Today guest blogger Kevin Powis, filmmaker behind lastindependent.com gives a interesting insight into what the future holds in store for interative video technology.
Once upon a time, interactive video was restricted to the Fast Forward, Reverse and Pause buttons on your VCR. But now interaction possibilities go way beyond that and – it seems to me – beyond the scope of most people’s imagination. At least that’s what is suggested by the complete lack of anyone else banging on about what fantastic video content could be achieved by going truly “interactive”.
Maybe that’s the problem – the technology is here but it’s waiting for a killer video that will take us all to the next level by actually showing what can be achieved. Maybe “Show - don’t tell” isn’t just an adage for writing better movie scripts.
Push the Button
Today’s TV channels have got some interaction via the “Red Button”. I’m sure some good facilities are available but the current offerings of text pasted over existing video content or a change in camera angle does absolutely nothing for me.
I have dabbled in “Red Button” technology, courtesy of a course at Birmingham City University, working with MPEG-4. On that course I learned that MPEG-4 interaction is underrated and goes way beyond the simple text based content we see today. It is actually a great tool for creating truly Interactive Video. Think of it as a rich man’s Adobe Flash. You can encode hot spots, text and buttons and embed them directly within the video being broadcast so the TV programme becomes completely interactive and therefore personal to each viewer. Why this potential power hasn’t been taken up by mainstream TV content providers escapes me, but it may be that the cost of the required set-top boxes is prohibitive.
The level of interaction that I discovered was possible with MPEG-4 led me to predict at that time (three years ago at least) that the next generation of DVD set-top boxes would work as nothing more than MPEG-4 engines, because MPEG-4 could create all the DVD menus, selection buttons, motion menus, Easter eggs and First Play movies we have become accustomed to in today’s DVD’s. In addition, it would provide a higher capacity on the same DVD’s than today’s MPEG-2 compression and because MPEG-4 is an open standard you would also guarantee competition (AKA low prices) and automatic compatibility. So far however, I haven’t seen this come to fruition but I’m still watching. The interactive side of MPEG-4 seems mainly untapped and it’s still simply better known as a very good way of compressing video.
How Can We Get Interactive?
So, back to my quest for true ‘interactive’ content, to get the sort of interaction I’m looking for we have few options. We could author DVD’s at a very low-level where you treat the set-top DVD player as a small computer and program a path through the DVD content, with instructions on the DVD written in VM code (a special language that all set-top DVD players understand). This is how DVD games such as Who Wants to be a Millionaire? and the many Pub-Quiz style games work and keep your score.
Although this approach provides some useful advanced interaction for games or a nice twist on corporate training products – it just doesn’t have enough power to unleash the true potential of interactive video. If we want genuinely interactive video a complete and robust environment is needed where video content is delivered by more powerful computers that also allow the developer to program the video content’s behaviour and intercept the viewer’s choices in a more constantly monitored way.
Sounds a long way off doesn’t it?
Well no, not really. Excitingly, this is already starting to happen right now under our very noses! It’s as if all the pieces of the jigsaw are dropping into place – but no one can see the picture that’s being built.
The BBC iPlayer and similar “players” are already accepted as a perfectly normal way for a growing number of people to watch their chosen video content when it suits them. Now BBC, ITV and BT have joined forces to deliver video on demand direct to your TV from the Internet.
Presently BBC iPlayer and its equivalents are just branded linear devices, i.e. they allow the viewer to select a video, but the video itself is not interactive. The relationship between viewer and video is still just as linear as a video tape playing in a VCR.
So what’s missing?
The short answer is: the technology’s there, what’s missing is simply the implementation and imagination to make the most out of the existing technology.
To be truly interactive a video programme must have more than one outcome and the viewer (or some external element) must be able to decide how the story develops. In its simplest form this could mean a tree-like structure. So each time a script deemed it appropriate, alternative paths could be provided and a choice made by the viewer regarding which route is to be taken.
There’s nothing new here, this same simplistic decision tree approach has even been used in printed books and YouTube has added this exact same ability (albeit crude) to its own player. There are many examples on that site, here is one and here is another.
Another appealing option is to use a random generator algorithm that would mean, for example, that you could watch the same DVD ten times and see a slightly different movie each time. Accepted, in this case the movie is performing for you rather than interacting, but just imagine when you dig that old favourite DVD out and watch the movie for the nth time how much more interesting it would be if the DVD itself chose a different twist to the story. This would make the “Alternative Ending” option we sometimes see look a bit tame and certainly dated.
Admittedly, movies made this way would be harder to produce as they’d need to be designed more like games. But with some clever scriptwriting and programming, movies could easily be produced with a dozen or so narrative paths without unduly adding to the production costs. Multi-narrative movies could then be delivered direct to your TV via the Internet using a Flash-based player (as per today’s ‘iPlayers’) or an MPEG-4 based intelligent player to provide genuine interaction between the narrative and the viewer.
Interaction could be made via a remote control, or based on time, date, random elements or input through any number of real-world physical sensors yet to be developed, even such as some form of artificial intelligence.
So for now I’ll keep waiting and watching – let’s just hope that when that killer interactive movie is finally released and everyone is talking about it in amazement, no one turns to me and says, “That’s clever isn’t it – why didn’t I think of that?”
www.Lastindependent.com is a video and web development company producing contemporary drama and advanced corporate training video products and researching into new tools for web and interactive video delivery.