Tomorrow’s BBC will be fitted to your personality

The BBC is doing cutting-edge research into Visual Perceptive Media, virtual reality and facial coding technologies. But do we want our shows to be tailored to our age, gender, and tastes? And what happens to all that data?

Adam Sherwin
21 March 2016

To mark 100 years since the Easter Rising, the BBC will unveil a virtual reality documentary. Credit: Rafael Valentim / Flickr

“Imagine a world where the narrative, background music, colour grading and general feel of a drama are shaped in real time to suit your personality.” A tantalising invitation from the BBC’s technology boffins reveals the early stages of a personalised viewing revolution that promises to transform the relationship between licence-fee payers and the corporation. Whatever size BBC emerges from the government’s Charter Renewal process, the days of a suite of channels pumping out programmes to a passive living room audience, in the hope that some of it sticks, are over.

The BBC of the future will be much more personalised and responsive to individual tastes and viewing habits. It will deliver not just programmes but short-form content to an on-the-move audience, juggling viewing between tablets, mobile devices as well as the multi-purpose big screen in the corner of the room. Closing the loophole that allows viewers to watch catch-up programmes on iPlayer through mobile phones or tablets without paying the licence fee, is the first step in a new bargain between the BBC and its audience. Viewers who have paid for a digital licence fee will “sign in” to services, using an ID and password. As a result, the BBC will know more about us and our personal viewing tastes. 

The extent to which the BBC is allowed to gather and use that data, by viewers and legislators, will dictate whether the corporation is able to compete with technology giants like Amazon, Netflix and Google, which already understand more about our individual leisure and purchasing habits than many are comfortable with. Deep within its Research and Development (R&D) laboratories, the BBC is working on innovations that could reinvent our traditional notions of storytelling by replacing the experience of a mass audience watching War and Peace with more singular programmes.

A new method of broadcasting, Visual Perceptive Media (VPM), promises to “inspire everybody with more personal, unique content which reflects the diversity of the audience.” Broadcasting over IP, VPM promises “personalised video, tailored to many individual users.” Ian Forrester, Senior “firestarter” Producer at BBC R&D, describes VPM as “a film that changes based on the person who is watching the video. Rather than drawing on sensor data to profile the environment, it focuses on the user themselves … It uses profiled data from a phone application to build a profile of the user and their preferences via their music collection and some personality questions. The data then is used to inform which assets are used in which order, what real time effects are applied and ultimately when. Cinematic effects twist the story one way or another.” 


The BBC's Research and Development 'About' page. Credit: BBC

Forrester acknowledges that there has been “some debate around our use of personality data to shape the drama. Is there an ethical issue with a film ‘knowing’ its audience?” Another BBC R&D project, Home Front Story Explorer, enable audiences to “explore stories in other ways than simply listening from beginning to end. Built around characters, storylines and moments, the Home Front Story Explorer uses text, illustrations and audio, powered by production data to allow the audience to take different routes through the story and immerse themselves in content outside of the core story.” Andy Conroy, BBC Research & Development Controller, is working on “increasingly immersive media experiences” that “know and understand the requirements of individuals and change the media experience accordingly” and “respond to the needs of the audience in terms of length, depth of interest, location, preferences, lifestyle and age.” 

There are already practical results being generated from the BBC’s collaborations with hackers and start-ups. To mark 100 years since the Easter Rising next month, the BBC will unveil an experimental virtual reality documentary, designed to take viewers back to the streets of Dublin to witness the 1916 rising that saw the attempted rebellion against British rule in the midst of World War One. Users of the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset and Samsung Gear VR platforms will retrace the steps of 19 year-old Willie McNieve and witness the rising through his eyes, making use of the rebel’s eyewitness account. Catherine Allen, digital producer at the BBC, told the i-Docs conference in Bristol: “We looked at what it might be like in VR to inhabit somebody else’s memory. We thought about our own memories and what it's like when we remember something – is it in a linear form?”

The BBC might be giving audiences control over the direction of narratives but it is also harvesting their response to programmes. BBC Worldwide, the corporation’s commercial wing, has trialled facial coding technology, which reveals viewers’ subconscious “emotional attachment” to programmes. Developed by a British start-up, CrowdEmotion, the technology uses cameras to record individuals’ expressions and actions. Facial movements are recorded on a second-by-second basis and the results are divided into six possible emotions: sadness, puzzlement, happiness, fear, rejection and surprise. The cameras allow researchers to measure the often-subconscious responses people have to visual content. One BBC Worldwide study installed 200 web cams in homes across the UK, capturing reactions to shows including Doctor Who. Some concerns were raised that the BBC could use the webcam technology to “spy” on people’s front rooms, Gogglebox-style. 

They may be doing the research, but the BBC can face more restrictions when it comes to application. For example, a new BBC Music app will learn the personal preferences of users and deliver tracks tailored to individual tastes. But since the BBC is currently restricted from streaming recorded tracks directly, the app can only direct users to its archive or commercial alternatives such as Spotify. It also offers a fraction of the personalised playlist-making potential of Spotify or Apple Music and shows how licensing restrictions surrounding the BBC may well frustrate music fans who are comfortable with sharing their tastes but expect an app to deliver the same flexibility as commercial operators.

Ethical issues surrounding data are becoming more pressing as the BBC adopts a direct transactional relationship with users. The BBC Store, which opened last year, allows users to buy permanent downloads of BBC shows for the first time. A challenge to Apple’s iTunes store, the BBC equivalent pledged the highest standards of cybersecurity to safeguard the thousands of credit and debit card details the website must handle. When the BBC was hit with a denial of service attack on New Year’s Day, which crashed its website, the corporation’s first move was to reassure BBC Store customers that all of their personal information was safe and that no BBC systems had been breached. 

Personalised media looks like the future of television.  As long as the BBC takes its data responsibilities seriously, the public should benefit from giving a little more information to the Beeb in order to discover interesting new narratives about themselves. At the BBC R&D department, they are clearly aware that the search for cutting-edge innovation must be allied to profound ethical questions. On their website they state:  “However, the question remains, is there a middle ground that allows personal data to be kept secure and under the control of the individual, but still allows that data to be shared with others to deliver the benefits that processing and aggregating that data could offer?”

It’s not clear that the BBC has all the answers to these profound questions. These are sensitive areas for a BBC under constant scrutiny from ministers and the media to navigate. John Whittingdale, the Culture Secretary, has told the BBC that it should withdraw from areas where commercial providers are already strong. But from the development of colour television to the iPlayer, the BBC has maintained a role at the forefront of technological innovation. Surveys show most licence-fee payers still invest their trust in the corporation as a bulwark against domination from Silicon Valley giants and commercial rivals.

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