Ever have an idea that you know could change the world and you'd just explode if you didn't build it? That's how AOL's Rob Gould, a Principal Software Engineer, felt over a year ago. The AOL Blog goes behind the scenes to find out how Rob fulfilled his SmartTV dream by creating AOL's connected TV offering that brings AOL's original video content to the living room.

What's your role at AOL and how long have you worked here?

I've been with AOL for nearly 13 years, and I would have to say I'm having more fun now than I've had in years. The technologies are more interesting -- phones and tablets are exploding with creative and engaging apps, graphics processing power and UI options are plentiful, and technology has become much more accessible.

I'm actually not a true "software engineer" in the traditional sense. I've really been pretending all these years. I come from an art and television production background, and always felt that televisions were a great artistic canvas and the most coveted screen in the home. I taught myself JavaScript and other TV-client technologies because it's what was required to get graphics and applications made for television.

What are your usual responsibilities?

I wear a number of hats at AOL. Some days I organize all the feeds and TV channels amongst our platforms (Samsung, Sony, TiVo, Roku, Boxee, Panasonic, GoogleTV, Xbox, Yahoo ConnectedTV, Divx, Western Digital). I work closely with Marta Fronc-Villa to ensure the graphics and animations are coded properly on the TV's and devices. I collaborate closely with Rob Delacruz and Rob Cabacungan to make sure all our front-end, back-end and ad technologies are in check for our AOL business needs. I sit in on demos from other groups within AOL to learn about upcoming APIs and ways to tie AOL backend systems into our TV products. Other days I'm in meetings with gaming platform providers, advertising technologists, analytics & reporting specialists, and client-side engineers.
Much of my time is spent reading up on the graphics/animation & video playback capabilities of various devices. We need to know which devices support live-video streaming, which TV's can handle graphics-overlays, sound-effects, music, 3D, varying bitrates, and keyboard input for searching. Often we are testing the layering, navigation and graphics capabilities on each device to ensure that the concepts and ideas put forth by our talented UI team are feasible. Content is king, but we take great strides to ensure that we have a user-interface that can scale to support the 380,000 videos in our video-libraries.

Advertising has also been a major focus, and we have a system in place that I think is better than our competitors. Over the past few months, a lot of time has been spent validating, re-validating, and running ads of all types to ensure that our "ad formula" works across all our TV platforms.

As an AOL Cultural Ambassador, I also get to conduct interviews with potential hires. It's become obvious over the past 6 months that word is getting out about AOL, and people are clamoring to get in. We are the most "West-Coast"-like company here on the East Coast in terms of corporate culture, our unique ambitions, customer focus, work-life balance, and how we treat our employees.

What was the inspiration behind AOL HD?

I felt like I would explode if I didn't take one last stab at this elusive SmartTV industry. I've worked for a number of interactive-TV startups over the past 20 years including Bell Atlantic Video's "Stargazer" project in 1993, TELE-TV in 1996 with Howard Stringer (CEO of Sony), and finally at AOLTV in 1999. All of these TV projects failed for reasons outside my control after years of hard work and high-hopes. Trust me, it was depressing, and I have a basement full of old TV set top boxes to prove it.
It wasn't until 2010 when everything changed. Finally all the pieces came together -- with home-networking, wireless, MPEG4 encoding, and SmartTV technologies, everything needed was cost-effective -- but yet still out of reach for everyone but the big-name Internet companies. Since I had worked on AOL Video, Moviefone, and AOL Radio projects, I knew that AOL had tons of media assets that were perfect for the TV environment if someone built a TV app. We are also one of only a handful of companies in the world that have all the parts needed to create a full-blown web video streaming product suite.

All of the pieces were there. I felt that I would not be able to live with myself later on if I didn't put forth this one last big effort and prove that the previous 20 years weren't squandered in obsolescence.

What was the greatest challenge when building/pitching the product?

After creating the "AOL" SmartTV app on my Samsung TV at home, I had no way to show it to anyone. I couldn't lug my TV in the back of my car to work. I basically had to beg my wife to videotape me late at night after the kids were in bed to make a YouTube video of the presentation. That was the best video she ever made, because it changed all of our lives.
AOL was sponsoring a "Hackathon" at that time and I showed the demo on the big-screen in Dulles and immediately Rob Cabacungan signed up to be on my "Hackathon team". Rob C's specialty was ad integration, and within hours he had beautiful, high-definition ads playing from the AOL ad server into the TV.

