The last few years have seen a technical arms race in the Interactive TV and Second Screen categories, as new and innovative startups seek to disrupt the decades-old television watching experience. Hardware manufacturers and content producers alike have flocked to embrace the new technologies, seeing them as a key to differentiating their respective offerings amid a sea of competition. Consumer response, however, has been more of a mixed bag.
This week at CES in Las Vegas (the Consumer Electronics Show), San Francisco-based Flingo will release the latest version of its platform, dubbed Samba, aimed at changing this. Samba will make four-year-old Flingo one of the first to offer a combined Interactive TV and Second Screen experience.
“We saw a surge of Smart TV and tablet adoption in 2012, but realized that a seamless TV experience across all screens was missing,” says Flingo co-founder and CEO Ashwin Navin, formerly of BitTorrent. “Samba will blur the lines between linear television and the Web.”
Flingo is unique in that it uses video, not audio to identify what content is being viewed, something made possible because the company embeds its technology into the video chipset firmware of TVs made by its hardware partners. In its Interactive TV implementations, Samba offers viewers the ability to actively engage with programming in real-time through their primary screen. This can take the form of polls, social conversations, recommendations, or consumption of related media. In the case of Second Screens, aka internet-connected laptops, tablets, and smartphones used simultaneously while watching TV, the company can offer an even wider array of complementary content and engagement, such as aggregated social feeds relating to live programming or an ability to watch past episodes of a live show. This can all be delivered across multiple screens, in concert.
The secret sauce to Flingo is its content recognition technology, which, as mentioned above, is video based rather than audio. Following a $8 million Series A financing completed in May, the company opened four co-located data centers across the US to monitor live TV programming from “every major cable and satellite operator in North America, in every time-zone,” around the clock. The company uses this data, in conjunction with its SyncAps technology, to algorithmically identify the content playing on the screen. Nearly all other second screen platforms instead rely on audio captured by the microphone of the secondary device to identify content, a dramatically slower and less reliable process. Flingo claims average detection times of just three seconds.
As a result the company is able to rapidly synchronize Samba with whatever programming the viewer is currently watching – even if it’s time-shifted by DVR – and deliver relevant supplemental content on whatever screen they choose. As stated on its website, “Flingo does not require broadcasters to provide us content in advance, we can fingerprint your linear feed in real-time (24×7).” The company can offer similar recognition of video-on-demand, DVD box sets of popular TV shows, movies, and video games.
Flingo is rolling out Samba with a number of hardware and content partners. Many will be announced at CES, but the company has publicly named Hisense and Haier, two of China’s largest HDTV makers, each with big plans for US expansion in 2013. These and others join existing partnerships with Samsung, LG, Vizio, Insignia, Sanyo, Western Digital, and Netgear, in the hardware bucket, as well as FOX, A+E Networks, Showtime, Warner Bros., PBS, and CBS in terms of content creators. The company also offers a fully public, documented API to content producer that wishe to build a custom experience.
Consumers wanting to experience Samba for themselves will need to wait a while as the first manufactured HDTVs featuring the software won’t be available until likely the second quarter of this year.
“Our customers have told us that they want more content choices and control over the entertainment experience,” says Hisense US VP of consumer electronics Peter Erdman. “With Samba, Hisense immediately has a powerful tool to bring together phones, tablets and TVs, and the foundation to make the whole home smarter and more connected in the future.”
When asked to defend the business opportunity, Flingo co-founder and CEO Ashwin Navin, formerly founder of BitTorrent, said, “Samba automatically detects TV ads, so the revenue side of [our] house actually scales. We don’t have to do advertiser deals one-by-one like other companies in the social and interactive TV space.” Put more simply, because Flingo knows what commercials are playing on television, it can deliver corresponding content within its interactive and second screen experiences. This means that during a Ford Mustang commercial, the company could automatically serve up additional content related to the vehicle. Perhaps more interesting, it could also do so for a competitor, such as the Chevy Camaro.
Flingo’s smart, social TV apps are said to be available on 15 million screens in 118 countries worldwide. Based on these figures, the company believes it’s the world’s largest publisher of Smart TV apps. Investors in the company include August Capital, VIA Capital, Passport Capital, billionaire broadcast technology expert Mark Cuban, Rackspace founder Richard Yoo, Summize founder Jay Virdy, Gary Lauder, Tom McInerney, James Hong and others.
We’ve been hearing about the era of connected TV and second screens for several years now, and although the technology is increasing in popularity, it’s by no means ubiquitous or generating enormous demand. Billionaire Flingo investor and broadcast technology expert Mark Cuban has been critical of many in the category, arguing that too many companies are trying to replace broadcast TV rather than enhance it, and, as a result, are doomed to fail.
If Flingo wants to stand out, it will have to continue proving to content creators and advertisers that its platform is an enhancement not a distraction to viewers. These partners will want to see quantifiable increased engagement, and likely at some point in the future, effective direct monetization via commerce integrations. Similarly, consumers want a consumption experience that’s additive, not just another means of serving them with advertising. Flingo must walk a fine line to deliver equal measures of delight and value to both of these constituencies.