A broader canvas

Project Canvas could spark a revolution in the way we consume visual media, and digital designers are excited about its interactive potential. But they still foresee a role for conventional ’curated’ content, says Angus Montgomery

’I really believe Project Canvas is a threshold moment for television,’ says Greg Hadfield, director of strategic projects at digital consultancy Cogapp. He adds, ’TV at the moment seems remarkably old-fashioned. It’s just a dumb box that sits in the corner and shows scheduled content. You can’t engage with it.’

Project Canvas is the working name for a partnership between the BBC, ITV, BT, Channel 4 and Talk Talk (and until its recent decision to drop out, Five) to deliver an Internet protocol TV standard, which would allow for the broadcast of Internet TV. At the end of last month the project received the green light from the BBC Trust, and it is now aiming for a potential launch at the beginning of 2011.

The ultimate aim of the Project Canvas partners is to allow any commercial entities to develop their own devices, as well as opening the market up to developers to create programmes and content for the system. The Project Canvas team, which features copywriting consultancy Reed Words, is currently developing the user-experience design for the system.

While Project Canvas will feature the traditional ’curated’ TV and radio broadcasting that consumers are used to, as well as the on-demand and catch-up services currently offered by iPlayer, 4oD and others, the element digital designers are getting excited about is the open, commercial
A spokeswoman for Project Canvas says the technological specifications for the system will be published in the autumn, at which stage they will be able to ’engage with potential content suppliers’.

Many observers have compared this layer of Project Canvas to Apple’s app format. Pete Hamblin, creative director at Digit, says, ’I think the app model is one people have really got their heads around now. We’ve had some of our clients talking about moving to an app-based system.’

Erik Huggers, director of future media and technology at the BBC, unveiled an early example of the Project Canvas interface at C21 Media’s Future Media conference last year. He presented a mock-up of how the 2008 Beijing Olympics might have looked on Project Canvas, whizzing through live feeds, archive content and integrated social networking sites. There is a clear market opportunity for this sort of convergence, with a growing number of people watching TV and surfing the Internet simultaneously. A recent Neilsen Report suggests 59 per cent of people in the US surf the Internet and watch TV at the same time.

Tony Foggett, managing director of Code Computerlove, says, ’This platform opens a world of possibilities for brands and creative organisations like ours to finally, truly integrate experiences and data across the digital screens in consumers’ lives.’ He adds, ’Beyond the throwaway 30-second ad, brands will be able to engage more deeply with the consumer in a way they have done online over the past decade or so, and would do on TV if the red button wasn’t so poor.’

This frustration with the limitations of the current system is echoed by Hadfield, who says, ’With a show like Sky’s Soccer Saturday, which uses multiple presenters and news feeds, I always want to crawl up to the screen and physically engage with it.’ Hadfield says the key point for those who want to develop Project Canvas content is to consider the context of the user. He adds, ’You need to take advantage of social media, geolocation technology and multimedia. There are fantastic opportunities for [content providers] which understand the context of people in their homes engaging with content in a lean-back manner.’

He highlights ’hyperlocal’ services as one area for potential development, and also speculates that brands such as Love Film, which recently brought former Guardian Media Group director of digital strategy and development Simon Waldman on board as group product director, might be drawing up strategies to develop Project Canvas products. Hadfield says, ’From a design point of view, being user-centred is the key. No longer can you broadcast at people – they’re now part of the conversation.’

Matt Wade, founder of Kin Design, agrees with Hadfield that the focus on users is key. He says, ’When designing the user experience, [providers] need to get the context right – it could be location-based or time-of-day-based.’ He adds that while doing this, it is important that an element of the way TV is currently perceived should be retained, saying, ’I like stumbling across things on TV, through curated content.’

The way people interact with TV and the way they interact with the Internet will also have to be mediated, suggests Wade. ’We understand TV in a passive way,’ he says, ’[but] the way we use the Internet tends to be more active.’ Hamblin describes the difference in perception as ’lean-back’ and ’lean-forward’ interaction.

Wade concludes, ’I think giving the opportunity to people is really lovely, but it has to be really well-structured and it can’t disrupt the consumer’s perception of TV.’

Project Canvas timeline

  • 11 December 2008 – Project Canvas announced as a partnership between the BBC, BT and ITV
  • 25 June 2010 -Project Canvas approved by the BBC Trust
  • Autumn 2010 – technological specifications expected to be completed, at which stage Project Canvas will be able to engage with potential content suppliers
  • Early 2011 – expected launch date

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