays were once the exclusive domain of broadcast designers, while their on-line counterparts had to make do with clunky, low-bandwidth gif images and rudimentary html. But, with the widespread adoption of broadband Internet and the power of Web browsers – which now deliver full-motion video, this rich visual world is opening up to digital designers, too.

Internet TV – video that is delivered straight to a PC – is seeing a lot of activity at the moment. Companies such as Joost (www.joost.com) and Babelgum (www.babelgum.com) are poised to unleash full public versions of their beta sites. Another newcomer is Tape It Off The Internet (www.tioti.com), a site which is co-founded and designed by Paul Cleghorn, a former senior designer at digital consultancies Poke and Razorfish.

‘TV is something that we Internet [design] guys have had our eyes on for a while, wanting to take it away from the TV guys. Things are happening now that put us in reach of doing that,’ says Cleghorn. ‘It’s all merging. All the sexy motion stuff is now within the grasp of people who used to do on-line.’

Unlike sites that retail video content directly, Tioti is billed as a ‘social media aggregator’, indexing material from all over the Web. Here, digital designers’ familiarity with Web 2.0’s social aspects comes into force. Cleghorn has built into Tioti functions to share videos, tag them, add clips from YouTube or photos from Flickr and contribute to Wiki-style user-generated programme information. ‘We made a decision to focus on the user interface and social side of the site because I think the technology will become more of a commodity when content is made available more easily,’ explains Cleghorn. Joost, which is designed in-house, also offers community functions, such as chat and messaging.

Back in the living room, BT’s Internet Protocol TV service BT Vision features on- and off-screen design by Dunning Eley Jones. Although it is not delivered via the public Internet, IPTV uses Internet technology to deliver video to set-top boxes in the home. For designers, this demands a greater technical understanding of hardware and software limitations when making creative decisions, according to DEJ partner Marcus Jones.

‘For IPTV there are a lot more technical demands than Internet TV,’ he says. ‘As Internet TV is entirely software- based, it can always be updated and new, but there are a whole bunch of technology restrictions when working with set-top box systems. So now, a lot of the work we do goes very deep into the technical delivery end. We have to turn something that’s basically a PC or Internet system into something that looks like television.’

BT is one of nine television service providers globally that have taken up Microsoft’s IPTV platform, recently renamed Microsoft Mediaroom. According to Jones, design consultancies working in this field must become familiar with the capabilities of software such as this.

But is the distinction between screen branding groups and digital consultancies something of a competitive ruse, used in pitches to turn a client’s head? Richard Wallman, managing director of screen specialist English & Pockett, believes so. ‘More is made of the technology skills than is actually a reality. People are trying to differentiate themselves by using technical skills as a safety blanket, but the gulf is perhaps exaggerated by some parties,’ he says.

English & Pockett has created the branding for UK IPTV, phone and Internet provider Freewire and is also working on a multi-interface system for Music Choice, through the American Film Institute’s Digital Content Lab. ‘We’re trying to sell expertise in branding and design that will differentiate TV providers at the end, on-screen and with users, regardless of the technology. It can be a bit of a battle to market ourselves when technology companies are drawn to like-minded design consultancies, but branding is extremely important and should work whatever the technical parameters,’ says Wallman.

• IPTV is delivered to home set-top boxes via computer technology. Examples include BT Vision and Swisscom’s Bluewin (both designed by Dunning Eley Jones) and Freewire (branding by English & Pockett)
• Internet TV, such as Joost and Babelgum, offers programme downloads directly from the Web
• A discussion panel on IPTV design, branding and interfaces with English & Pockett managing director Richard Wallman and DEJ partner Liz Dunning took place at the TV Evolution Summit 2007 in Madrid last month

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