Delving into the Rainbow

Kids program tests technology that links HTML tags to items in a video frame

Reading Rainbow
is testing an interactive-television technology designed by Creative Frontier that will give students, parents and teachers the opportunity to dive deeper into the program. The technology allows HTML links to be tied to specific items within a video frame, opening up e-commerce and, in this case, educational opportunities.

"We're going to use it to help push new content to people who have been using the Reading Rainbow
videos," says Steve Lenzen, executive director of GPN, producer of the show. "We're producing a limited number of new shows, but this would allow us to push more content to students, teachers and parents."

The Creative Frontier product, ClickVision, has already been tested during the premiere of the Pax show Next Big Star, hosted by Ed McMahon. It allows producers to attach HTML tags that correlate to specific items seen in the video frame.

"Product placement stops at the negative," says Creative Frontier CEO Dan Bates. "So I came up with this idea: What if you could click on an item on-screen and be served with an opportunity for a transaction or a page of information?"

Lenzen says the trial is part of a federal project to create materials that would increase literacy and also link the schools to the homes. The first stage will begin in March and April and will include 75 families at 15 schools in Nebraska, Maryland and South Carolina. Students will watch the program on the television and engage with the interactive content on a PC.

At this point, the technology is available only on the PC, which means that the viewer needs to use both a TV and a PC simultaneously. Bates says it can be used on the Motorola DCT2000 set-top box, which will eventually allow users to access the Web content through the TV.

For now, viewers watch the program on the TV while a synchronized version is streamed on the PC (only selected frames can be tagged in case legal issues prevent streaming). The interactive tags are kept on Creative Frontier Web servers. When the show is aired on television, the viewer accesses a Web site that hosts the data.

"We'll see whether, for children's-type programming, if a two-screen experience can work," Lenzen says. Students will hit the spacebar on the PC when they see something that interests them, and the computer will be sent information from GPN servers synchronized to the program they're watching.

"We're doing two episodes, and we'll give them new material that will be extra Web sites or activities the students can do on their own," he adds. "We're just now beginning the research on what that content will be."

Once the smaller trial is completed, the technology and approach will be re-evaluated before a larger test begins later in the year. "The PBS stations in those states are the ones participating in the project," Lenzen says. "In the fall, we expect to blow it out to eight states with a larger amount of people and then, in the following year, to offer it to all the PBS stations."

To embed the tags, a user sits down at a dedicated, dual-processor PC and a spreadsheet of what content to place where. Placing the tags is done by clicking and dragging a box over the item in the first frame of video in which the item appears (for example, a shirt). The system associates a tag with the box, which defines its boundaries by the item. Whenever that item appears on screen, the tag is associated with it. Tags can also be layered so that a necklace, say, can have a different tag from the shirt beneath it. Up to 100 items can be tagged in a given program, and, according to Bates, it takes about four hours to complete the process for a half-hour show.