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Yahoo's IntoNow: Interactive TV, but not on TV

Yahoo's promising new iPad app knows what you're watching--and aims to help you get more out of it.

Yahoo's IntoNow for the iPad.
Harry McCracken/CNET

In 1977, Warner Communications launched QUBE, an interactive cable TV system, in Columbus, Ohio. It was a two-way system that let TV watchers use a special remote control to engage with the programming on their sets. It was remarkably ambitious. And it flopped.

Ever since, various forms of interactive TV have kept bubbling up--Google TV being one current example. None of them has changed everything, or even much of anything. I've come to the conclusion that most of us don't want our TVs to be interactive. We want to be able to change the channels and adjust the volume and that's about it.

But maybe the problem isn't so much that we want TV watching to be a passive experience as that TV sets themselves aren't well-suited to the fancy interfaces that interactivity demands. For one thing, nobody's ever come up with a truly great remote control for doing anything very involved; for another, reading large quantities of text on a screen that's across the room tends to be hard on the eyeballs.

Maybe it make more sense to keep the TV on the TV set--and to put the interactivity on a device that's already designed for it.

That's the basic idea behind the new iPad version of IntoNow, which Yahoo launched last week. It still feels like a rough draft, but I think it has loads of promise.

IntoNow started out as an iPhone app that Yahoo acquired back in April. It's based on a clever TV-show-fingerprinting technology that's basically Shazam for TV: You let it listen to the program you're watching for a few seconds and it can figure out what the show is.

I tried the iPhone version a few months ago, and it was fun for a while to play random episodes of "I Love Lucy" and have IntoNow identify them for me. By itself, though, the identification is kind of a party trick. Generally speaking, if you're watching a TV program, you either already know what it is or can find out easily enough.

What's noteworthy about the new iPad version is that the show-identifying technology is merely a convenient ad-hoc method of interfacing your iPad with your TV, so the tablet knows what you're watching. (The fingerprinting almost always worked perfectly for me as long as I thrust the iPad toward the TV and nobody was talking in the room. It did, however, think I was watching the 1955 Robert Mitchum movie "The Night of the Hunter" when I was really watching a random 1930s comedy short--which, I suspect, TCM once played as filler after "The Night of the Hunter," confusing IntoNow.)

Once IntoNow for the iPad has figured out what's on TV, it checks you in so your friends know what you're watching and lists other people on IntoNow who have watched that show. More important, it gives you items that relate to the program--stuff like tweets by people in that program, info from IMDb, and discussions among IntoNow users. (For sports, it also shows stats.) It's interactivity that lives on the iPad rather than the TV, and the iPad is better suited to the purpose than either a TV or an iPhone.

In its current form, IntoNow is as much intriguing as exciting. When I was watching something obscure off my TiVo, it often didn't pull up much. When I turned to a current episode of a popular program, like "Glee," there was more to peruse, but the discussion was not terribly scintillating. (Typical comment: "I'm glad Shelby's back!")

If Yahoo gives the app enough love, the quantity and quality of the content could improve rapidly. And an IntoNow that felt like a gateway to a never-ending trove of information and conversation about every TV program ever shown would be phenomenal. Here's hoping it turns into the kind of hit that no more conventional form of interactive TV has been to date.