Changing Chinese cable: iQiyi brings voice, AI to traditional TV

An historic move in Chinese TV occurred towards the end of last week, oddly receiving little to no coverage, as OTT video service iQiyi and local TV network Beijing Gehua CATV Network (BGCTV) launched a joint set top – marking China’s first collaboration between internet and cable TV, plus a major step forward in voice-powered viewing.

What the news underscores is how the Chinese government will not allow feuds between legacy pay TV operators and internet companies to see the light of day like in the US. For example, as it stands today Comcast would never let Google Assistant slide onto its X1 platform. The first ever collaboration between internet and cable TV could therefore mean voice-controlled TV in China will catch on quicker than we ever thought, and backed by AI it will become far more intelligent far faster than we ever imagined – creating a formula for taking over the world.

So could this be a stepping stone to a regime more accepting of internet services? Given that Amazon’s Twitch was swiftly expelled from China just a few days prior, embracing foreign internet services is a work in progress for China but the partnership between iQiyi and BGCTV is at the very least positive news for homegrown internet companies. Baidu, iQiyi’s parent company, could get the ball rolling – in what is the second significant hardware investment from the Chinese search and e-commerce giant this year.

Keeping with its theme of artificially intelligent TV, iQiyi has rolled out what it calls an AI-integrated TV box with BGCTV, called the Gehua Little Fruit set top, kitted out with voice functionality and casting capabilities for apps including Baidu Cloud and Tencent’s QQ Music, powered by Baidu’s DuerOS. Baidu already offers a basic internet-connected set top called Du, but combining its advanced voice search technologies with iQiyi’s extensive on-demand catalog and BGCTV’s premium live cable TV and playback service, on a single device, is a new frontier for TV in China. Well, solely Beijing for the time being.

Version 3.0 of the DuerOS is powering the new Gehua Little Fruit set top, which we believe is a hybrid IP-cable device, with enhanced voice recognition and search capabilities. Child Safe Mode is the most intriguing new feature of DuerOS 3.0, using voice recognition technology to determine the age of a user based on the sound of their voice. If the technology recognizes the voice of a child, only suitable content will be displayed, for example replacing horror movies with educational cartoons.

Whether this is based on voice pitch or sentence construction, or a combination, is unclear, but we have reached out to iQiyi for clarification. If it transpires the decision of the AI is based on voice pitch, then there are certain to be situations of mistaken identity for adults with high-pitched voices. If instead the AI bases its decision on more complex analysis of syntax based on natural language processing, whereby simplistic sentences are deemed child-like, then surely this gives rise to a gray area around disabilities? Nevertheless, it is an intelligent feature for parents who may forget to manually switch on child safe mode.

That said, the idea for the television of the future is for DuerOS to not only serve as a smart assistant responding to voice commands for content, but to know what users want before a verbal command is made – providing personalized TV via masses of data accrued through its search monopoly in China akin to that of Google. But unlike Google, Baidu’s DuerOS has not enjoyed much success in the smartphone sector, which is why the company is ramping up its hardware efforts elsewhere – so more similar to Amazon in that sense. However, Strategy Analytics projects DuerOS to become the second largest smartphone virtual assistant globally in the next few years after Google Assistant, with Baidu having struck deals in China with smartphone manufacturers Huawei, Vivo and Oppo.

When previously talking about its DuerOS, Baidu has said the operating system is powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 SoC, which has appeared in smartphones, set tops, smart speakers, smart TVs and IoT devices, so we assume the 845 is also powering the new Gehua Little Fruit.

Another neat voice feature is the ability to hum a show’s theme tune and be delivered the corresponding content. Something else worth noting is that iQiyi’s 60 million subscribers have access to some Netflix originals.

Regarding the broader picture, the partnership is a sign from within the walled garden that cord cutting is hurting cable TV in China and broadcaster BGCTV has turned to the country’s internet pioneer for help. While for Baidu the deal strengthens its position to get a foothold in a voice market which some insiders have suggested is more competitive than the US and Europe combined. Surely though the deal with iQiyi will damage BGCTV’s existing licensing deals with cable and satellite TV providers – so is the broadcaster brave or foolish for cutting out the middle man and going direct to consumer?

Imagine Amazon and CBS buddying up to launch a streaming dongle – unthinkable.

“The combination of the best video content from both iQiyi and BGCTV means the Gehua Little Fruit set top solves the problem within the traditional separation between live and on-demand TV, providing the ultimate level of choice for at home viewing, with maximum convenience,” noted Ge Xingfei, Deputy GM of DuerOS at Baidu.

Back in March, Baidu invested $158 million into Chinese electronics maker Skyworth Digital, which was all about bringing AI to smart TVs in the form of voice-powered intelligence via DuerOS.

Prior to this and somewhat late to market, Baidu launched its debut smart speaker in November 2017 called Raven H, a high end $256 device developed through the acquisition of Chinese start-up Raven Tech. No shipment figures for Raven H are available, although local Chinese news outlets have highlighted how Amazon, Apple and Google have little presence in the region due to struggling with mastering Chinese languages, particularly Cantonese, as well as facing competition from more than 100 native smart speaker developers.

“The addition of iQiyi’s vast catalog of premium on-demand content and Baidu’s incomparable advantages in artificial intelligence to BGCTV’s service gives viewers across Beijing the opportunity to enjoy TV in way that were previously unimaginable. The Gehua Little Fruit set top ticks all the boxes: able to support the fusion of cable and internet TV; small screen and big screen viewing; remote and voice control; live and on-demand entertainment,” said Lu Dongtao, General Manager of BGCTV, which has a market valuation of around $2 billion.