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BT invents semantic television

Telecoms giant comes up with the next generation of interactive TV, where the viewers decide the storyline
Written by David Meyer, Contributor

BT has taken a leading role in the creation of the world's first "shape-shifted" television programme.

Accidental Lovers, which will broadcast on Finnish television on 27 December, is a romantic comedy with a difference — the ability of its viewers to influence the storyline as the programme goes out.

In an evolution of today's interactive TV, SMS messages texted in by the audience will — in real time — cause the characters to either fall in love or break up. Texted comments will also appear on screen.

BT Research's Doug Williams, the project leader, told ZDNet UK on Tuesday that, because Accidental Lovers will be broadcast traditionally, all viewers will see the same narrative unfold. However, the idea in the long run is for tailored programmes to go out on IPTV platforms such as BT Vision, launched last week.

"The principle is really one of developing personalised TV," said Williams, who said his team was in talks with BT Vision about the idea, but there were no firm plans as yet to include it in the Vision service.

BT "came up with the original ideas" for and created the software behind the project, which is being run by a European consortium including Cambridge University and Goldsmiths. "What we've had to do is invent a means of describing narrative," said Williams, adding that the user-generated compilation of that narrative meant BT had to come up with a new "narrative structure language".

What this shape-shifted TV amounts to is somewhat analogous to the "Semantic Web", in that objects within it need to be categorised through "semi-automatic description techniques" to allow the finished product to be quickly assembled as user preferences are inputted.

"Each media item and its position in the role and narrative has to be described and understood," Williams explained. "We have had to use a lot of ontological ideas behind this."

The end form of this kind of media would pose challenges for the traditional media production workflow, he added, while pointing out that it took 150 years after Gutenberg invented the printing press before the form of the English novel emerged.

Williams also used the successful documentary series Coast as the basis for an explanation of what shape-shifting TV could end up being like. The programme currently covers various aspects of the UK coastline, but Williams suggested that the new model, based on user preferences, could let viewers "watch a programme all about different industrial or tourist uses of the coast, or the coast near you".

Accidental Lovers image

Two cast-members from Accidental Lovers.

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