Rising to the Boxee developer challenge with an Open University app
Today is a big day, we find out tonight how well the Open University entry has done in the Boxee App Development challenge. A small team of us had been thinking about big screen (web experiences designed for interactive television to be viewed at about ten feet away) web sites and what an OU experience might be like in such a setting. When the challenge was announced it was a fantastic opportunity to quickly develop something to get ourselves started in this exciting area, so we decided to go for it and in about four weeks went from having nothing to having a fully working application, complete with full user interface and graphic design by Dave Winter, client and server side code by me and communications, testing and creative input by Stuart Brown and Matt Rawlinson. It was hard work which gobbled up a few evenings and weekends but it was worth it.
Many of you might ask – why Boxee? Well firstly having a competition with such a tight deadline meant that we could be really focussed and get something produced quickly. We could avoid things like feature creep that can make meeting goals difficult if not impossible. The app is not meant to be the definitive answer to bringing the education world to interactive TV, just a starting point, it is easier for people to imagine possibilities if they have something real to critique. Secondly, Boxee is an exciting, open source piece of software that has been gaining momentum, it has recently been described as taking the lead as an Internet TV platform and has been covered in the New York Times. As it is open source, we don't need to jump through any weird hoops to develop for it, in fact Boxee has the added advantage that it allows you to use your existing web developer skill set, you only need to know XML, RSS and a bit of Python to be able to use their API; no strange proprietary languages to learn. This makes Boxee a perfect platform to experiment with concepts and ideas for interactive TV and the big screen web.
The OU has quite a large number of video and audio podcasts available for free download which it makes available though a podcast web site (that also has support for Miro and an RSS feed for Boxee) and iTunesU. It also publishes videos on YouTube. All of this content is available on the Boxee app, which is quite a lot of content and could be difficult to navigate given that it should all be accessible with just a few button presses on a remote control. Fortunately Dave Winter from our Online Services department designed the user interface of the app to make it make it easy to navigate to content you find interesting. He also did the graphic design for the app giving it a band new look specially designed for the big screen. This was a vital element, people are used to seeing top quality graphic design on their TV and our app had to meet this challenge. At the start of the challenge we had no big screen web branding at all, now we do and this can be reused in any further big screen work that is done in the university.
The app is based on a client-server model. The client sits within Boxee and handles navgation between sections and menus. It also has a featured section and a search function. Dave did some screen mockups of the app, which I cut up and used in the application, overlaying controls like buttons and scrolling lists. The client is quite thin, meaning it does not do much processing itself, instead it takes its content from RSS feeds produced by a custom Drupal module on a server. Using the app will result in several requests to the server, each sub menu for example is a separate RSS feed. The module gets the content for these RSS feeds by getting information from OPML and RSS feeds from the podcast website and YouTube. This feeds are combined and turned into Boxee feeds. These results are cached on the server so the Drupal module acts as a single source of inforation for the app. The actual media files themselves still stay in their original location.
An important part of the app is the ability to feature content, this ties in with the activity on the OU's Platform web site. For example, this year is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, so the featured section could contain podcasts related to that. The Drupal module has the functionality for members of the Online Services department can enter custom titles and descriptions for featured podcasts, so they could use this to tie in the podcast with a wider editorial theme. The app has gone some way to exploring the questions of how does an organisation represent itself in the Interactive TV and big screen web area both in terms of branding and communications policy and this will be a very interesting area to watch as it evolves.
This has been a really interesting challenge on many levels and I'd like to thank everybody on the team and also Tony Hirst who provided valuable feedback on the app (and has written about it as well). I think it has produced a lot of positive results, not just in terms of producing an application but making us proactive rather than reactive when it comes to embracing the opportunities of the big screen web. Slightly ironically, despite this being a new area, maybe this app takes the OU close to its roots, after all it started originally as a “University of the Air” delivering lectures via TV broadcast, proving that there is no reason why you can't learn from your TV. I hope that there will be a lot more development of educational possibilities in this area, already OpenCourseWare has been made available on Boxee, and it would be great to see the academic community using this sort of technology to spread learning from the study to the living room.
*** UPDATE 24th June 2009 ***
We didn't win an award at the event, but we could some nice comments from Boxee CEO Avner Ronen and judge Cali Lewis, who described the interface to our app as "beautiful and intuitive". It was a good night though for education on interactive TV with the OpenCourseWare application for Boxee getting the Judges' Choice award in the video category, congratulations to @roshweb who developed this app. I think this shows that there is an appetite for using this sort of technology to learn, so let's build on what has been achieved.