Microsoft’s gesture-based Kinect controller for Xbox 360 has been getting console gamers excited for a while now, but it’s also sparking ideas among innovative TV producers. At MIPCube this afternoon, Josh Atkins, senior designer at Microsoft’s Soho Productions studio, showed how Sesame Street is benefiting.
First, though, some principles on social TV and usability from Fjord’s group director/strategy Louisa Heinrich. “The reality is that TV has always been social,” she said, noting that a key way people decide what to watch is recommendations from other people.
“You don’t only hear about things people think you’re going to like: they will talk about things that they like. It’s part of the magic of humans.” And Heinrich said this is one problem with automated recommendations, if they’re not complemented by humans expressing their passions.
“What’s really important is enabling people to help one another discover things and be inspired. Establishing connections between people or leveraging existing connections between people is one of the things we can do in the television world to enrich the experience.”
She also said that so much of the buzz around TV shows is generated after they finish airing, and cited the examples of JR’s shooting in Dallas – “the talk of America” the summer after it aired on TV – as well as the more recent show Lost.
“The fact that Lost was the last programme that did a really awesome job on it shows how hard this is. It’s not just about sucking in feeds and spitting them out again.” And she reminded broadcasters that “you cannot own the conversation… the most important thing to do with the conversation is to have it“.
Heinrich came back to the notion of “connecting people with the content that they love – that’s what we’re here for, that’s the whole point of us”.
Onto Atkins, who explained that Kinect is essentially “a camera that can see in 3D” with additional voice recognition. His studio is posing questions: what if people – children specifically – could speak to their TV and have it answer back, and what would happen if the last
So: Kinect Sesame Street TV, which is shipping this Autumn. Atkins showed a demo video of children interacting with the Cookie Monster on their TV screen, as he tells them to jump. And then a video of The Count telling them to stand still while he counts to the number of the day.
Atkins explained that his studio have come up with some rules for this kind of two-way TV. “Participation is actually optional,” he noted – if the children had preferred to sit on their sofa, they could have. He also said that the instructions need to be very simple and straightforward. And if they do get involved, it has to be immediately engaging and rewarding.
So, the show is based around jumping, throwing, waving, clapping, pointing, speaking and standing still – “the favourite one for parents!” – but these could be just as applicable to a music or sports show as to Sesame Street.
“We had to test like crazy,” explained Atkins. The studio had more than 200 children test Kinect Sesame Street over its development.
“The future of TV is inherently interactive. It’s not just a process of sitting on the couch, putting your feet up and watching your favourite show,” said Atkins, although he admitted that this will still be possible – it’s just that people will have the option to participate.
“We’re gonna be happy with any kind of participation. We didn’t put an actual metric on what we consider to be a success. The important thing is there are lots of layers of participation… If kids just wanna sit and watch we don’t consider that a bad thing.”
How will episodes be delivered – weekly episodes delivered digitally to the Xbox 360, or all together in the equivalent of a boxed console game? Atkins apologised for having to be cagey on this point. “Think of it like TV. However TV is delivered, that’s how it will be delivered.”