Boxfish Casts a New TV Hook

Recommendation engines and video discovery platforms are all the rage as cable operators and other video service providers seek out ways to help customers find something interesting to watch from an ever-increasing menu of viewing options.

While most of these systems are made to help viewers track down something of interest on a show-by-show or movie-by-movie basis, a startup in Palo Alto, Calif., called Boxfish has developed a platform that attempts to take it to the next level.  By tracking, capturing and indexing the spoken words of hundreds of channels in real-time, Boxfish’s system gives viewers a way to find shows that are covering specific topics of interest to them or topics that are trending on a moment-by-moment basis. In some ways, Boxfish’s data-scouring approach tries to index TV much like Google indexes the Web.

Following initial integration of this data into its own mobile apps and making that data available to an initial set of partners from the pay TV realm, Boxfish this week launched an API (application programming interface) focused on the TV industry that, it hopes, will help pave the way for its integration directly into set-top boxes and televisions. The API will likewise enable MSOs to take advantage of the data that Boxfish already feeds to its iOS and Android-based “Live Guide” apps.

According to CEO and co-founder Eoin Dowling, Boxfish monitors, captures, processes and catalogs spoken words – in text form, plus a video thumbnail taken every 10 seconds -- from more than 900 channels in real time. It then feeds that raw data into a content discovery platform that builds the topic lists tied to categories such as news, sports and celebrity gossip.  

Boxfish, which captures that data via the Amazon cloud alongside some of its own off-cloud processing, retains two years of data at any one time, and uses that historical info to continually improve the accuracy of its own algorithms.

That system pumps out topics that can be applied to how consumers watch TV. If there was breaking news about Tiger Woods, for example, Boxfish says its system is smart enough to  identify which TV  shows are discussing the golfer at the moment and provide an alert so viewers would know where to tune in.

“It took us over a year to do the capturing capture and processing right. The basis comes down to topic extraction,” Dowling said, noting that 50 to 60 individual topics are typically culled in a typical three-minute period.  

Dowling likened Twitter to a “fire hose” of topical data. “We wanted to do the same with TV. But not just as a passive entertainment system, but something that’s really dynamic that [provides] a lot of relevant content,” he said.

Boxfish has identified a variety of potential use cases it could pursue in the cable set-top ecosystem. For example, its data could be merged with a provider’s existing video search system and automatically change to a channel if it is providing content covering a topic of interest or set up the DVR to record that channel. Programmers, he said, are also interested in Boxfish’s data because it can help them “fine tune” their programming and lock in on core topics of interest to their audiences.

In yet another example, some MSOs are testing ways to use Boxfish data to identify when a game is running over its scheduled time on the electronic program guide so the DVR knows to keep recording.

Dowling estimates that about 250,000 consumers are using individual Boxfish-powered apps, but doesn’t see that at its core business, estimating that the company would need more than 10 million to make an apps-based business model pay off.

He believes the API launched this week coupled with a partnership angle will help Boxfish establish a business based on the much broader TV ecosystem.

Boxfish has made some progress on that front ahead of the launch of its API. According to Dowling, Boxfish’s partner such as DirecTV, Dish Network, AT&T, TiVo, as well as Google TV, are using Boxfish data to for features that have either been launched or are being built. Boxfish’s web site also lists Comcast, Viggle and Shazam among its list of partners and supported platforms.

Founded in 2011, Boxfish has 10 full-time employees and sealed up a $3 million “A” round in August 2011.