The SyFy channel’s new app is a major step forward for TV channels and fans of their shows, using new technology to synchronise the app with what’s on screen.

The SyFy Sync app was launched this month alongside Defiance, SyFy’s worldwide attempt to create both a hit TV series and a massive multiplayer online gaming community.

Defiance tells an epic story about humans and aliens living on Earth after a failed invasion, while the multiplayer game lets anyone enjoy adventures in the the wider world of Defiance.

SyFy Sync: Behind the scenes on the Defiance and Haven app with Gracenote Entourage
SyFy Sync follows events through episodes of Defiance as they unfold

Every week, fans can switch on SyFy Sync and discover new background details, behind-the-scenes extras and more as the new episode rolls on.

The twist is that SyFy Sync knows not only which episode you’re watching, but where you are in this episode, and the secret to this is Gracenote.

Gracenote is a name which most people will know as the online music identification service which makes it easy to rip your CDs to MP3 without putting in all the artist, title and track information.

It creates a unique audio fingerprint for every song or musical work so that it can be quickly identified.

The second string to Gracenote’s bow is TV guide data, which it produces for smart TVs made by companies including Sony, Philips and LG in more than 30 countries worldwide.

Gracenote Entourage: TV shows fingerprinted

When second screen apps started to catch on, Gracenote created a new technology, Entourage, by combining its audio fingerprinting with its TV guide data.

Gracenote Entourage can identify TV shows by their audio, and even knows where you are in a particular show, and it can do so in the background, automatically updating an app and unlocking new features as events unfold.

As Gracenote’s president, Stephen White, explains, it’s ideal for an app like SyFy Sync, which launched in the USA in Autumn 2012 alongside SyFy's hit supernatural show, Haven.

By unlocking features during a show, the app can offer a poll based on events, and - in Haven’s case, reveal alternative ending videos the writers had created - but there shouldn’t be any unexpected surprises.

“If you pause it or start watching the next day, the application will know what you are watching, and you will never get content unlocked that you shouldn’t get,” adds White.

The app has now expanded into other SyFy dramas like Face/Off and the US version of Being Human, and can instantly identify which episode of the channel’s shows the viewer is watching, even if it’s delayed on a PVR like Sky+ or TiVo.

NBC Universal, SyFy’s owner, is working with Gracenote on similar apps for its other channels, says White, with E! Entertainment and the Universal Channel obvious international candidates. We’ll find out this summer.

SyFy Sync: Behind the scenes on the Defiance and Haven app with Gracenote Entourage
Live polls are just one feature enabled by Gracenote Entourage

Zeebox and Gracenote: instant indentification

It isn’t just broadcasters who are using Gracenote’s services: this autumn, the UK’s most popular independent ‘companion app’, Zeebox, will integrate Entourage.

This presses into use the technology’s full power to recognise any TV show from the past seven days and connect users to tweets, promotions and targeted advertising.

Zeebox lets users both follow and make tweets around TV shows, lining up the correct hashtags and addresses for whatever their watching as they create a tweet.

The social media life of a TV show is becoming as important to broadcasters as its audience figures, demonstrating in real time how deeply engaged its viewers are by their tweets and Facebook posts.

Extending this period could be a real bonus for seeing how viewers interact with dramas and documentaries, which tend to be watched on catch-up.

Targeted advertising is a holy grail for advertisers and app-makers, hopefully allowing viewers to see ads they’re interested in because that relate to what’s on screen, and Zeebox will also be able to do this with Entourage on board.

White said: “The next big thing is targeted advertising, so if you’re watching a car show we could offer you the opportunity to schedule a test drive.”

Behind the scenes

Gracenote’s Entourage software is also finding a behind-the-scenes roll for US broadcasters as an alternative to traditional audience measurement techniques, where a panel of a few thousand people use a special set-top box which monitors what they watch, and the numbers are extrapolated into national viewing figures.

“We are moving from the traditional user panel to handing people a smartphone with our software on it and saying ‘You can have this for free in exchange for telling us what you are watching’,” said White. “For advertisers, this kind of detailed usage data is not available to them today.”

The approach could hand both broadcasters and advertisers detailed data about how people interact with their shows or ads, such as walking off to make a cup of tea when they lose interest, or how they surf through channels.

Companion apps are in their early years, but both SyFy Sync and Zeebox point the way that major broadcasters like Sky (which has a stake Zeebox) will go, with technology like Gracenote’s Entourage making it easier to match up what you’re watching with what’s in your hand.