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The Future of TV? Inside the Venice Project Beta

The Venice Project (TVP) is a new online video application from Niklas Zennstrom and Janus Friis - the team who brought us Skype, which was sold to eBay for over two billion dollars in 2005. So, not only does the team have resources, but an amazing track record. This time, they are focused on merging the best of TV and the Internet. From what I’ve seen so far in the beta, they are off to an amazing start. I’ve only been playing for a day or so but I want to tell you about my first-blush experience. I do not certify accuracy at this early stage.

Getting Started

After downloading the application (yes, application – it is not browser based) it checked my system compatibility and I was rolling. The first striking part of the experience is that it opens in full-screen mode and the iconography looks to be inspired by Superman’s kryptonite crystals (called “dancing crystals�?). Within a few seconds, I was watching full screen video. A quality full screen experience is a big goal of TVP. I noticed that when I put my mouse over the screen, a few things appear.
CC Navigation My Venice.jpg (All screenshots are approved and can be found here.)

They are:

My Channels – For now, The Venice Project comes with about 30 channels pre-loaded. When you click “My Channels�? a translucent menu appears enabling you to peel through your channels. You can add channels via the “Channel Catalogue�?, also displayed. The selection of current content is reasonable – action sports, celebrity, comedy, gadgetry, etc. Some content is shown with short pre-roll ads. This selection is not reflective of post-beta channels.
CC Program.jpg

TVP Player: At the bottom of the screen are controls for the player, including the ability to skip programs, change channels and a search box. A search for “comedy�? produced a display of comedy shows sorted by type (best hit, animation, short). You can play a show directly from the search results or get more information. The player has a button for “standby�? that minimizes the whole application to the system tray. When opening, it opens quickly and begins playing immediately. While playing, you can rewind a show, but you cannot skip forward.

My Venice - My Venice is the most impressive part of the experience, but requires full screen mode. This is where TV becomes social. “My Venice�? is run by a set of plug-ins that place little translucent widgets on the screen that disappear and reappear with a mouse click. You choose how many plug-ins to use. The video keeps playing behind the widgets as they appear. The choices are:

  • Rate It: A five-star rating system related to the content you are viewing (ratings go from Terrible to Awesome!!)
  • Channel Chat: Displays how many people are watching a channel and enables chat between the viewers.
  • Blog ticker: Posts from TVP beta blog in scrolling ticker form.
  • News/RSS Ticker: An RSS feed reader that displays in scrolling ticker form. I could add a feed from Flickr (comments), but not a Feedburner feed.
  • IM Sign In: If you have a GTalk or Jabber account, you can sign in from inside TVP and chat while watching. Your IM status displays what you are watching. No integration with Gmail yet
  • Notice Board: Info, notices about the TVP Beta, in normal paragraph form.
  • Clock: A digital version of the face of a clock

It looks a little like this:
CC Desktop.jpg

The widgets can be moved around the screen to any position, including stacked on top of one-another. I find it a little cumbersome to navigate from the screen of widgets back to the viewing screen. You have to click a near ubiquitous little circle at the upper right that acts as a “return to viewing screen�? button. I am most impressed with the IM, chat and RSS feed integration. I expected to be able to sign into Skype chat, but no. The widgets remind me of aggregators like Netvibes or Pageflakes that bring together information like weather, stockquotes, rss feeds and email into one application. My guess is that there will be many more plug-ins in the future.

The Viewing Experience:

TVP is currently organized into channels with each channel have a few programs, all streamed into TVP. The user does not view any content from a local file. A goal of TVP is to reduce the load time when switching channels. From the TVP player itself, or "My Channels", you can click through channels until you find a program you like. When switching channels, the dancing crystals appear while the show loads. The load time I see right now is about 2 seconds for an ad to load (not all shows have ads) and about 4 seconds for the show to load. Video quality seems to depend on the show. An action sports show was pixilated while music videos look quite nice. The overall quality of the video is not TV quality. I cannot imagine this on a big-screen TV.

Impressive, But It's Early:

TVP is still in beta and has some issues still, but The Venice Project is a very slick implementation of a new kind of peer-to-peer based video network. What’s not clear to me now is when and how users will be able to submit user generated (You Tube-style) video content. Right now it appears to be a new pipe for more professionally produced content. In order to be truly disruptive, there has to be a mechanism for individuals without media credentials to be rewarded for quality work. I’ll be very interested to see what develops as they move toward the long tail of amateur video production. And then there's the copyright issue. This will be interesting.

See also: Om Malik at NewTeeVee on the technology behind The Venice Project.