As it turned out, AOL ad integration was the perfect addition to the product and represented a turning point. Emails were exchanged, demos were arranged, and four days later Rob C. and I were in the office of AOL's former Chief Technical Officer. He asked some thoughtful questions about the architecture and development process and then announced, "I've already booked you guys a timeslot with [AOL Chairman and CEO] Tim Armstrong in 3 days. You're going to New York!".

I've never perspired more in my life than the day we had to present the new product we created to Tim Armstrong and the AOL board. We literally brought a big TV into the board room and set it on the end of the long table with a thud, hooking up wires like a NASCAR swat team. Fortunately, the demo went without a hitch. The whole app was only about 70 lines of Javascript, but it was enough to jump start a whole movement within the company.

Another challenge was the act of finding the videos. At the time, AOL had hundreds of thousands of videos hosted on servers scattered all over the world -- fantastic content, but sometimes hard to find in high-definition and within show series that were consistently produced. As time went on, video feeds became much more reliable, and now it's just a matter of hitting a button to add a new show series to a specific TV platform. Thankfully Rob Delacruz has an excellent eye for shows that appeal to our audience, and is very good at decyphering the analytics to know what's working.

How has the Connected TV industry changed since the launch of AOL HD?

All the secrets to where the industry is heading can be found by reading the API documentation from each device manufacturer. There, you will find ideas and device-connectivity strategies that consumers won't see for another year, based on upcoming hardware and firmware releases. It's sort of like studying the patents that Apple files to know what's around the corner.

Any trends we should look out for?

Here are the trends that I've identified that you will see with the "TV of the Future":

  • You are going to start seeing a lot more convergence between TV's and tablets/phones. Tablet apps that communicate with your TV will show additional information about the show you are watching, and targeted ads will be very valuable. You'll see apps on a "2nd screen" that do the work of a set top box. This will provide the content hosts with data about who is watching, what they're watching, where and when.
  • You are going to see more TV's come with pre-installed cameras for video-chats right within the living-room. (Like AIM AV for TV)
  • You are going to start seeing camera-enabled TV's act as security-monitoring for the home, with motion-detection, and the ability to take snapshots of whomever is about to steal the TV.
  • Some TV's have API's that allow you to connect hospital blood-pressure monitoring equipment and healthcare stats devices to the TV. You will start seeing more TV-based healthcare apps in the upcoming years.
  • Did you know that as of 2012, people spend more time watching videos on their Xbox's than playing games? That is a seismic shift. Only the big companies will get into the Xbox video app biz, however, because it's very expensive to go through the development process to do so.
  • The Rapid drop in DVD sales will continue, and there will be a push to shrink the window between theatrical and pay VOD release. Studios know the VOD market is growing and will slowly but surely start to shorten their windows.
  • AOL's approach to host-based "live-stitched" high-definition advertising is superior to what is found in other products, I believe. It eliminates the latency between ads and the main content, gives the host more control and flexibility, provides excellent analytics, and eliminates the "black screen" gaps that you see in client-based ad-serving. It wouldn't surprise me if our ad technology becomes the industry-standard in the SmartTV-space.

Bandwidth caps are the main thing keeping people from cutting their cable TV altogether and going all to connected TV viewing. Cable companies want to keep users in their cable TV fold, so they punish users who choose the "Internet only" option by charging more for better bandwidth and a reliable high-speed connection. The US Department of Justice recently announced that it was investigating whether bandwidth caps constituted "restraint of trade".

What are your favorite AOL HD shows?

Translogic, Digital Justice, Engadget, Moviefone, You've Got Videos, GMC Trade Secrets, WSJ Live, Reuters, and BBC News.

What's one thing people wouldn't guess about you on first glance?

I enjoy comedic acting and have performed in front of thousands of people between 1990-1999 (before kids), including a brief sketch at the Patriot Center.

What's your favorite thing about AOL (product or site)?

The people at AOL are what makes the work environment so special. If I were to pick some favorite sites, I would have to say the Winamp team is putting together some absolutely amazing backend API's centering around music that I can't talk about just yet -- but I will say when they launch it, it will be a big game-changer for the music industry.

The HuffPost livestreaming team has some really ground-breaking API's centered around community-journalism and live-"web socket" communications between viewers, TV-hosts and SmartTV devices. I've been on tech forums in the TV space across nearly every TV manufacturer and no one is as far ahead of the game as our new HuffPost Live service. I think it's going to be monumental in it's impact on how IPTV works, and what users can expect from their broadcasters.

I'm also a big fan of TechCrunch and Engadget, and of course http://hd.aol.com!

Check out version 2.0 of our connected TV app which features ad-serving capabilities and a wide selection of rich, high-definition video content drawn from The AOL On library of more than 380,000 short-form videos.