Is This The Future of TV?

X1′s Rio Hub page (Image credit: Comcast)

If you’re watching the Olympics on an X1 box from Comcast, chances are you’re not watching the same show that I am. In fact, since coverage of 306 events will generate an estimated 6,700 hours of programming and 34 million pieces of metadata — like stats, video info, photos — it’s possible no two people will see the same show.

“It feels like we’re building the future of TV.”

“We’re learning how we can integrate content from all these different sources – live TV feeds, internet streams, and real-time data — and showing how television can have its own unique, really meaningful experience,” explained Chris Satchell, who came from Nike last year to become Comcast’s chief product officer.

Whether or not it suggests the future of television, it’s certainly a bold break with its past.

TV is a classic 20th century command-and-control system that distributes content for consumption. Sure, it has gotten broader over time, with videotape and then DVR giving consumers more latitude in watching it, and deeper, thanks to cable, so there’s more to watch. The themes and language have changed, and some programs have plumbed ever-greater depths of brilliance or stupidity.

But the basic approach to programming has remained unchanged. TV, whether connected to cable, satellite, the Internet, or a pair of rabbit ears, is simply an interface for consumption.

Until now.

“For the Olympics, we wanted people to customize their experiences, like following specific nations, teams, or sporting events,” Satchell said, noting that doing so required a huge amount of technical innovation, not just to do things like tag athletes, ingest metadata, and integrate artwork and IP streams — and make it searchable — but make the consumer experience simple.

Oh, and it had to be real-time, thanks to the Rio games happening in a timezone that was friendly to prime time viewing in the U.S.

“We had a running start because we’d already built many innovative X1 features since launching the X1 platform in 2012, so for the Olympics it was about how to take the technology, personalization and control to the next level,” according to Satchell.

Yet giving its customers the authority to invent their own TV experiences had its challenges.

The Games occupy 11 channels of video programming, and generate 40 IP streams of data at any one time, which had to be integrated in order to support advertising. Graphics for every permutation of experience had to be rendered in real-time on X1, along with building 300+ athlete bio pages and programming 1,500 new, unique Olympics-specific voice commands (like “Watch Italian men’s volleyball,” or “Find taekwando”).

Comcast also will have a 24/7 operations system to monitor the performance of its products during the games.

And back to that consumer experience thing, which is a priority for Brian Roberts, Comcast’s CEO who, according to Satchell, has “a great eye for detail.” The viability of Comcast’s innovation will be decided by its viewers’ experiences in the here and now, but it’s hard not to ponder what it could mean if it succeeds.

“Because X1 is cloud-based, we can make real-time updates and really customize the viewing experience around big events like the Academy Awards or the Super Bowl,” Satchell explained.

“What we’re doing right now with X1 is very meaningful to the people here, and it’s changing the way people watch TV.”