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Consumer Electronics Show: Competing visions of interactive TV from Yahoo and Vualla

January 7, 2011 |  4:45 pm

Technically speaking, humans cannot pay full attention to more than one thing at any given moment. Yet there's no shortage of people at this week's Consumer Electronics Show offering ways to throw more content at people while they're watching TV.

YahooConnectedTV Here are two examples. Yahoo announced a new wrinkle on its Connected TV widgets: broadcasts that let viewers interact on the TV screen with the programming. That's the one screen, two feeds approach. Meanwhile, San Francisco-based startup Vualla showed off its two-screen solution: an iPad application that assembles content from the Web to accompany the viewing of popular TV shows.

Yahoo's "broadcast interactivity" is an update on what interactive TV pioneers such as Wink Communications were doing a decade ago on early digital cable systems. When prompted by an on-screen icon during a show or a commercial, viewers will be able to bring up an interactive widget — for example, a poll or an offer to take a test drive — that will cover a small portion of the screen. They can then respond to the widget with their remote control, and their connected TVs will pass responses back to the network or advertiser via the Internet.

Not surprisingly, HSN has signed on to participate in a trial run later this year. So have ABC, CBS and Showtime, as well as three big TV advertisers: Ford, Mattel and Microsoft.

Yahoo's widgets are available on selected TVs, Blu-ray players and set-top boxes, including models from Sony, Samsung, Toshiba, D-Link and Haier.

Vualla started off as CRemote, a software developer making a universal remote control application for the iPhone. The company then explored offering a way to browse TV shows through an app, but found the small smartphone screen "kind of limiting," said Sidney Chen, the company's director of products. And then the iPad came out and Vualla was born.

Its free app will be released toward the end of this month as a "Super Bowl companion," offering copious amounts of video (gleaned mainly from YouTube) related to the game and its two teams. It also will feature relevant Facebook fan pages and Twitter feeds, including tweets from selected players not in the big game.

That version of the app is just a preview of the general-purpose version of Vualla, which will act as a companion for numerous popular shows and big events. Again, the point is to gather videos, cast bios and other information from the Web related to what people are watching on TV.

The app will prominently feature tweets about shows that are attracting the most attention on Twitter, serving as a guage of what's hot. Those won't necessarily be shows that people want to watch — "Jersey Shore" comes to mind — but the tweets are entertaining in their own right. "Polarizing shows kind of have that effect," Chen said.

Also featured will be links to content related to the shows that are popular among Vualla users. Users will be able to customize the app, Chen said, to determine the other elements of the app's main page. For example, they could display links to sports-related programming or movies. The company has no plans to display a TV programming guide, Chen said, but its feeds about programs will show which ones happen to be on the air at that moment.

— Jon Healey

 Photo: A screen image of Yahoo's Connected TV / Credit: BusinessWire

Healey writes editorials for The Times' Opinion Manufacturing Division.