Footnoting the Web

Moving beyond the bucket and adding value to online video.

When we started working with Microsoft Research we knew that innovation would be high on the agenda. “Turning ideas into reality” however is harder than it sounds, especially when you have a lot of ideas and keep starting sentences with “wouldn’t it be great if...”.

I’ve talked a bit on this blog about the idea of ‘curation’ and the need to somehow filter the vast amounts of content available online. This trend from broad to narrow and the creation of subject-specific niches was recently cemented by YouTube’s Original Channels initiative.

However, it still seems hard to move away from the basic ‘bucket of content’ model of presenting videos and we found ourselves asking: Why would anyone want to watch a video on the Ri Channel, rather than elsewhere on the web?

In other words, what does the channel offer that’s different to the usual experience of consuming videos online?

Chris Thorpe of Jaggeree has talked about the importance of “bending services around the user”, pointing to BERG’s elevated street projections of Manhattan as a fantastic example of user-centred design breaking free from the standard model:

If a video is engaging enough it should provoke a user to further action, whether that’s sharing, commenting or further online exploration. This is particularly true, I think, for science content and we wanted to prevent losing visitors to Google midway through a video.

Early investigation into how to curate additional linked content on video playback led us to HTML5 video applications like Popcorn.js. Here's an mock-up from our early thoughts:

The idea of annotations was eventually simplified down into the ‘Footnotes’ you see accompanying each Ri-produced video. Resources are pulled onto the site from Wikipedia, Wolfram|Alpha, Youtube, Flickr or Vimeo and, crucially, are time-coded to specific points in the video.

I think the footnotes have really come into their own around the Christmas Lectures, allowing us to truly add value to the online experience by linking behind-the-scenes commentary and additional resources to specific points in the talks. The addition of a safety video in the Argon Ice Tales from the Prep Room is also a great touch.

Having said that I’m not sure the presentation style is quite right yet and the label of ‘footnotes’ may not be the best (especially considering Noel Coward’s view on the matter!).

Visitors have also raised queries over the use of Wikipedia as reference points. I understand this and we are careful to feature non-contentious topics that act as a starting point for further exploration, rather than providing definite answers.

As we move out of beta there’s huge potential to develop the footnotes concepts further – by adding more sources of content, linking up sets of curated material and also opening out the curation process to our user base. As ever, let us know what you think...

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