November 9, 2015

TVision Insights: Startup Says Goodbye to Arbitrary TV Ratings

In the world of television advertising, money is spent based on ratings. Ratings are constructed by Nielsen, an organization that has been measuring TV ratings since 1950. Their methodology is based on a select and limited number of opted-in TV viewers. Nielsen uses this sample set to make predictions about the greater populations viewing habits, more specifically,  the number of viewers who watched specific programming and advertising on television. 

The process is by no means free of flaws and while many people believe it paints a pretty non-factual picture of actual viewership, it remains the currency for television advertising and the premiere data source for who’s watching what. 

The skepticism around the numbers is not the only problem. In the technology-driven world in which we live today, data is more accessible than ever, but when it comes to television viewer demographics we’re still, relatively speaking, left guessing… until now. 

TVision Insights, a startup originated out of MIT Sloan and recent graduate of MassChallenge, from which it took home $50,000 in prize money, is leveraging state-of-the-art computer vision technology to collect viewers’ demographics, emotions, actual viewing habits, and content engagement by analyzing data from sensors in the living room.   

    TVision Insights MassChallenge
 TVision Insights accepts $50,000 prize at MassChallenge Awards Ceremony. (Photo Credit: MassChallenge)

Simplifying that - TVision enables stakeholders in the media industry to understand when people are actually in the room with the TV on and when they aren’t. When people actually pay attention and when they look away. When a commercial makes people smile or when a frightening moment scares them. TVision is enabling an otherwise old-school industry to gather and analyze the types of relevant, factual data most industries already have access to these days. 

This startup is bringing the media industry into the 21st century. 


TVision Insights was founded by Dan Schiffman, Yan Liu, MIT Sloan classmates who met at the MIT Media Lab, and Raymond Fu, a graduate of University of Illinois (PhD in EECS) and an Associate Professor of EECS at Northeastern University. 

TVision Insights Founders

I caught up with Schiffman, a lifetime entrepreneur, at the company’s Boston office inside Project 11 (an early investor in the startup), to learn more about where the idea came from and their early successes. 

Schiffman, a New Jersey native, grew up driven by technology and creating opportunities for himself utilizing his technical abilities. He built a web hosting company at age 14 (think: GoDaddy) and was Cisco Certified at 15. He was always building - both software and hardware. When his parents squashed the social networking project he’d been working on, Schiffman got himself a scholarship to Northeastern University and shipped up to Boston. 

Following a few more entrepreneurial initiatives, both during and post college, he landed a leadership role with a Boston based software firm called PowerAdvocate. He launched the company’s San Francisco office, but was hit with the entrepreneurial bug once again and tried his shot at an eCommerce website delivering healthy foods from artisanal providers across the U.S. 

“I spent about $500 in AdWords and suddenly had a bunch of customers and orders I needed to fill. The business quickly took on a life of its own. Soon I found myself with a warehouse and appearing on cooking shows.” 

With the health food industry and world of eCommerce both saturated, Schiffman sold that company in 2013 and headed to back to school at MIT Sloan. He eventually met Liu, a Chinese-born, Japanese-raised, ex-McKinsey consultant, who also happened to be a successful entrepreneur having built a multi-million dollar digital advertising agency. When Liu left his company to attend Sloan, he knew he’d explore a venture focused around the data side of the television industry. 

When the two serial entrepreneurs met at MIT Sloan, it wasn’t long before a concept came together. They’ve been at it full-time since graduating in June of this year. 


TVision Insights uses off-the-shelf hardware combined with proprietary computer vision software and big data analytics to understand audience engagement, attention and reactions to television and OTT programming and advertising second-by-second. Through this they provide the missing piece that enables advertisers and networks to more effectively evaluate their performance, plan their spend, understand their audience, and target their campaigns using accurate, second-by-second data. 

                       TVision Insights

The company is able to get their product inside the living rooms of everyday viewers through cash incentives, the amount of which were not disclosed. To many, the thought of having a camera inside your home tracking your reactions is uncomfortable and creepy. I asked Schiffman about these privacy concerns. 

“We take privacy very seriously. It is honestly our primary concern. We do not store any images or videos ever taken from our device. We analyze the living room scenario in real-time, store the data as 0’s and 1’s in a spreadsheet with no personally identifiable information, and then we upload that data to our servers for analysis. We own our data and we rely on our panel homes to provide it, we would never compromise that trust.” 

One of TVision’s customers is Millward Brown. The President of Millward Brown Digital, Stephen DiMarco, wasn’t too concerned with the privacy aspect of the product. The company told me DiMarco was excited to have a new gadget in the house. He recently installed TVision’s product in his own Boston area home as a way to better understand his family’s viewing behavior. 

Millward Brown and DiMarco aren’t the only big names involved with the startup either.  Joshua Summers, Co-Founder & CEO of Somerville-based AdTech startup, clypd, led a syndicate through BOSS, which brought in $380,000 with participation from many familiar names in Boston, including Diane Hessan, Lars Albright, Matt Barba and David Chang. Also, as a disclosure, making an investment (his first angel investment) through BOSS was VentureFizz Founder, Keith Cline. 

Summers who is intimately familiar with the industry, Schiffman tells me, has been working with the startup in an advisory capacity for months. I asked Summers what has him so excited about TVision: 

What has really impressed me about TVision has been the thoughtful approach they have brought to understanding the value of deeper data in TV. The ability to look beyond traditional television demographics into second by second understanding of consumer engagement and emotional response brings a new dimension to organizations looking to leverage the power of data in determining the effectiveness of their campaigns. This elevates the value of television across all screens. 

Schiffman says the company recently closed its seed round of financing, with the final total approaching $2M. The funds will go towards expanding the tech talent here in Boston as well as growing the sales and marketing team in NYC. Currently, TVision is a team of six, with the founders being joined by three other full-time employees. 

As for what’s to come, beyond the funding, Schiffman says the progress has been tremendous. He said we can expect to hear more announcements in the near future, especially when it comes to the startup’s customer base. Schiffman hinted that in addition to a local Boston agency, TVision has begun working with some of the largest networks on television.  As TVision continues to grow its reach, I suspect we’ll see many prominent advertisers and agencies sign on with TVision – putting Boston even further ahead when it comes to the growing world of AdTech.             

Josh Boyle is Director of Community & Marketing, VentureFizz.  You can follow him on Twitter @jb_sid
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