PermissionTV Gives Video Publishers Permission to Get Creative

Interactive video is finally being reborn.

In the mid-1990s, multimedia artists publishing on CD-ROMs developed a huge catalog of techniques for letting viewers interact with digital video. But as I noted in a column a couple of months go, all of that wisdom seemed to go out the window around 2000, when the broadband Web largely replaced the old-fashioned CD-ROM as a medium for digital distribution. “Internet video” came to mean either regurgitated TV shows or amateur YouTube videos, showing in tiny players embedded in pages full of ugly banner ads.

But now companies like Waltham, MA-based PermissionTV—part of the big Boston-centered cluster of Internet video companies we chronicled in March—are figuring out how to bring high-quality interactivity to Web video. The company released a new development kit for Web publishers last month, and I recently caught up with Matt Kaplan, PermissionTV’s vice president of creative and client services, and Corey Halverson, vice president of product management, who explained that they’re out to make video into a front-and-center feature of the Web—with all of the opportunities for interaction and exploration that surfers have come to expect from text-based Web pages.

“The world tends to look at video as an element of a website,” says Kaplan. “We see it the other way around. We think video can be the backdrop that Web-style interactive experiences are built around.”

Local organizations like the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Boston Pops, Harvard Business School,, and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign have all used PermissionTV’s technology to create online video experiences that go well beyond the typical two-minute Web clip, where “interactivity” tends to be limited to the “play,” “pause,” and “stop” buttons. The Boston Pops site, for example, currently features a large-screen interactive program about “Oscar and Tony,” a CD of Broadway and Hollywood musical scores that the orchestra recently recorded. Text commentary from conductor Keith Lockhart runs alongside the video of the Pops’ performance, and viewers can jump between numbers using a graphical timeline, or follow links to purchase the CD itself.

Here’s a quick demo that PermissionTV let us borrow. [Update, October 6, 2009: The video is no longer supported by the company and has been removed.]

PermissionTV has raised about $18 million in financing since its founding in 2004, including a $9 million round last summer led by Castile Ventures and Point Judith Capital and a $3 million venture debt deal this April with BlueCrest Capital Finance. Along with its development kit—which the company’s own engineers have been using for a couple of years, but has now been opened up so that other media companies can try it out—the company has created an online “solutions hub” demonstrating the platform’s full capabilities, such as subtitles, polls, opt-in request forms, Google ads, and “special offer” graphics leading to retail sites.

In essence, every video fed into the system is annotated with a digital timeline that allows Web designers to specify when such interactive elements should appear, and what should happen next, depending on the choices the viewer makes. “For example, you might be watching a video, and it pauses for a second, and there’s a poll,” says Kaplan. “Your response to that poll drives you down one path of the video versus another path—taking what was traditionally a linear experience and making it a user-driven experience.”

The idea of structuring interactive video around timelines isn’t new. It’s been the central metaphor in multimedia development software ever since the appearance of Macromedia’s pioneering Director software package in the 1990s—and indeed, PermissionTV’s platform is based on the same ActionScript scripting language that’s at the heart of the Macromedia (now Adobe) Flash video format. But PermissionTV’s solutions hub makes it easy to create videos with advanced interactive features without having to learn ActionScript; the solutions hub, for example, provides a gallery of features that designers can simply copy and modify to suit their needs.

PermissionTV also provides quick ways to help viewers navigate among multiple videos, including scrolling playlists and thumbnail collages. For cool examples check out this video site built by Intercontinental Hotels & Resorts, and the website for Quarterlife, a combination dramatic series and social network created by Hollywood producers Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick.

And it’s all designed so that non-programmers, such as Web designers at interactive marketing agencies, can get their own simple video channels up and running in less than a day. “We take the heavy lifting of video management and delivery off their hands,” says Kaplan. “All they need to be concerned with is how the application looks. Everything else—video ingestion, encoding, deploying to a content distribution network—is transparent to them.”

But while old multimedia geeks like me have been waiting a long time for the return of sophisticated interactive video, a whole generation of Web users has been brought up on non-interactive, YouTube-style video. I quizzed Kaplan and Halverson on whether they think Web audiences dulled by these linear experiences will respond to something more engaging.

Interactive video is “still in its infancy” on the Web, Kaplan acknowledged. “But we are starting to see it. YouTube just started offering publishers the ability to drop comments into their videos, and we’re seeing a lot of social applications being built into online TV. We strongly believe this is where the world is going—that people are going to want to lean forward and engage.”

Halverson argues that tools like PermissionTV make video interesting enough to carry a website, rather than functioning as eye candy off to the side. “If a video is central to the experience, you are more apt to feel natural interacting with it,” he says. I think we are going to see some bad examples and some good ones. There will be a give-and-take between viewers and businesses about what works for their products and brands, and as a platform we want to propel that.”

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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3 responses to “PermissionTV Gives Video Publishers Permission to Get Creative”

  1. Hi Wade,

    With your question “Will users interact with video online?”, you really made me stop and think about it some more. You can read my full response here.

  2. Re-reading this article six months later and it’s amazing how far we’ve come already.

    Sure, PTV, and companies like us, still have a long way to go, but to the question of “Will users interact with video online?” I think we’ve seen a definitive answer of “Yes!”

    We’ve seen some great interaction with video through the rise of the “Twebinar” – a webinar combined with a live twitter stream at

    Using video on our own blog has resulted in a great deal of interaction and engagement, as tracked through our standard web analytics tools.

    Looking forward to another great leap forward in 2009!

  3. we would like to have music videos and youtube so we can get to see cool stuff on youtube