As covered in a previous article, Second Screen is an evolving mobile vertical that covers the usage of smartphones and tablets while in front of the TV. Also referred to as the “Living Room Viewing Experience,” over 85% of mobile device owners use their devices at least monthly while in front of the TV, with over 40% doing so daily.

From a marketing and interaction perspective, Second Screen holds a lot of promise.  Being able to “sync” the two devices together, having a call-to-action on the TV screen to push deeper interaction on a tablet or smartphone, is a great avenue to extend exciting new functionality, tools, info and offers to consumers.  This is a great approach for consumer loyalty, something that mobile is well-suited to tackle.

The syncing of mobile devices and TV is still in its infancy and not overly user-friendly.  Auto Content Recognition, also known as ACR, has emerged as the primary way to sync the two screens together.  Essentially, ACR technology on a mobile device listens to what is playing on the TV screen and attempts to ‘sync’ and display the appropriate information.  Unfortunately, the technology is not inherently user-friendly, but app developers currently don’t have any better options at their disposal.  This issue, in my mind, could very well be stifling the evolution of Second Screen as a whole.

Today, apps like ConnecTV, zeebox and IntoNow are utilizing ACR to sync social conversation and additional content to your mobile device, based on what show, movie or game you are watching. While this approach provides the best syncing options readily available today, I don’t feel ACR is the permanent solution for Second Screen and its users.  For example, for ACR to work consistently, a room has to be relatively quiet, the app has to be opened and ready to sync, and every time you turn the channel, the user has to be prepared to resync to the new channel.  There’s entirely too much demand placed on the user during a lean-back, relaxed experience to make Second Screen work for the long-term.  Second Screen needs to cater more to the ‘lean-back experience’ that the living room is known for.

In my mind, there are three fundamental issues that need to be remedied to make Second Screen more user-friendly:

1. ACR needs to be replaced with direct integration between mobile devices and set-top TV boxes to provide an ideal and accurate user experience.  As I briefly mentioned in my previous Second Screen article, opening up set-top box API’s to Second Screen app developers is huge step in evolution for user experience. By opening up these API’s, Second Screen apps can communicate directly with the box to figure out what is playing, without any user input or dependency. Regardless if you flip between channels, play some DVR’ed content or just channel surf for an hour, your mobile device will always and automatically be synced with what’s on the TV. It also provides an ideal route into our next point, intra-episode syncing, which allows the two screens to be synced to the second.

2. Syncing needs to happen at an intra-episode level. Many Second Screen apps focus on syncing to the episode level right now, a teaser on tonight’s plot or new character for instance, but that is about it. This is one huge problem for the vertical right now, it provides a one-time burst of useful info that lasts about thirty seconds but nothing more to draw you back into an app. Intra-episode syncing and content is where the true value of Second Screen resides. Users want content or interaction based on what is happening on the TV that second. Ideally, it’s using the mobile device to interact with the programming by participating in a real-time poll, quiz or contest based on what the user just saw.  In the future, focusing on this could even open the door to “choose your own ending” approaches, a Holy Grail for Second Screen offerings.

3. App developers need to get away from automated or pre-programmed premises that determine what content to display on the Second Screen. Some apps are trying to sync at the intra-episode or intra-game level, but most are experiencing one large roadblock: Live, linear television is unpredictable, and using automated curation will provide an experience that is neither deep nor accurate. For example, using one ACR-based application while watching an NBA game on TNT, I was constantly being given information on the weather in Miami, simply because the automated ACR premise could not decipher between the different types of “Miami Heat.”

This is one consistent problem from Second Screen apps that are trying to tackle intra-episode syncing…content accuracy.  Knowing the difference between November Rain from Guns N’ Roses and the November rain outside makes a huge difference in the type of interactions and content presented within a Second Screen app.  Furthermore, not being able to adjust your content based on what is happening on the TV screen can make your app look unresponsive and unprepared.

Just like tweeters who use automated approaches to tweet their content, every time there’s a breaking event that captivates us, like the Boston bombing, seeing tweets coming thru at that time about ‘how to increase your social media leads’ makes that tweeter look lazy and unprepared. Not being able to adjust the content in your Second Screen app when big unexpected events happen on TV will undoubtedly land you in the same predicament at some point. Proof in this can be found in last year’s Super Bowl when the power at the game abruptly went out.  Oreo cookies was on the ball, reactively changing their social postings to reflect this unexpected event. The amount of PR and praise that Oreo got for this approach should be an indicator on the value end-users find in responsive, reactive and accurate supporting content.

Social media is a content-driven space, and you don’t need automation; you need content experts driving your app. The Second Screen app that becomes the catalyst for the space will not rely on automation, it will have content experts guiding users through the synced two-screen experience. It won’t be an app auto-pulling high-level, Wiki-like info for a topic or person I’m watching on TV. Rather, it will be a live, interactive and responsive experience between an expert and fans focusing on what is happening that moment in the show or game.

For Second Screen to be more user-friendly, we largely have to get away from thinking technology can help us automate and manage content accurately.  The space is live and linear, and we need a living, breathing soul who can adjust appropriately to make this concept truly work.