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Showyou brings a new vision of TV to the iPad

April 13, 2011 |  7:10 am

  Showyou_ipad_grid_overtheshoulder

While Time Warner Cable and Cablevision deliver conventional television programming to their customers' iPads, other companies are trying to use the tablet to redefine what TV might be. A good example is the San Francisco-based Remixation, the company behind Vodpod, which unveils an intriguing online video application for the iPad Wednesday.

The free app, Showyou, enables people to create and watch personalized streams of online video. Instead of relying on the talents of TV studios and network programming executives, it draws from user-generated content sites (YouTube, Vimeo and TED at the moment) and social networks (Facebook, Twitter and Vodpod). And it takes advantage of the touch screen on the iPad (or iPhone or iPod Touch) to make it easier to navigate through the grid of shows, rather than the up-down and left-right buttons of a TV remote.

The short-term goal is to be "the best app on your phone or your tablet for finding video and sharing it with your friends," Chief Executive Mark Hall said. But "the more provocative long-term vision" is to become a prime-time TV alternative.

That's quite a reach, especially considering that Showyou doesn't accommodate videos from the major TV networks' websites or Hulu, and it doesn't support Flash. It can, however, be displayed on a big television screen if you've got an Apple TV set-top box, using Apple's Airplay technololgy to stream video wirelessly from the iPad, iPhone or iPod Touch.

And Showyou can be addictive. The iPad application aggregates 800 clips in a grid that can be scrolled in two dimensions. The ones displayed closest to the starting point (that is, the upper left corner of the grid) are the newest clips posted by the people you follow on Showyou, Facebook, Twitter or Vodpod. The app then leavens your feed with clips popular among other Showyou users.

(On an iPhone or iPod Touch, the interface is one-dimensional -- you scroll up and down, not left and right -- and it's divided into three streams: a feed from Showyou users, another from your social networks, and third filled with Showyou's most popular clips.)

"We didn't want you to have the cold start problem," Hall explains. The clips added from outside your social network also help you find new people to follow -- people who share videos that are more interesting to you than the ones from your sources on Facebook or Twitter. After all, you're probably not choosing people to follow on Twitter based on their tastes in online video. Showyou aims to expand your social graph by adding a node focused on that part of your life.

Twitter can be a great source of real-time news, but its users mainly post text, not video. So Showyou isn't a great tool for finding the latest update on a major controversy or disaster. But Hall says it's not designed to be.

"We didn't want this to be a real-time news reader," he said in a recent interview. "So much of sharing video is the things ... that are going to be as fun to watch in an hour, three hours or three days from now as they are this minute."

And unlike the one-way broadcasting platform of conventional TV, Showyou encourages users to interact with the material. For example, people can leave comments about videos, share the clips posted by users they're not following with the ones in their own network, and nudge the videos they like up Showyou's popularity ladder.

The company plans to support itself by selling advertisements, although Hall said users will be able to choose whether to watch them. It also hopes to sell subscriptions to premium tiers of programming that probably would be longer-form videos. He wouldn't go into detail, but it sounds like a way for Showyou to integrate something like Hulu Plus -- the $8-a-month service that enables people to watch Hulu on iPads and other mobile devices. With major TV networks having second thoughts about providing new programming for free over the Net, services such as Showyou may have no choice but to create premium tiers if they want to offer TV shows that aren't weeks or months old.

Then again, Showyou may not need full episodes of "30 Rock" and "The Daily Show" to be sufficiently entertaining. YouTube is a rich universe crying out for the kind of culling that Showyou promises. Naturally, one's Showyou experience depends on how diligent the people you follow on Facebook and Twitter are about sharing the videos they stumble upon at YouTube and other sites that don't rely on Flash. But as with any app that relies on social networking tools, the experience will improve as more people use it.

Crowd-sourcing and social curation have the potential to remake TV eventually. Showyou is betting that the transformation has already happened.

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-- Jon Healey

Healey writes editorials for The Times' Opinion Manufacturing Division.

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