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What Happened to the Future of Interactive, Immersive Video?
People used to imagine an online video world that was engaging and interactive. But, instead of achieving that, we've settled for duplicating TV.

Ten years ago, had you asked the question, “What will the future of video be?” most people would have painted you a picture straight out of Minority Report—a personalized, interactive experience in which viewers can engage with the objects in the video by clicking on them. But look at the conversations we have about video today—which tend to revolve around generating money from advertising revenue—and you quickly realize that we’ve lost the vision that was driving the industry. We’ve reduced the powerful Tomorrowland aspect of online video to a business discussion.

I remember a startup from a few years back, Veeple (which unfortunately has since closed its doors), that used advanced image-recognition technologies to identify objects in the video and follow them around through each scene. For example, the technology could recognize a can of Coca-Cola (after a user tagged it with a “hotspot”) from the first scene to the last regardless of where it appeared or how large or small it became. And as a recognized object, the technology could make it clickable, empowering users with the opportunity to learn more or make a purchase.

Spring forward to today and that vision is still hanging on by the skin of its teeth. With a little bit of Google searching, you can find a new crop of companies trying to bring that vision to reality in all sorts of different ways. Take Interlude, for example. It enables clickable videos with POV shifts, allowing the user to explore the video from different perspectives (view their sample to see this in action). Or check out Hypershow, which talks about the vision exactly as most had imagined it—“A Hypershow brings Web interactivity to online video experiences, allowing viewers to tap anywhere on the image while the video plays to jump around, explore related information, and much, much more.” (For a fairly comprehensive collection of these visionary companies, visit this list from PBS.)

But when was the last time that you “interacted” with a video published by a major brand or content owner? Can’t remember? Neither can I. Despite the smattering of companies still trying to bring this vision to life, it seems that it has stagnated to the point of marginality. No one is talking about this vision for the future of video anymore. No one is writing about it. No one seems to care.

And don’t go pointing your finger at technology—that’s not the reason the vision has failed. Flash is being displaced by HTML5 (providing much more extensibility for interactivity). We have a seemingly unlimited amount of cloud computing resources with which to munge big data and personalize videos. And there are numerous advanced, cloud-based computer systems that do really good image recognition. We’ve got the technology to make online video interactive.

If you want to blame something, blame the television experience. As video has moved from traditional broadcast to online, consumers have carried with it their expectations—sit down, shut up, and just watch. Drink in your advertisements. Be influenced to purchase the next time you are in a store or online. When you think about it, online video has become nothing more than television delivered via the internet.

We have turned online video into the new television business and pushed aside the vision for interactive experiences in favor of figuring out how to replicate the same revenue that we generate from the television business today.

Don’t get me wrong. This conversation about the future of online video shouldn’t be either/or. But if we are ever going to make online video more than just a surrogate for television, we, as an industry, need to take back the discussion from the business folks. We need to elevate the vision for online video into the spotlight it deserves and focus our attention on what it could become.

Interactive. Engaging. Revolutionary.

This article appears in the July/August 2015 issue of Streaming Media magazine as “What Happened to the Future of Video?”

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