Monday, April 13, 2009

When Socialism is a Good Thing - a Revolutionary Idea in Commercial Skipping

This is a guest post by Ray, many know him as GhostLobster on the web

OK, whatever remnants from the U.S.S.R. are still straggling around, you can now extend the finger of your choice at the rest of us and give us a resounding “I told you so!” In this one case, you may have been right. Jere Jones, developer of Show Analyzer, has a Stalin-esq dream of a world in which we all share commercial skipping data as members of a large, happy community that never has to watch Billy Maze and his Mighty Putty again.

Commercial Skipping in HTPC's Today

There are a core group of independent developers who have written applications for home theater computers (HTPCs) which, to paraphrase Andy Vt who is one of the best, Enable Laziness. One of the cornerstone families of these applications is the commercial detection and skipping group. In a very George Jetson-like moment of inspiration, someone realized that holding down the fast forward button during a commercial was just too straining on the thumb, so he/she wrote a tool that would scan a video file, locate the locations of our friend Mr. Maze and his cohorts within the file, and mark the commercials in such a way so that the commercial is skipped over while playing back. “Brilliant!” (holding up a Guinness.) When the dust settled, 2 applications remained as the main players in this arena, Comskip and Jere Jones’ Show Analyzer.

With the recent advancements in the HTPC world, different file formats have emerged necessitating the need for new tools that support new file formats. Comkip and Show Analyzer are evolving to meet these changes. I’m not about to get into a “Which is better and why” debate here, though. They are both great solutions that have their benefits and drawbacks. After listening to Jere’s recent interview on Entertainment 2.0, however, one can’t help but be impressed with his visionary goals.

The 2 biggest drawbacks of commercial detection software are the heavy load they put on your system while they are scanning and analyzing each recording, and inaccuracies in the commercial detection. Nothing is more frustrating than watching 24, and just as Jack Bauer is about apply a cattle prod to someone’s pancreas (As a boy, Jack Bauer interrogated his parents on Easter until they revealed the location and contents of each hidden egg. [from Jack Bauer Facts]), the commercial skip kicks in and moves you to some far less interesting scene in the show. Jere has found a way to remove both of these shortcomings from future versions of Show Analyzer.

Adding a "Social" Element to Commercial Skipping

What if there was a dynamically updated master database of shows and commercials to draw from? When you record a show, Show Analyzer will be able to call upon its resources, provided by other SA users, and use that data to provide the commercial skipping data. In the interview, Jere says he’s found a way to “identify commercials individually and my vision of the end-game is that much like your computer with a virus scanner will log on and download recent definitions for viruses, Show Analyzer will log on and download recent definitions for commercials…Once I get version 1 out, that’s the next step.

“It can take things it learned when analyzing one show, and improve the detection on another show. If you’re doing the definitions of commercials, then that has to wait until that time. But, if we’re doing the actual real-time social network of commercials, then it’s all live.”

Additionally, this method could provide another avenue for show recommendations. “Now I know that someone who watches Lost, typically also watches NCIS or something like that. Now you can get more intelligent recommendations on what shows to watch. I have no idea how I’m going to use that, or how to make it available, because I know privacy is important, but it would be much better than what Netflix is giving you because it’s actually giving you what people are recording and making recommendations based on that. “

The personal security folks out there probably just swallowed their underwear in concern over that tid-bit. However, it is very easy for this information to be completely anonymous. Additionally, a developer as reputable as Jere deserves the benefit of the doubt. However, if you’re the type who has hired a personal security force to protect you in case you attacked by insatiable super-models, then I’m certain that SA will offer the ability to opt-out of this feature.

But wait, there’s more! Closed captioning. “In this social aspect of this, if someone has the captions (for a show), and those get uploaded to the server, then anybody else who records that show who, does not have the captions can get them so that now they don’t have to have exactly the right (tuner) card, and exactly the right drivers, and exactly the right software… The next step of the captions is to translate them up in the cloud so that if the English captions get uploaded, then everybody else has the option of downloading the Spanish captions, or Israeli captions, or Russian captions.” (I knew we’d get to the Russians at some point!)

ShowAnalyzer Will Support Windows 7 Media Center Commercial Detection!


Does all that sound ambitions to you? Yeah, me too! However, if history is any indicator, Jere will be able to deliver. Additionally, with the Windows TV Pack of 2008, and with Windows 7, Microsoft has introduced a new recorded TV format called .wtv. Up until now, all common commercial skipping applications puked all over themselves trying to analyze and detect these files. Jere says he will be able to support commercial detection on .wtv files possibly as soon as the first week in May.

If you act now… As of now, Show Analyzer version 1 is in beta. The good news is that you don’t have to purchase a license to participate in the beta. Just go to Jere’s forum and ask him to add you to the beta and he’ll do so. All testers are accepted. However, remember that this is a beta! By definition, beta means potentially broken and buggy.

I’m curious to know what the general reaction would be to this social computing methodology. Personally, I like it as a solution to 2 pretty big problems with commercial detection. Is our ingrained distrust and personal data paranoia so rampant that people would be put off by this and be subjected to watching ads for the new and improved Garden Weasel? I hope not!

Disclaimer:  Any references to politics and other fun stuff is entirely for the purpose of humor and in now way reflects the politics of those persons mentioned in this article ;)

Many thanks to Ray for this guest post.  I'm always looking for contributors for guest posts here at GeekTonic - read this for information on how to submit a guest post article.