Interactive TV has been around for a little while, but has existed as a niche market, solely the preserve of casual games. That might soon change with the introduction of a new service from t5 labs, which could start streaming more traditional PC games through terrestrial television set-top boxes.
Potentially including the likes of Need for Speed or Tiger Woods franchises, the service would work in a similar way to video on demand, but require nothing more than existing set-top boxes and a USB game controller.
To find out more we talked to Graham Clemie, founder and CEO of t5 labs, to find out what the opportunities are, and whether or not it might help grow the games market.
Q: First of all, this all happens through existing set-top boxes?
From the consumer's point of view, you're just using the set-top box (STB), there's nothing extra to plug in — if you want to count anything at all being plugged in it would be a game controller.
So if you're at home, and you're a subscriber to, say, Virgin Media, and you've got cable TV you'll have a STB that enables you to watch all of the TV channels provided by Virgin Media.
It also has a thing called video on demand, whereby you can press a button and watch whatever you want out of their library of movies, and it would be very similar if you were playing these PC games.
So in that case we would sell our software, and our partners, including IBM, would sell their hardware, to Virgin Media. They'd stick all of that very expensive equipment into their network, and it would be just like their existing video on demand service.
So for you at home sitting on the couch, when you press a button to watch a movie, you can see all the movies that are there — well, in a similar way you'll have a menu with games, let's say Need for Speed Underground 2, which is one of the games we've got on our demo system, you press a button, that sends a signal back up to the network saying that this person would like to play that game, and the server would boot up the game and spit out a compressed video channel which comes back to your STB.
So from your point of view it's as if you had a PC hidden inside your STB. Or it's almost as if you had your PC in front of you, and I came in and put a 2km cable between your monitor and your hard drive, which I took and put in a building somewhere. It's exactly the same really.
Q: So there's no need to upgrade your STB?
Q: What would you plug your games controller into?
Into the STB. Most modern STBs have a USB port for example. If it's really old it might have infra-red or a serial port, but most nowadays will have a USB port, so all you need is a standard USB-compatible controller, whether it's a steering-wheel or whatever.
Q: Most games that you'd currently find on things like interactive TV are really aimed at a very casual gamer, while PC games like Need for Speed are for the traditional market — is that the gap you're trying to fill?
That's right, yes. We're not going to go for the hardcore gamers who sit very close to their high-resolution monitor screen playing hardcore games like Quake 4, with surround sound and all the rest of it — they're not going to be interested in something like this.
But there are lots of other markets that this will attract — so for those gamers who are less hardcore, and maybe prefer the comfort of sitting in their living room to play games, who are fed up with having to buy all the different games consoles, and upgrade all the time, and go out and buy the games — and of course some games cost GBP 40 — this will be for them.
It will also appeal to lapsed gamers, people who may have been gamers when they were younger, and now they've kind of lost contact with that world of buying consoles, and it doesn't quite fit in to their lifestyle any more.
It's very convenient — you can imagine somebody coming home late from the pub, flicking through the TV channels trying to find something interesting, and they chance across let's say a Tiger Woods golf game.
If a message flashes up on the screen, perhaps GBP 1 to play Tiger Woods, people who used to be gamers, or even those who never were, might think, "Yes, that's something I can do — I know golf, I know Tiger Woods."
And they'll press the button, spend their GBP 1, and they'll have a game of golf. And if the game has an online capability they may even call up their friends and get them involved — so GBP1 becomes GBP 2.
And this is new money for the games publishers as well, because these are people who won't go out and buy a games console, won't keep improving their PC, and they're not going to start buying GBP 40 games. So it's enlarging the whole market.
That's one thing the Nintendo Wii has shown us — there's still a long way to go in the scope of gaming in the community.
Q: You mentioned a GBP price point — do you see this as a pay per play, or might it become part of the existing service provider's subscription?
It's up to the provider to decide, but I think it will be both a pay per play and a subscription model. Ultimately the money's going to come from the subscription, but say the subscription is GBP 15 per month — that's what Metaboli charges for you to download games — then some people who are a bit cautious who may have lapsed as gamers are not yet ready to commit too much money, so the ability to pay a small amount of money to just have a go, or even have a free level to try, I think that's very important.
So I think you need something to allow customers to try it, so let's say GBP 1 per play — whatever a "play" is defined as — but really I think it's going to be a subscription model mainly, where you pay GBP 15 to play as many games as you like whenever you like — that's the most important aspect.
But we don't decide those final details, they're down to the network operator.
Q: Several big companies are trying to get MMOs into the living room by working on the next-generation consoles — could this be a way of bringing existing PC games in there, even if it wasn't in the first iteration of the service?
Oh, it could be in the first iteration, because we're essentially just a PC, it's just that we're 2km away from the screen, so anything's fine as long as it's compatible with the input device — I think we'd have to have a standard game controller, I don't see people having a keyboard and mouse in their living room.
And as long as it's okay with whatever screen resolution they're using, I know we're moving to high definition now, but lots of people have standard TVs — then any game, whatever.
Q: What does the partnership with IBM involve?
We've been dealing with IBM for almost two years now, and the relationship is slightly different according to territory, but in the US we can introduce them to a customer, with whom they might already do USD 350 million worth of business with, but they weren't aware that this customer was interested in gaming.
So in that situation they'd probably act as prime contractor, because we're talking about a very, very large project here — thousands of servers and so on, and t5 labs can't handle that on its own.
So they'd provide the servers, and the bits that control the servers, and then our bit is the software that actually runs in each of these servers, and then our sister company would act as content aggregator, offering the operator a one-stop shop.
In other territories, their involvement might not be quite so substantial, it depends on what the customer wants, but they're also helping us by making introductions to customers and installing our software in their labs for demonstration.
Q: It's a slightly different proposition, but Microsoft have been trying to get PCs in living rooms for a while with the Media Centre — why hasn't that worked?
Yes, it is different, but there are several reasons why the media centre hasn't taken off, one is because it's yet another box, and people have already got enough boxes. You've got a DVD player, maybe a video cassette player, your STB, and this is another one.
It's also expensive, you can still have a problem with noise and trying to keep the fans quiet — but people are still working on it, and I suppose eventually you'll have one box that takes over from everything, but all those problems have been holding it back. And Intel with its Viiv hasn't really gotten anywhere either.
But you can think of the Xbox as a PC in some ways, and that's the other way that Microsoft have of attacking the market, they've got this kind of dual approach — and the Xbox also acts like a STB, they're streaming video across the network to it.
So that in effect puts them in competition with my customers — the carriers don't want to be reduced to mere bit carriers, they want to add some value. So in fact, we're supplying the weapons for the network carriers to fight back against this
Graham Clemie is the founder an CEO of t5 labs. Interview by Phil Elliott.