Social TV

At the BBC hackday “Mashed” earlier this year, I went to a talk explaining how to write applications that can be delivered to televisions through Freeview set-top boxes. For our CurrentCost-themed hack, we reused (that is to say, shamelessly stole!) some code from a colleague to get CurrentCost notifications onto a TV channel. The idea was that it’d be a ‘press the red button’ kind of thing where you could have results of CurrentCost challenges from you and your friends pop up as text overlaid onto the bottom of the screen while you watch TV.

I loved this idea, and it’s been bouncing around at the back of my head since. There is a lot of social network data on the web that I think would be well suited to notifications via a TV. Rather than needing to have a separate computer on, or send stuff to mobile phones, or use stand-alone ambient type devices like Nabaztags or Chumbys, why not have stuff popping up while you watch TV?

The problem with the approach we took at Mashed was that it requires you to put your code at the TV signal source, and it’ll only work on the TV channels you add it to.

What I’ve been wanting to do is find a way to do this locally – code that could run on a device that you have at home, that grabs notifications from the web, and overlays it over whatever you are watching on TV, regardless of what channel or prerecorded programme you ware watching.

I came across a device last week that looks like it should make this possible – Topfield PVRs.

I’ve just started reading about it, so I’m starting to get my head around it’s capabilities. But it’s a Linux-based Freeview set-top box with even more flexibility than a Media Centre PC. It looks very hackable: for example, you can rewrite and replace the Electronic Programme Guide if you don’t like the one that you get on the PVR. And you can write applications that will run on the PVR and which can draw to the TV screen.

I think that it should be possible, for example, to write an app that takes a subset of your Twitter friends, and pops up their tweets on the screen. Or an app which pops up where your friends are when they change location in something like Brightkite.

You could have a scrolling ticker like you get on TV news channels – only on any channel you want, and made up of feeds that you are interested in.

I love the sound of this, and it’s enough to make me want to replace my BT Home Hub (gah!) with one of these.

The only downside is that these PVRs cost about £170 (on eBay, at any rate), which is sadly more than I can afford at the moment.

But I can dream… 😉

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6 Responses to “Social TV”

  1. I’ve got one! Had it for a few years. There’s an active community of developers (at, and they’ve managed to WAY improve the inbuilt EPG, and have added the ability to record all programmes that match a certain string (this is the only way to do ‘series subscribing’ on the Freeview platform, as no data is broadcast to associate episodes together).

    The downside is that there’s no built-in wi-fi or ethernet, just USB (USB 1 on mine, but the newer ones are USB2), so you’ll need to keep another computer (or arduino?) within USB reach of your telly in order to get any kind of internet-connected functionality working…

  2. Ooh, doing a bit of reading, I think my information was actually out of date, and that Freeview broadcasts DO now actually include Series Link information.

    I’m updating my firmware as we speak…

  3. dale says:

    damn, now I’m even more jealous 😉

    as for Internet connection, I figured I could use my slug to push data in from the ‘net

    sigh… me want gadget

  4. Daniel Would says:

    hey, my mythtv box provides an on screen display command that you can drkve to put pop up alerts, or scrollers on the screen regardless of what you’re watching.
    i think they originally used it for voip incomming alerts.
    Now I’m thinking a) app to chuck twitter feeds up on tv. and b) app to show alerts from my new energy meter thing.

  5. dale says:

    That’s interesting… I’ve heard of MythTV before, but don’t know much about it. I’ll trade you a crash course in MythTV for a crash course in CurrentCost? 😉

  6. James Taylor says:

    I do quite like the idea of getting stuff on screen using the red button/some sort of digital text hack, but that does seem quite unfeasible. I almost got a toppy a few years ago but, foolishly as it turns out, decided on a different make. Darn.

    I’ve found the Wii has been far the easiest way of getting something on screen, although admittedly that doesn’t really compare. Sadly the gadget budget has been trumped by wedding budget so I’ll just be dreaming as well for a while.