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Show to spotlight impending wave of smart TV apps

The smart TV will be center stage for a new wave of apps, but it will have to share the leading role with the device in your hand, whether it’s a smart phone or tablet PC. This at least will be the view prevailing at the IPTV World Forum in London, which is staging one of the first independent events dedicated to the TV app opportunity. The TV App Hub, which will include training, panel discussions, presentations and demonstrations, will be founded largely on the premise that future smart TVs will team up with handheld and portable devices to deliver interactive apps that facilitate audience participation and engagement.

One of the debating points will be over how best to combine the one-to-one interactivity enabled by a handheld device with the shared experience of lean-back TV viewing. Some will argue that the app should not intrude at all onto the big screen and operate entirely on each user’s portable device taking cues from the program currently showing, for example, to enable comment or recommendation via Facebook. Until now, each TV has had a single remote control used only by one person at a time, but some emerging TV apps allow channels to be changed via an iPhone, for example, which could create conflict within the living room.

A few big brands have already tapped into this two-screen model for advertising their leading products. Honda, for example, has developed a free TV app that exploits “screen-hopping” technology to allow viewers to interact with an advert for its new Jazz car via an iPhone. This enables audiences to engage with characters that appear in the “This Unpredictable Life” TV ad by transferring them to the mobile handset screen in real time. Users can then interact with the characters that “hop” from the TV to mobile device. Honda says the campaign is in tune with the changing way audiences consume media, i.e., using multiple screens at the same time. This works by having the iPhone app recognize sound from the TV ad so when a predefined moment occurs, the app displays a character and allows the viewer to make it perform some action, such as dancing or singing. The idea is to extend the consumer’s engagement with the advert, and it remains to be seen how successful this will be.

Advocates of the “true” TV app dismiss apps like Honda’s as gimmicks and argue that the aim should be to be enhance the viewer’s experience on the TV itself, exploiting new interactive and graphical features. This was the objective of Samsung’s Smart TV Challenge launched in September 2010 across the UK, Germany and France, coinciding with the release of the Samsung TV Application software development kit (SDK). This assists developers in building and deploying smart TV applications as well as integrating them across a range of devices and controllers. Aimed at aspiring developers, the European contest drew more than 2000 entrants, with winners selected from each of the three countries.

The UK winner, called Astra Recommends, was based on an intelligent recommendation engine to suggest suitable programs and allows users to swap program recommendations with friends via Facebook. The French winner was Askking, a multiplayer quiz game allowing users to test their knowledge on regularly updated quizzes, playing either in solo mode or against other players across the globe. The German winner was Yogamour, which offers various VOD yoga lessons.

This did not prove any of the apps would actually be popular, and all three raised questions. In the case of Astra, the question is whether viewers will want to make and receive recommendations on the TV set itself. Similarly with Askking, there is the question whether people will play games on their TV rather than a personal device. Then with Yogamour, the question is what the app adds to an existing VOD service, which could serve the same yoga lessons within its program guide.

But, at least the applications worked well and were easy to use. Samsung now offers more than 400 TV apps on its storefront across 120 countries, and the company plans to expand these significantly during the rest of 2011. It says well more than 3 million TV apps have been downloaded globally so far in the year since the launch. This suggests that TV apps will enjoy at least some success, even if it is still not clear whether those relating to the content itself, or some other activity like gaming, will be most popular.