BT invents semantic television

TV show story line determined by viewers as program airs, taking interactive TV to new level, says U.K. communications giant.

David Meyer Special to CNET News.com
2 min read
U.K. communications giant BT Group has taken a leading role in the creation of the world's first "shape-shifted" television program.

Accidental Lovers, which will broadcast on Finnish television on December 27, is a romantic comedy with a difference--the ability of its viewers to influence the story line as the program airs.

In an evolution of today's interactive TV, SMS messages texted in by the audience will--in real time--cause the characters to either fall in love or break up. Texted comments will also appear on screen.

BT's Doug Williams, the project leader, told ZDNet UK on Tuesday that because Accidental Lovers will be broadcast in traditional fashion, all viewers will see the same narrative unfold. However, the idea in the long run is for tailored programs to go out on Internet Protocal television (IPTV) platforms such as BT Vision, launched last week.

"The principle is really one of developing personalized TV," said Williams, who said his team is in talks with BT Vision about the idea but that there were no firm plans as yet to include it in the Vision service.

BT "came up with the original ideas" for and created the software behind the project, which is being run by a European consortium that includes Cambridge University and Goldsmiths University of London.

"What we've had to do is invent a means of describing narrative," Williams said, adding that the user-generated compilation of that narrative meant that BT had to come up with a new "narrative structure language."

What this shape-shifted TV amounts to is somewhat analogous to the "Semantic Web," in that objects within it need to be categorized through "semiautomatic description techniques" to allow the finished product to be quickly assembled as user preferences are input.

"Each media item and its position in the role and narrative has to be described and understood," Williams explained. "We have had to use a lot of ontological ideas behind this."

The end form of this kind of media would pose challenges for the traditional media production work flow, he added, pointing out that it took 150 years after Gutenberg invented the printing press before the form of the English novel emerged.

Williams also used the successful BBC documentary series Coast as the basis for an explanation of what shape-shifting TV could end up being like. The program currently covers various aspects of the U.K. coastline, but Williams suggested that the new model, based on user preferences, could let viewers "watch a program all about different industrial or tourist uses of the coast."

David Meyer of ZDNet UK reported from London.