Today marks the launch of Zeebox, a free app from the creator of BBC iPlayer, with the power to transform the way we watch television. With real-time news and tags, information about everything you're watching and built-in social features, it sounds like an all-singing-all-dancing souped up interactive TV guide.
Strange then, that when I had a chance to play with the iPad version of the Zeebox app, it didn't feel like a new toy or gadget. I didn't find myself ooh-ing and aah-ing and tilting the screen this way and that like I do with most cool new apps.
Stranger still, that despite its apparent simplicity - or perhaps because of it - I couldn't recall the last time I had ever been so excited about an ipad app.
Let's face it, there are some seriously cool apps out there, and you'll recall I was bowled over by BAFTA-nominated Made in Me's new educational iPad app for kids..... But being ever-so-slightly cynical, most iPad and iPhone apps feel to me like they've been developed as a marketing tool for a brand. At best, they offer a well designed but limited version of a web-based tool - think of your frustrating Facebook app compared to the full web version of Facebook.
In comparison to most apps, Zeebox appears simple and unassuming, but with an incredible depth of experience. Whether you choose to use it on iPad, or through the web on your laptop, the experience and the look and feel is the same.
It feels natural, almost... expected.
Embarassingly, a few days after trying it out at the Zeebox pre-launch event, I picked up my iPad to Zeebox about an incredible scene on Frozen Planet. You know the one - that incredible footage of a pack of killer whales working in unison to create powerful waves to knock the seal from his supposedly safe haven on the ice. I needed to share it. I was momentarily confused when I couldn't find the app icon, and then remembered with disappointment that the app hadn't actually launched yet.
A few minutes of using Zeebox and I felt at a loss without it? That's powerful stuff, but perhaps unsurprising given that its creator Anthony Rose also brought us BBC iPlayer, and his co-founder Ernesto Schmitt (EMI) is known worldwide for his remarkable gift for understanding what consumers want and need.
How does it work?
On the surface, Zeebox does act as an interactive TV guide. At a glance, you can see what's on TV, and click through to more information about each program.
Those of us with BT Vision or Sky have that already, right? - press the button, miss a bit of what you're watching, and get a few details. Fine. Well... not really. A whopping 71% of us still want more information about the shows we are watching, and we feel frustrated about the missing layers of interactivity on TV. We want to find out more about the cast members, or the location, or the book that inspired the story. We feel compelled to look at different sources of breaking news all at once. We watch historical dramas and spend half the time on Wikipedia trying to decide if the events on TV are based on fact.
Pulling in rich content on the fly from Wikipedia and from trusted news sources, Zeebox places a huge amount of information at your fingertips in a way that's easy to navigate, and easy to digest - but importantly, it's not in your face.
As you watch live TV, keyword tags ("zeetags") relating to the people, places and topics on your TV screen are created on the fly and appear on the side of your laptop or computer screen. Click on a tag and the Wikipedia entry appears - no need for opening a new browser window or for working out a clever way to Google "Is that that guy from that show...?" when an unknown face appears on Have I Got News For You. Just one click and you're there.
Similarly, Zeebox pulls in links to stories from trusted news sources, so you can find out about current affairs from multiple sources while watching live coverage on your preferred channel.
Curious about apps, movie downloads, music, audiobooks or other products relating to the show you're watching? Zeebox automatically brings in related content from iTunes, and will soon be incorporating related product links from trusted retailers like Amazon and EBay too.
TV as a social experience
When Susan Boyle sang the first three notes of I Dreamed a Dream in April 2009, Twitter and Facebook were flooded as we urged our friends to watch, and we shared our amazement with thousands of strangers.
Our experience of TV has long been enriched by social media throughout memorable events like this, during the London Riots, and when ambulances outside Amy Winehouse's flat were shown on the news.
It's not just the major incidents either - sometimes it's just about sharing little moments of wonder or humour, tweeting "You have got to watch this!..." about a great bit of eco-architecture on Grand Designs or telling everyone to switch over to Jeremy Paxman's brilliant interview with the quick-witted Boris Johnson.
According to a recent study, 59% of the UK population are "often" or "almost always" using their laptops, mobiles or tablets to communicate digitally whilst watching TV: using email, instant messaging, facebook, or twitter. For young people (13 to 25), this figure rises to a staggering 87%.
Zeebox's built in social features aren't about changing our behaviour or asking us to try a new service - they're about taking something we're doing anyway, and making the process smoother and easier.
There on your screen is a simple little Twitter box, where you can read Tweets relating to the TV show in real time. If you want to get involved in the conversation, you log in using your existing Twitter account, and tweet directly from Zeebox. Zeebox will even automatically add the right hashtag for you, so all the show's other fans can follow your tweets too.
I'm genuinely excited to see how brands, tv producers and even the cast will use Zeebox, inspired to lead discussions, tweet fun facts or run competitions on Twitter during live broadcasts. I'm already thinking about how I can use Zeebox to connect with fans of Really Kid Friendly to share fun facts and reviews of children's entertainment, and to lead discussions about some of my family's favourite shows. Look out for me during cBeebies' Nina and the Neurons!
Watch TV with your friends
For most people, TV is anything but antisocial. We love watching it with friends, whether it's a big football game, or the new series of The Tudors. Zeebox's clever Facebook integration allows us to do just that, albeit on a virtual couch of sorts.
At a glance you can see which shows your friends (if they're using Zeebox in public mode) are watching, chat with them, or even invite them to join you if your programme just got better.
Sophisticated Privacy Settings
The big question on everyone's mind is how they can watch Hollyoaks and not have the mick taken out of them at work the next day. Or perhaps for you it's a secret Downton Abbey addiction?
Zeebox's creators have come up with an incredibly clever solution, so simple that it's almost ingenious. Switch to "Private" mode. It's easy, takes a second, and works a treat.
Will Zeebox revolutionise the way we watch TV?
The honest answer is no.
Zeebox isn't about changing our behaviour. It's not a "save live TV" campaign.
TV isn't going anywhere, and on average in the UK we each watch about 28 hours a week. We tweet about it, we shop for related products, we look things up. We're doing it all anyway, but with a frustratingly cobbled-together solution involving multiple browsers, lots of clicks and lots of searching. Zeebox brings us all the same information and social features, from the same trusted providers, but makes it all effortless.
The reality is that there is nothing new or revolutionary about it.
The beauty of Zeebox is that it feels like it should have been there all along.