Massive Interactive brings a combination of user experience design and technology to the convergence of television and the internet. Ron Downey, its founder and chief executive spoke exclusively to informitv about his perspective on the wider world of interactive television experiences and what makes his company different when it comes to designing and developing them.
The company started in Sydney in 1996 as a web development shop at the dawn of the interactive era, modestly called Massive Interactive even then. It became involved in interactive television through developing services for Austar. The former pay-television company, acquired by Foxtel in 2012, took a 50% stake in Massive Interactive in 1999, which the management bought back the following year.
The Australian company expanded to London in 2008 and then New York in 2013. Having grown organically, the company then sold a majority stake to private equity fund Southport Lane and now trades as a public company through the OTC market.
Massive Interactive says its business is predicated on three primary factors: the perennial appeal of television and video, the convenience and utility of interactivity, and the power of the internet to deliver on demand.
At CES, the company announced the launch of its Massivision managed video platform, a hosted multi-screen video delivery platform for ‘TV Everywhere’ services. This builds on video content management and multiscreen user interface components previously deployed with companies including BT, Deutsche Telekom, Channel 5 and Sky New Zealand.
One of the key differentiators that its founder identifies is having user experience designers and developers working closely together. Whereas some online video platforms have strong technical capabilities, he suggests they do not excel at user experience design, while some design firms do not necessarily have a strong technical foundation.
“What we have is absolute strength in both and we can demonstrate that very clearly,” the chief executive claimed. “Our user experience design and technical services are used by tier one telcos and operators all over the world, sometimes separately and sometimes together.”
The challenge of delivering multiscreen ‘TV Everywhere’ experiences is the large number of technical platforms that need to be supported, each with its own operating environment. These are typically addressed through bespoke applications.
Massive Interactive says it has focussed its efforts on developing a framework that enables clients to run a single service across multiple target devices, each using a different presentation layer. It claims that this gives clients a tactical advantage in being able to roll out across different devices rapidly at comparatively low cost.
While such an approach is not unique, the founder talks about abstracting interaction models, rather than application programming interfaces. This reflects the emphasis of the company on user interaction design.
User experience, rather than technology specification, is a primary concern for executives that commission such services. Educated in product and user experience design by companies like Apple that have invested heavily in this area, clients can appreciate for themselves the benefits of a focus on user experience design.
While some vendors tend to focus on their own definition of the problem, with their end-to-end solutions, a user-experience led approach to development means starting at a conceptual level, identifying the real requirements of users and all their possible interactions. As Ron Downey remarks: “The very last think is making it look pretty.”
He recently recruited Peter Deslandes, the former product manager for the BBC News web site, as director of experience design in London.
Observing the technical and commercial fragmentation of the market, he said: “We thrive on chaos. There are lots of forces that will keep the playing field varied and competitive”.
He does not seem particularly optimistic about or threatened by the potential for technologies like HTML5 to create a lingua franca for devices and displays, saying: “We have not seen that HTML5 has solved all these problems”.
However, he is more positive about HbbTV, the hybrid broadband broadcast standard that uses HTML. Developed in Europe, free-to-air broadcasters in Australia are adopting the standard and Massive Interactive is heavily involved.
Another area where the company has specialised is in-flight entertainment systems, developing services for Qantas, Emirates and Virgin, who compete as much on their media services as their routes and fares.
Once rather primitive services, in-flight entertainment systems have become increasingly sophisticated, offering a range of media comparable to those available in the home. Operating in a constrained environment, such systems present a very particular design challenge. With wireless networks and carry on devices like iPads, there is the opportunity to enhance the experience further, to extend it before and after the journey.
With their high-value customers, airlines are in a position to become media brands. Virgin, through its various licenced properties, is already. As Ron Downey puts it: “Anybody can be a media player now”.
That is a massive opportunity for a company that started out in Sydney and now counts major broadcasters and telecommunications companies among its clients.