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January 16, 2012
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ACR blurs categories, pushes interactivity

In the first issue of the CES (Consumer Electronics Show) Daily, a monster 168-page daily tabloid distributed to this year’s record 153,000 attendees, editor-in-chief Steve Smith introduced the first of several “Crossover” columns, essays that would focus on “how hardware and content have altered existing product categories.”

As examples, Smith asked whether the tablet is the new laptop, or small-screen TV; whether smart TVs are really computers; and whether home audio systems are really home servers. Automatic content recognition (ACR) technology, such as that demonstrated at CES by Sony subsidiary Gracenote, is another example of crossing over, in this case, from audio into video.

Digital media pioneer Gracenote is perhaps best known for its application on iTunes and car radios. Through its network infrastructure and a global data set that includes descriptions of more than 130 million songs, the company powers the presentation of metadata on these and other platforms. What the company unveiled at CES was an audio fingerprinting technology applied to the television experience.

Gracenote Entourage is based on audio content recognition

The Gracenote Entourage platform, slated for general availability in Q2 2012, will enable consumer electronics (CE) devices to identify movies, TV programs and music by simply “listening” to short sound clips. By making its extensive database available, Gracenote in turn gives consumers access to related content, including advertising brands and links to on-demand services, where they can purchase, stream and download additional content.

“This will give viewing audiences new and exciting ways to engage in the TV experience, while providing content owners, CE device makers and application developers ways to drive new revenues,” said Gracenote President Stephen White.

Whether ACR is “the biggest thing in the show,” as Gracenote CTO Ty Roberts said in a CES panel on Over the Top (OTT) video, it is clearly hot in the industry at large. It figured prominently, for instance, at the TV of Tomorrow (TVOT) New York City Intensive event in early December 2011, with panels that included executives from Audible Magic, Civolution, Ensequence, Media-Sync, Nagra, Sharp Labs, Shazam, Showtime Networks, TVplus and Zeitera.

At the outset of those TVOT panels, Media Tech Strategies President and CEO Michael Collette outlined ACR’s two primary flavors: watermarking and fingerprinting. In the first case, something is inserted into the audio or video content and then discovered by an agent sniffing for that insertion; in the second, content is examined at some post-production point, the results of which are sent to the cloud for later matching.

“Essentially it’s a workaround,” said Gracenote’s Roberts, at the OTT panel in Las Vegas. “The issue really is, without having an end-to-end pipe, the world is thrown upon whatever people have (devised).”

The lack of standards is an issue, which perhaps explains the proliferation of companies in the ACR space. Roberts noted in particular the absence of a common way to stream metadata in the Blu-ray Disc (BD) ecosystem. Absent a large and constantly growing database, it becomes a challenge, for instance, to recommend BD and many other types of newly released media.

Algorithm-based suggestions are popular apps in the social media and online commerce worlds, but the question remains: Who is the advisor? “Facebook would like to be, but they know social

Entourage allows CE devices to identify content so content related information can be provided.

networking, and aren’t an expert in recommendation,” Roberts said. “The data about the thing is the key.”

The panel’s representative from the content side had some doubts. Director of Business Development, Digital Business, for Scripps Networks (HGTV, DiY, Food Network, etc.) Eric Shih said that

ACR was a “great solution,” but he didn’t yet see big enough numbers, which left him wondering where to place his bets.

“The big question here is, these are great technical solutions, but how do we get scale?” he said. “Participation will be minimal until scaling happens.”

Roberts said scaling would come, within an aggregated OTT solution. At CES 2012, Gracenote also announced a ten-year strategic partnership with voice and natural language recognition solutions provider Nuance to advance voice-enabled music and video experiences.