CHAT ROOM: Interactivity Positivity

In the Chat Room this month, we sat down with Mark Corl, who chairs the ATSC’s S38 “Interactive Environment” Specialist Group. A member of the ATSC Board of Directors, Corl is a 20-year veteran at Triveni Digital, where he’s the Senior VP of Emergent Technology Development working on new digital TV distribution technologies with a special focus on IP-delivered content. We checked in with him for an update on the hot topic of ATSC 3.0 interactivity.

THE STANDARD: We understand that the ATSC 3.0 interactive system is based on web browser technology. Mark, how does that work, and why is this seen as a key element of Next Gen TV? 

CORL: The ATSC 3.0 Interactive Environment Standard (A/344) defines a TV environment as a “web server with a browser.”  The system is based on W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) technologies. Just like a web developer creates HTML, JavaScript and CSS for an internet web server, that same developer can deliver the same interactive content over a Next Gen TV broadcast to an ATSC 3.0 receiver. What’s cool about this is that the TV’s local browser can display interactive content from either the Next Gen TV broadcast source, an internet source, or both simultaneously.

This shows one of the main advantages of designing the system using W3C technologies. Originally, ATSC intended to extend HbbTV (Europe’s hybrid broadband-broadcast TV) specs to operate in the ATSC 3.0 environment. But that system requires a custom browser in the TV, and app developers would have to learn the HbbTV system. By using the W3C technology in ATSC 3.0, we’ve avoided these custom implementations. That means CE manufacturers can use off-the-shelf browsers and web developers already know how to write applications for the system.

That said, TVs are of course different from the internet, so web socket APIs were created to enable apps to do things like change the channel or query the TV’s parental control settings – things that are uniquely helpful in a TV environment.

THE STANDARD: What new skills does a web developer need in order to write ATSC 3.0 apps?

CORL: Fundamentally, the basic skills of a web developer translate directly to building applications for ATSC 3.0. The languages, namely HTML5, CSS and JavaScript, are identical. In fact, the A/344 standard refers to a CTA standard that, in turn, takes a snapshot of the current W3C web development interfaces. That CTA standard only includes interfaces that are available in the four major web browser stacks—it’s part of the process CTA uses to choose them—so it’s probably good practice for developers to use those standards even when publishing to just the web.

Sure, knowing the W3C languages gets you a long way, but it doesn’t mean you know how to write applications that will operate well on TVs. There are certain constraints that make building a TV app different from building an app for a phone, tablet or desktop computer. For example, TVs usually don’t have a keyboard or a mouse, and most likely the viewer cannot easily “scroll” through a long page of material. Developers will want to be sure that web pages are designed to be fun and easy to use on the TV platform. Nonetheless, it should be very straightforward for web developers to extend their skills to the ATSC 3.0 interactive environment.

THE STANDARD: What types of interactive apps are broadcasters thinking about? Do you see a few “killer apps” emerging?

CORL:  Most of us think of “interactivity” as on-screen graphics that offer buttons, pull downs and other elements that consumers can use. While there are specific broadcasters, particularly public broadcasters with an education mandate, looking to leverage this “lean forward” interaction with their viewers, many broadcasters may be focused on personalizing the viewing experience for the typical “lean back” consumer. The interactive environment is a central component in enabling “skinny bundles,” dynamic ad or content replacement, and premium content. In some cases, the consumer may never be aware that the “interactive” app is operating because it operates behind the scenes to make the viewing experience better.

I find it ironic when broadcasters wonder which “killer apps” might emerge, when they have been leveraging a real killer app for years: free TV. Video content continues to be king and is expected to be more than two thirds of all internet content traffic by 2021. Perhaps the killer app for broadcasters will be to use an interactive application to keep viewers engaged with the broadcasters’ content. An application that provides a “sticky portal” into all content provided by the broadcasters and their partners may be the application that gives the viewer the easiest avenue to all the content they might want.

My hope is that with A/344 we’ve invented a platform that broadcasters can use to create some amazing new services—just like what happened on the internet.