Your television set is about to become a lot friendlier.
Seen by many as a one-way medium where the content comes through but nothing goes back, the TV generally goes off and the computer goes on when people want to connect and communicate with others.
But now, some of the tools that allow people to build communities and socialize on Internet sites like MySpace and Facebook are making their way to the living room.
TV Takes a Cue From the Web
Ever wish your television talked back? Well now it does and more. Stacey Delo talks to WSJ’s Christopher Lawton about the new ways people are using their TV to be social. (Oct. 24)
The movement was pioneered in part by videogame-console makers such as Microsoft Corp. as a way to connect hard-core gamers for competitive matches, and it is gaining momentum as those companies and others seek to entice a broader audience to chat with friends, share photos and recommend movies and music over their television screens.
Analysts say social networking has the potential to play a key role in shaping what people watch and do on the biggest screen in their homes. They say that eventually could pay off — perhaps in terms of subscription revenue or advertising — for the companies involved in these mostly nascent ventures, as efforts to marry the Internet and the TV gain traction.
“The TV set is evolving and content itself is evolving,” says Michael Gartenberg, an analyst in the research division of Darien, Conn.-based Jupitermedia Corp. Understanding what friends are watching or doing on their TV screens “has to have a tremendous amount of value,” he says.
The Journal Report
See the complete Technology report.Seeking Connections
Gamers have been able to message and befriend each other through the TV since 2002, when Microsoft launched Xbox Live, the gaming and entertainment service that allows Xbox-console owners to connect to the Internet and compete against each other in multiplayer games. More than 60% of Xbox owners subscribe to Live, according to Microsoft, some paying a $50 annual fee for a premium version of the service.
Right now, the only way to chat with fellow subscribers is to create a game session and invite them in. Some users create game matches for the sole purpose of chatting, showing that for many, the social experience is just as important as the game, says Marc Whitten, general manager of Xbox Live.
The Redmond, Wash., company is redesigning Xbox Live to add more social-networking features. The idea is to give subscribers more of the social connections they crave, while broadening the appeal of the Xbox console beyond the hard-core gaming community.
Jason SchneiderThe new version, due out Nov. 19, will include a chat feature in which groups of as many as eight people will be able to communicate with each other via headsets, regardless of what they are doing. Members also will be able to share photos and create unique graphic images of themselves, called avatars, that can interact with other subscribers’ avatars in a virtual community.
Eric Word, a recent high-school graduate in Columbus, Ohio, says he is looking forward to the new Xbox Live because he won’t have to enter game sessions to talk to friends. “Sometimes I don’t get in the mood to play, but I still want to talk to these people and see how their day is going,” says the 18-year-old Mr. Word.
Sony Corp., too, is preparing to launch a virtual-community service for its competing PlayStation 3 videogame system. The free service will allow players to create avatars, interact with others in a virtual world and chat through the game console.
The company says it plans to launch the service, called Home, this fall, though it declined to be more specific.
A Broader Audience
TAG Networks Inc., of Mountain View, Calif., is trying to expand social networking based on gaming beyond videogame consoles to a much broader cable-television audience.
The firm owns a subscription-based games-on-demand TV network that allows people to use their remote controls and cable boxes to connect and play with other casual gamers. According to founder and Chief Executive Sangita Verma, the setup is simple: Gamers create profiles, compete for high scores in their area and match up for multiplayer games. Next year, the channel will introduce a more formal social network with buddy lists, messaging and other ways to connect multiple players.
“Gamers today expect to be able to communicate and play against other people,” says Ms. Verma. “I think there is a paradigm shift in the way people think about games and play games.”
TAG TV has more than 200,000 subscribers in Hawaii and is being tested with cable companies in Texas and Alabama.
Movie studios and software firms also are helping to bring social networking into the living room.
Studios such as Walt Disney Co., Sony Pictures and Viacom Inc.’s Paramount Pictures are adding features to Blu-ray movie discs that allow people with certain Blu-ray DVD players to interact while watching movies. Disney’s recent release of “Sleeping Beauty,” for example, includes a “movie chat” feature in which friends watching the movie simultaneously from different locations can exchange messages on their TV screens with Internet-connected devices such as iPhones or BlackBerrys.
New York software firm Boxee, meanwhile, has incorporated social-networking features into a media-player application designed to be used with a remote control and viewed on a large screen, like that of a TV connected to a PC.
The application, which can be downloaded free, offers users a single interface through which to organize and play media content such as videos, movies, music and photos from their PCs or the Internet. It also allows users to sit in front of their TV screens and, via remote control, recommend movies, music and other content to Boxee users they have befriended. They can see in real time what songs those friends are listening to or the movies or TV shows they are watching by monitoring a so-called media-activity feed appearing on their screens.
For piracy reasons, Boxee’s software stops short of allowing people to share content with friends. But Dave Mathews, vice president of product development, says that even if a person is watching a pirated copy of a movie or TV show and recommends it to friends, the software will send the recommendation and tell the friends where they can stream the content legally.
Versions of Boxee’s software for Apple Inc.’s Macintosh computers and for PCs based on the Linux operating system are in testing. A version for PCs running the Windows operating system is due out by the end of the year.
Robert Basil, an information-systems manager in Tempe, Ariz., has been testing Boxee on a Mac Mini connected to his flat-panel TV for several weeks. He says he likes Boxee because he prefers media recommendations from friends rather than professional reviewers.
“Nobody knows what you like better than your friends,” says the 41-year-old.
—Mr. Lawton is a staff reporter in The Wall Street Journal’s San Francisco bureau.
Write to Christopher Lawton at email@example.com