BigPark Studios enters the interactive-TV arena

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Since being acquired by Microsoft in 2009, Vancouver’s BigPark Studios has quietly dropped “game” from its name.

“We’ve become an interactive-TV studio,” studio manager David Seymour explained, “with a culture of game development.”

Seymour greeted the Georgia Straight in the lobby of Microsoft’s offices in downtown Vancouver. The reception area is the gateway to both BigPark and Black Tusk Studios (which Microsoft announced on January 27 is working on the Gears of War franchise).

At first glance, the BigPark studio didn’t look any different than it did when it was creating Kinect Joy Ride and Kinect Sports: Season 2, with the exception of more TVs on cubicle desks. But then Seymour pointed to what can only be described as a broadcast booth: a wall of screens displaying all of the video feeds that are being offered to Xbox users.

Moments later, in a conference room down the hall, Seymour took control of an Xbox One connected to a 55-inch flatscreen and it was all football, all the time. All of the National Football League content on Xbox comes directly from the league and is programmed by BigPark producers.

Wrapped around the main video feed is the SmartFrame, which provides a list of channels that include NFL.com; NFL Network, for subscribers; Game Center, with scores and stats; NFL RedZone, a 10-minute recap of the biggest plays for each Sunday going back to the beginning of the season; and NFL Fantasy. Seattle fans, cheering on their team in this weekend’s Super Bowl, can get a channel focused on their beloved Seahawks. So, too, can Denver Broncos supporters, or fans of any other team.

Wil Mozell, general manager of sports and live events for Xbox Entertainment Studios, said that the SmartFrame presentation is going to be used with upcoming live events that will be broadcast on Xbox, such as music series and festivals, and also with the Xbox original shows that are being produced in L.A.

“It’s an integrated viewing experience where the content comes to you,” Mozell told the Straight, adding that he considers it to be the next generation of TV entertainment.

The NFL content on Xbox One is delivered at the same time it’s delivered on the various NFL TV channels, Seymour explained. The advantage to watching it on Xbox, he went on, is the opportunity to have the content blended together.

“On your television, you only choose the channel,” he said. “Here, you can go channel to channel, and you can jump to content you want on demand. You can look at standings, at scores and schedules, you can look at highlights.”

And with the Snap screen functionality of the Xbox One, users can be watching a movie or playing a video game and have the NFL app running alongside. Or viewers can use a tablet to run a second-screen experience with SmartGlass. “There’s good second-screen and bad second-screen,” said Seymour. While senior producer Mike Mahar made picks for the Playoff Face Off sweepstakes on the Xbox One, Seymour’s Surface tablet showed them being made. The tablet could also be used to make the picks or to display fantasy-team information and highlights.

Mozell admitted that the amount of content being produced by the NFL and made available to Microsoft for programming to Xbox was a major factor in the success of the experience. Seymour added: “The investment they made is valuable. The data source is super rich.” But the real work, he said, is organizing that content, creating context, and making it accessible to viewers. “We make it meaningful for live TV.”

And while Xbox 360 users don’t get the stream of information that SmartFrame can deliver, Mozell said they aren’t being ignored. The Xbox 360 has apps for ESPN, MLB, NBA, NHL, and UFC. Mozell called it a “great portfolio” and said that the work delivering interactive TV viewing for the Xbox 360 over the past couple of years was a “proving ground”. The innovation that has come with Xbox One will, he added, “trickle down” to the Xbox 360. Seymour said that by next season, Xbox 360 users will have a full-screen NFL experience that comes close to what’s being delivered on the Xbox One.

For Xbox 360 viewers today, ancillary content is delivered to a SmartGlass second screen. Seymour said he likes to watch UFC fights with real-time scoring displayed on his SmartGlass device. “As blows are landing on the TV, they are lighting up on the body on the tablet,” he said. According to Seymour, the information that’s used to deliver the UFC SmartGlass presentation is the same feed that Joe Rogan uses to deliver his commentary.

If Seymour gets home late, the SmartGlass device is synced to his video-on-demand playback. Aligning related content and metadata with time-delayed viewing is something he says BigPark will be doing for more of the TV experiences being created at the studio.

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