Next Big Thing: The NU world of TV advertising

With NUads, Microsoft Advertising is about to change television as we know it. So what does this mean for our industry?

Strategy magazine’s Next Big Thing series explores the concepts and technology that will likely change the media and marketing games in the not-so-distant future. Part one explores the evolution of television viewing. Stay tuned for more from this series in the next few days.

Imagine you’re watching a reality TV competition, and when your favourite singer (or dancer, or juggler) performs, instead of reaching for your phone to call or text in your vote, you simply wave your hand and your vote is cast. Or perhaps you’re watching a commercial and you’d like to know more about a product. You tell your TV to send more info, and it arrives in your email inbox. Just like that.

Gesture and voice-recognition technology have been creeping into our lives for a while now. Strategy’s special Cannes Festival of Creativity issue cited Boston-based SapientNitro’s development of an ice cream vending machine for Unilever that recognizes smiles as an early hit, as well as Toronto-based Starcom’s creation of a game for Corn Pops that used webcams to allow tweens to virtually fling cereal into bowls (both unveiled in 2010).

So when Microsoft Advertising unveiled something that they claimed would “change television as we know it – forever” at Cannes this summer, the world paid attention. And after talking to Mark Kroese, GM, advertising advertising businesss group, at Microsoft Advertising, it’s hard not to drink the Kool-Aid, so to speak. If all goes according to Microsoft’s plan, television will indeed never be the same.

It’s called NUads, and if you have yet to catch up on the considerable amount of buzz since its announcement, here it is in a nutshell: viewers at home will connect to their televisions through the Kinect system for Xbox 360. Through its voice and gesture-control technology, they will be able to interact with TV in a variety of ways – prompts along the bottom of the screen will alert them to share information with friends via Twitter (by saying “Xbox Tweet”); request info by email (“Xbox more”); locate retailers near them (“Xbox near me”); schedule an event, like a TV show reminder (“Xbox schedule”); and as previously mentioned, vote with the wave of a hand – on anything from reality competitions to surveys about, well, anything. (To see it in action, watch the video on YouTube.)

Of course, the mass adoption of this technology is contingent on several factors. For consumers, it requires an Xbox, a Kinect sensor and an Xbox Live account, and for Microsoft Advertising it requires linear video content to be fed through the system.

“That strategy is at various phases of development throughout different parts of the world,” says Kroese, “but suffice to say it’s an explicit, fundamental part of our strategy to partner with the world of cable companies and content providers.” Kroese is confident that all necessary partnerships will be in place by the anticipated launch in spring 2012.

So once the deals are in place and TV content is piping into Canada via Xbox, what about the viewers who prefer to be passive?

“We’ve always had a principle with respect to interactivity, which is invite, don’t interrupt,” says Kroese. “We don’t want to make people interact, but we make it easy.”

He notes that today there is demand for interaction that can’t be met because of technological barriers. While interactivity and engagement are generally associated with young digital natives, Kroese notes that NUads opens this interactive world up to everyone.

“You need training to use the mouse, you need training to use a controller or a keyboard or remote, you don’t need training to talk and you don’t need training to wave your arms and legs,” he says.

“More and more content providers, whether they’re creators of TV shows or advertisers, will make content which is irresistibly interactive, so it’s the old ‘if you build it, they will come.’”

Kroese says that in Cannes he had many meetings with interested parties who were already shooting off ideas on how they could use this technology.

And those who join the NUads party will have to change the way they think about how media is bought, sold and measured. Besides taking 360-degree thinking to the next level by intrinsically linking everything, Kroese notes that TV buying will become more web-like. “Nobody thinks about click-through rates on TV today,” he says. “The responsiveness of a TV commercial is now much more easily measured.”

Here at home, Jeff Dickstein, gaming solutions executive, Microsoft Advertising, says he expects Canadian adoption to be swift.

“Canadians consume more digital media, and more digital in general, than Americans and many other countries in the world. Also, our creative shops are incredibly digitally savvy,” he says, noting that when Microsoft introduces something in Canada, it typically gets gobbled up by agencies and brands that want to be first.

“I think one of the problems in Canada has been a scalability issue – you want to dream big but your production costs outweigh your media budget,” says Dickstein. “[The vision] is to make this as simple as possible for creative shops with as little production costs as possible, so we can use existing creative, we can run it through our networks, we can optimize it through our technology so it becomes interactive TV at a very scalable and doable price.”

Kroese says that Microsoft Advertising wants to change the perception of Xbox as a gaming console into the entertainment hub of the living room, and hopes this change will result in a very high penetration of Xboxes around the world, noting that the current sales trajectory suggests that will be the case. (There have been 50 million Xboxes sold worldwide so far.)

“There’s a whole world out there that’s growing as younger people become older, of people who are inherently interactive and social and are really adopting this type of technology,” says Kroese. “We absolutely see this as where the puck is going – to speak in Canadian terms – and that’s very exciting.”