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ClipSync and the wisdom of the peanut gallery

March 5, 2010 |  3:30 am

ClipSync, social TV, Facebook, CBS watch and chat, IFC, SXSW In the online video market, Web-based businesses and software developers are taking at least three different approaches to incorporating social media into their products. One, exemplified by user-generated video sites such as YouTube, relies on the crowd to supply videos. Another, represented by Boxee and TVLoop, relies on the crowd to curate what's available online and help people decide what to watch. The third adds the crowd to the viewing experience itself, turning online TV into a more social affair. That's what San Francisco-based ClipSync is doing for CBS, Epix and other video suppliers online. Depending on how much you want to interact with other viewers and the program itself, ClipSync's technology can provide a distinct departure from the usual, insular activity of watching a show online.

ClipSync's software enables multiple people to watch and interact with a particular video simultaneously. At the "watch and chat" section of CBS.com, for example, the latest episodes of 21 different programs play in virtual viewing rooms. You can jump into one of the rooms to watch an episode in progress ...

... or you can start your own room and invite your Facebook friends to join in. As the episode plays, viewers can post comments, answer trivia questions or throw a handful of virtual items (e.g., a kiss or a tomato) at the screen. The comments pop up along the bottom of the video, giving a viewing room with active participants a Mystery Science Theater 3000 vibe. But in many of the rooms, the peanut gallery is silent. Just because the chat tool is available doesn't mean people will use it.

Itzik Cohen, chief executive of ClipSync, said the company's tests found that four out of five Internet video consumers would rather watch with other people than alone. But most would also prefer to let other people provide the commentary rather than posting their own wisecracks. The comments often go on long after the video has ended; according to Sam Baron, ClipSync's chief technical officer, people were spending so much extra time in the viewing rooms, CBS started running advertisements after its episodes ended.

The ClipSync platform can be used for live events too. The company announced Friday that the Independent Film Channel will use its technology and Akamai's distribution network to offer live, interactive, high-definition video broadcasts from the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, three times daily, starting March 12. In addition to enabling viewers to chat with each other and react to the video, IFC will let people pose questions to the performers and celebrities featured in the SXSW sessions. In effect, ClipSync gives IFC the power to turn its broadcast into a video conference that the network can manage remotely through the Web.

So far, the bulk of ClipSync's revenue has come from licensing deals for its technology. It also has an advertising component, though -- the virtual items viewers can throw at the screen can carry a sponsor's brand, and it can insert interactive ads (e.g., casual computer games that convey a sponsor's message) into programming breaks.

Cohen describes ClipSync's platform as a way for video publishers to counteract the fragmented and solitary nature of watching video online, re-creating the social aspect of watching TV in your living room with friends and family. But the experience can be more like a new medium than a better simulation of an old one, as companies like IFC use ClipSync to deliver new types of content that are designed to be interactive. It's just a matter of time before such innovations migrate from the PC to the living room. Cohen said the company is working with hardware manufacturers and software developers to bring ClipSync to the TV screen, although the only such deal made public so far is with Boxee.

-- Jon Healey

Healey writes editorials for The Times' Opinion Manufacturing Division. Follow him on Twitter: @jcahealey
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