BBC and Microsoft experiment lets viewers talk to their TV

The BBC has worked with Microsoft to create an experimental version of iPlayer that lets viewers talk to their television and find their favourite programmes.

The experimental version of the popular service, which allows people to watch BBC television shows and listen to the radio via the internet, uses artificial intelligence (AI) to log people into their accounts and then find programmes such as EastEnders using only their voice.

In the BBC’s test, viewers could log into their BBC account by turning on iPlayer and speaking their name and a phrase. The AI compares the tone, modulation and pitch of the person’s voice to a sample he or she has previously uploaded to the service. If the two voice patterns match, the viewer is logged in to his or her BBC account, replacing the need to type in a user name and password.

Once logged in, viewers could then select what they want to watch via voice commands. For example, saying “BBC, show me something funny” brings up a selection of comedy programmes; saying “BBC, what’s going on in the world?” turns on the BBC News channel; while saying “BBC, put EastEnders on for me” starts playing the latest episode.

They would also see all of the editorially curated programmes and personalised recommendations that they normally would.

While this was only a proof of concept, Cyrus Saihan, Head of Digital Partnerships, Distribution and Business Development at the BBC, said people are getting more comfortable with voice-activated technology as phones and home hubs increasingly talk to us.

“The ability of humans to communicate with each other by talking is one of our species’ most unique traits,” he said in a blog post. “As the technology around us continues to evolve, it is interesting to consider how we might soon be talking naturally with the range of digital devices that have become such an important part of everyday life for many.

“With voice controlled interfaces starting to gain popularity, there is a good chance that in some situations, speaking to a computer will be the main way that we interact with many of our digital devices.”

As technology improves, Saihan said voice control and AI could allow people to have even greater control over how and when they watch TV.

BBC iPlayer

BBC iPlayer

“If you’re watching a programme on your tablet on your way back from work then, later on, when you’re settling down on the sofa, your TV could ask you if you wanted to carry on from where you left off. You might respond ‘No thanks, is there anything new I might like?’ and be offered some suggestions.

“If we look further into the future, when AI and machine learning have advanced sufficiently, you could end up in a conversation with your TV about what’s available to watch now, whether you like the sound of it or not, whether there’s something coming up that you’re interested in, and what you like to watch when you’re in a certain mood. All the time, your TV service would be learning about your preferences and getting smarter about what to suggest and when.

“There could be interesting scenarios in a typical family setting too. Just by listening to the voices in the room, your TV could automatically detect when there are multiple people in the living room, and serve up a personalised mix of content relevant to all of you in the room. When your children leave the room to go to bed, BBC iPlayer might hear that the children are no longer there and then suggest a different selection of content for you and your partner. All of this personalisation could happen without anyone having to press a button, sign in and out or change user profiles.”

Microsoft has developed some of the most advanced AI systems in the world. Last year, the company formed the Microsoft AI and Research Group, bringing together its world-class research organisation with more than 5,000 computer scientists and engineers focused on the its AI product efforts.