ABC’s Ingenious App Uses Sound to Sync iPad, TV

The video demonstration for ABC’s new iPad app is hokey, derivative, a bit cheesy, and doesn’t stop playing when you want it to — as one might expect from a big television network strutting its online stuff — so we’re not embedding it here. But the television-syncing iPad app it advertises is nothing short of genius.

The secret sauce is unexpected: analog air compressions, otherwise known as “sound.”

ABC’s iPad app for the television show My Generation creates a seamless, two-screen, interactive television experience by bridging a cable/satellite connection and an iPad, two digital devices, by measuring decidedly analog sound waves using the iPad’s microphone. The app looks for certain contours in the audio signal that the Neilsen television ratings firm uses to monitor broadcasts, so that it knows when to display a particular poll or other item linking up with a precise moment in the show.

Though television companion apps exist for the iPad, this automatic syncing feature represents a big step forward. And while ABC is only rolling this out for a single program, it’s such a clever, obvious-in-retrospect idea — not to mention far easier than writing digital code to keep the devices synced wirelessly even if the user watches at someone else’s house or later, using on-demand or a DVR — that it could easily become widespread across many shows.

TV/computer convergence has largely failed so far because neither platform really does the other well enough. But smartphones, and now tablets, are setting the stage for complementary collaboration between these mediums, creating an inexorable link between the primary (television) and secondary (whatever else we’re also looking at while the show is on) screen.

Many viewers these days already monitor a second screen as they watch television, so the only way for networks to close the loop and engage viewers only with their content is to extend that content to that second screen. If users are looking at a tablet, cellphone and laptop as they watch television, from a network’s point of view, that screen might as well be filled by content from the same network.

And if users are engaged on two screens, not only might they be drawn deeper into the show, but they can be advertised to on that second screen, even if they’re fast-forwarding ads on the big screen. Or, they if they do watch televised ads, they will be able, finally, to “click” on them using their iPads, as Nielsen hinted in a joint statement with ABC.

“We believe [the Media-Sync Platform] paves the way to fundamentally change the way consumers interact with television programs and television advertisements,” said Nielsen’s head of strategy and business development Sid Gorham. “We are thrilled to collaborate with the innovative team at Disney/ABC to develop the first Media-Sync app and look forward to a broader industry wide launch in early 2011.”

From the user’s point of view, this technology moves the promise of interactive television way past mere dial-in poll shows such as American Idol, due to the design possibilities of a big-screen, couch-friendly device like the iPad vs. a standard, screen-less phone keypad. And, hey, if we have to put up with some more ads on these secondary screens, maybe that’s fair. Many of the same people who want interactive television probably fast-forward through the ads on the first screen these days, and if you don’t want to see the ads, you can always keep looking at the big, primary screen — no fast-forwarding required.

Interactive television has faced many roadblocks: Televisions are too far away to touch, remote controls are not capable or standardized enough, and cable-satellite set-top boxes are not yet capable of providing the level of interactivity afforded by ABC’s app, which, as simple as it is, executes a nifty end-run around all three problems with the cleverest of analog kluges. (Side note: The whole thing might be possible even without Neilsen’s help, too, because a network could use its own fingerprint of a show’s normal audio track to set up the cues rather than relying on Neilsen’s digital watermarks.)

Again, be forewarned: The video demo is a bit over the top, with the same sort of over-earnest soundtrack that Apple’s ads encouraged so many other marketers to rely on, but it does have the benefit of showing this groundbreaking app in action.

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