W3C Web and TV Workshop

Last week I attended the Third W3C Web and TV Workshop (disclosure: I was a member of the program committee). This was the third in a series of three workshops that the W3C has organized around the intersection of web technologies and television. The purpose of the workshops is to bring these two communities together and help them understand and work with each other. The W3C has formed an interest group for member companies who are interested in working on issues related to the web and television.

Some of the topics discussed at the workshop included multi-screen experiences (there were 2.5 sessions on this topic, including some demonstrations), synchronized metadata, codecs (particularly around adaptive bit rate streaming over HTTP), and (inevitably) content protection/DRM.   

Given the advent of the iPad and other tablets, it should be no surprise that multi-screen experiences were a big topic. Apple has done some interesting work with AirPlay, but the general technology infrastructure for enabling multi-screen experiences is a mess. There are issues ranging from the “bottom”, related to the discovery of the various devices, through the negotiation of which devices have which roles, up to the mechanism for synchronizing content and metadata amongst these devices. There’s a lot of work to be done here, and some of that will be done in conjunction with other industry groups like DLNA and so forth. I’m most interested in the upper levels, which should be helping with synchronizing the experience and facilitating inter device/application communication.   

There was also significant discussion around synchronized metadata, which is highly relevant to multi-screen experiences, although there was more discussion/demonstration of end experiences as opposed to technologies that could be standardized to facilitate those experiences. Sylvia Pfeiffer gave an interesting demo of WebVTT using the Captionator polyfill. One of the best things about this discussion was that one of my colleagues from ESPN later explained to me the details of how captioning is done in their broadcast and internet workflows.

It’s impossible to talk about television without talking about video, and the two largest topics around video and the web are codecs and content protection. Most of the discussion around codecs revolved around the work at MPEG on Dynamic Adaptive Streaming over HTTP (DASH). There are at least three solutions in the market for streaming video via HTTP, all mutually incompatible for dumb reasons. DASH is an attempt to standardize that mechanism, while remaining silent on the question of which codec is used to produce the video file being streamed.

On the content protection front, there was the usual disconnect between the web world and the tv world. For me, the discussion here really centers around the ability to use the HTML5 video tag to deliver “premium” content. Today that content is delivered via the object tag and associated browser plugins. The problem is that each plugin works differently, so your web application code has to deal with all the possibilities that it might encounter. There appears to be some interest in standardizing a small and narrow set of API’s that web applications could use to interact with a content protection mechanism. Unsurprisingly, there was very little interest in standardizing a content protection mechanism for HTML5, especially since there isn’t agreement on a standard video codec.

Recently the W3C has been working very hard at getting consumer/content side companies to participate in its activities. Because the workshop was open to anyone, not just W3C member companies, there were a lot of attendees who were not from the traditional W3C constituencies. Personally, I think that this is a good thing, and not just in the Web and TV space. It will be interesting to see how much progress can be made – the Apple and Google native application models, are this generation’s Flash and Silverlight. I hope that we can find a way to build the next generation of television experiences atop the Open Web technology stack.

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