The man who plans to bring the internet to your television screen

Project Canvas can transform British living rooms, the BBC’s Erik Huggers tells Ian Burrell

Project Canvas can transform British living rooms, the BBC's Erik Huggers tells Ian Burrell

Erik Huggers chooses to meet in the boardroom at the BBC's Media Centre, home to the corporation's equivalent of the Black Museum at Scotland Yard, a collection of clunky exhibits and blunt instruments from a dark past before the advent of touchscreen science.

At least that's what you might expect this Dutchman to think, given that he is director of future media and technology and tasked with envisioning how we will be consuming information and entertainment through the fast approaching new decade. On the contrary, he argues, these artefacts are historic symbols of an organisation that has always had engineering at its core, and has long invested in research and development for the greater good of the British people. Hallelujah.

The crystal-ball gazer points out the spinning globe used in the BBC's early idents, then a crystal radio dating to 1923, before picking up a fading book from 1942. "What do you do when the bombs are falling?" he asks. "If you are the BBC you say 'Let's write the Engineering Division Training Manual'."

Huggers, 36, turns to his favourite picture of 1940s BBC staff, working in lab coats. "It's almost like a nuclear power plant. It's like 'Beam me up Scotty!', 'A bit more power captain!'," he says. "The first employee of the BBC was an engineer, which says it all in my mind. This division came out of the engineering heritage and is about using engineering capabilities to deliver the BBC's mission."

As he settles down behind his laptop, the former senior Microsoft executive seems far from embarrassed by its Apple branding. Indeed, Steve Jobs' company is very close to his thoughts as he muses on the potential of Project Canvas, the ambitious plan to transform our living room media consumption by bringing the internet to our television screens. It could offer not merely opportunities to watch programmes again but to see what's being said about them on Twitter, recommend them to friends on Facebook and even – a brave new world for the BBC – to spend money on related products and services.

We are at a critical moment in the genesis of Canvas, which awaits approval from the BBC Trust amid complaints from BSkyB that the venture (being jointly undertaken by the BBC, ITV, BT and Five) is an inappropriate use of licence-fee money. The Trust is expected to give its verdict any day now. "Nail biting!" says Huggers, whose vocabulary and accent lean toward America's West Coast.

He has invested much in this adventure and its rejection by the Trust would be a great blow. The audience also has much to lose, he claims. "The risk is complete fragmentation of the market place," he says of the danger that individual consumer electronics giants and pay-TV platforms are each left to set up their own online TV offerings. "For consumers what this will lead to, in a nutshell, is complete confusion."

The "unified platform" of Canvas, he claims, will avoid a world of "vertical islands" where companies try to lock consumers in, and offer a "horizontal standard" that is universally beneficial. "If we can get to a world where there's agreement across the industry for a single approach that can reach critical mass what you then get is economies of scale and the price of the devices will go down," he says.

With Trust approval, Canvas set-top boxes could be on the shelves this time next year. For the BBC, this is an opportunity to safeguard the future of its Freeview and Freesat public service programming. But Huggers is also keen to stress the commercial potential of the proposition.

On the desk, alongside his laptop is his Apple iPhone. He makes a paean to the functionality of his mobile and the access it offers to 115,000 applications. "Why can't that happen on the living room TV?" he asks. "My sincere hope is that we can somehow facilitate something similar for the British audience in the British living room, not just for the British licence-fee payers but frankly for the British economy."

Canvas is a platform that will, "allow third parties to develop services and applications that can reach hopefully an audience of millions in the living room via the internet," bringing potentially tens of thousands of applications to the TV screen and allowing small businesses to promote their wares to mass audiences watching from Britain's sofas.

"How cool would it be if the NHS developed a fantastic Canvas application that gave you access to your NHS material so that you can book a meeting with the doctor and check on the status of the sample that was taken to the lab?" asks Huggers. "Or if Job Centre Plus were to develop a Canvas application that gives you access to their database?"

Aside from such public service "apps", Canvas could be an opportunity for commercial players too. "Love Film has a rental DVD business. Why do they need to send you a shiny round disc? Isn't that a bit past tense, a bit old school? Why can't they deliver that same film directly via the internet to a Canvas box?" Huggers says the BBC has no direct interest in such commercial activity. "Our interest is obviously 100 per cent in the public service remit," he says. As for Sky, it's welcome to become a founding partner of Canvas or put its services on the platform.

"Sky are very happy to put Sky Player on the Xbox, there's no reason why that exact same arrangement couldn't work for Sky and Canvas."

A third version of the BBC's iPlayer will launch in the first quarter of 2010 with a new design that allows users to see what their friends have watched. "We will do it with Twitter, Bebo, Windows Live, Facebook, wherever our users happen to have a social network."

This integration with other online brands, like the partnership nature of Canvas, is part of a new spirit of co-operation within the BBC. Huggers suggests this could lead to the BBC news website displaying the stories and analysis of other news providers.

"Just like we're making BBC news available on third party news websites... I think it's going to be interesting to see over the next year or so how there's going to be potential for making it flow the other way round as well." That might help counter criticisms that the BBC's online ambitions damage other British media. Despite those accusations, Huggers, who joined the BBC in 2007, suprisingly claims that persuading his colleagues that online activity should be more than a bolt on to television and radio, "hasn't been an easy task".

"What I've been talking about –and it's literally taken two-and-a-half years – is the need for a partnership between creative editorial people and creative technology people who work hand in glove to create new exciting online products which reach PCs, TVs, mobile devices, whatever IP-connected devices consumers wish to choose in the future," he says. It has been "challenging", but he has now won that argument. "It's not a bolt on anymore," he says. "[There is now a] realisation that the internet as a platform and BBC online as our service on that platform represent the past, present and future of everything the BBC does."

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Architect Frank Gehry is regarded by many as the most important architect of the modern era
arts + entsGehry has declared that 98 per cent of modern architecture is "s**t"
Sport
Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi during Barcelona training in August
footballPete Jenson co-ghost wrote Suarez’s autobiography and reveals how desperate he's been to return
Money
Welcome to tinsel town: retailers such as Selfridges will be Santa's little helpers this Christmas, working hard to persuade shoppers to stock up on gifts
news
Arts and Entertainment
Soul singer Sam Smith cleared up at the Mobo awards this week
newsSam Smith’s Mobo triumph is just the latest example of a trend
News
Laurence Easeman and Russell Brand
people
Sport
Fans of Dulwich Hamlet FC at their ground Champion Hill
footballFans are rejecting the £2,000 season tickets, officious stewarding, and airline-stadium sponsorship
News
Shami Chakrabarti
people
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch has refused to deny his involvement in the upcoming new Star Wars film
filmBenedict Cumberbatch reignites Star Wars 7 rumours
Sport
football
News
news
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Head of Business Development and Analytics - TV

competitive benefits: Sauce Recruitment: Outstanding analytic expertise is req...

Head of ad sales international - Broadcast

competitive + bonus + benefits: Sauce Recruitment: Are you the king or Queen o...

Business Development Manager Content/Subscriptions

£50k + commission: Savvy Media Ltd: Great opportunity to work for a team that ...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £30000 per annum + uncapped: SThree: Do you feel like your sales role...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker