Those wacky scientists are at it again. First they invented Pocky, then Men's Pocky (the Japanese snack that says "I'm a man and my Japanese snack knows it.") and now this: social TV software (via unmediated). Researchers at PARC are working on software that lets people watch television with each other when they aren't even in the same room.
Indeed, in many ways, Social TV will be similar to the Instant Messenger you already use on your computer. Only it will be more dynamic: Social TV software, located on a device like TiVo or even your TV set, might notice that your and your buddy’s yacking has gone well past the commercial break. The software would conclude that you are no longer watching the show and, perhaps, pause the program until you are ready to resume, says Nic Ducheneaut, member of PARC research staff.
The project is still in research stages, and lots of glitches are yet to be worked out. Last summer, PARC’s scientists placed two groups of people into separate living rooms and observed them as the subjects watched a TV program together. The rooms were equipped with microphones, so the group members could hear each other. The communication didn’t go too smoothly because the users missed out on each other’s body language. Here’s an example: When a commercial is over and you want your friend to stop talking, you’d normally turn your face toward the TV screen to indicate that you want to resume watching the show. The researchers are still looking for ways to enable the same with Social TV.
Wow, IM on a PVR, who'd have thought? Also, I'm going to have bad dreams about watching TV with the same kids playing online games: "lol n00b watches simpsons!! WTF HAX!!!!!"
Snark aside, the shared experience of live TV is one of the first casualties of PVRs. When a coworker asks if I saw last night's Daily Show I have to say that I'm not sure. I saw an episode of the Daily Show last night, but I've lost track of whether that was from last night, the night before or whenever (and them announcing the date at the start doesn't help either, I've lost track of that too).
PVR owners aren't the only ones to experience this disruption in the time/space continuum. Michael Sippey writes about his experience watching seasons 1-3 of Alias on DVD:
Watching the shows on DVD like this kills the water cooler effect. There's no one to talk to about what you're watching. My friends who are long-time Alias fans are most likely tiring of my emails to them asking about particular plot twists or characters -- depending on what episode I'm watching, we're two or three years out of sync. They're having trouble just remembering the episode, much less the scene that spurs the question.
I wonder if there's an opportunity here for subscription services like NetFlix or TiVo or for retail outlets like Amazon or Blockbuster to create micro-communities of episodic entertainment viewers. Folks who aren't watching the shows "as they happen," but who are catching up. Netflix knows who else is watching Alias Season Three; could those users be connected for some watercooler conversation? Because I'm dying to talk with someone -- anyone -- about Sydney's missing two years, while season four piles up on the TiVo...
Unfortunately the Social TV research at PARC isn't going to help Michael, they want to bring people together across three dimensions and he wants to bring people together across the fourth. There's also the positive social aspects of PVRs to consider, like being able to put The Big Game™ on hold until everyone gets to the TV or pausing a movie to fight with your spouse over the remote.
I do think that the social aspects of TV and PVRs have been overlooked though. I'd like a way to suggest recordings for TiVo owners I know, sort of like Netflix's friends feature. What other ways do social software and PVRs overlap?
Update: Tom Coats has some great thoughts on social television along with UI mockups like this: