What do TV viewers want in the Internet era? Now that mobile devices offer couch potato a second, interactive screen, Miso is finding new answers to that question.
This story is one in a series leading up to the Fortune Brainstorm Tech conference, which will be held from July 19-21 in Aspen, Colorado. Fortune Brainstorm Tech will round up many of the best and brightest thinkers in technology. Our coverage in this series will examine the progress of companies that presented last year and give an idea of what to expect this year.
FORTUNE — For 86% of Internet users with a mobile device, watching TV just isn’t enough.
Those mobile users, according to a study by Yahoo (YHOO) and Nielsen, regularly interact with their devices to email, text or check Facebook and Twitter in front of the tube. And for a company like Miso, a participant in last year’s Startup Idol competition at Fortune Brainstorm Tech, it means a big opportunity: creating what founder and CEO Somrat Niyogi calls the “second screen experience,” using mobile devices to enhance TV viewing.
“People are not just sitting and watching TV anymore,” says Niyogi. “They’re multitasking more than ever. The networks know that, the manufacturers know that. But consumers don’t know what they want and I don’t think anyone knows what the ideal experience is yet.”
Launched in March 2010, the San Francisco-based company raised $.5 million prior to Brainstorm Tech with backers like Square COO Keith Rabois and started with two staffers and an iPhone app that initially let people “check in” to shows — not unlike how Foursquare lets users check in to locations — post commentary about them, and win badges for different behaviors. If you’ve ever dreamed of being the veritable mayor of Jersey Shore, Miso is the app for you.
Since then, the company has also released apps for Android, Windows Phone 7 and the BlackBerry PlayBook, raised another $1.5 million in funding – this time led by Google (GOOG) Ventures – and established partnerships with News Corp.’s (NWS) FOX Network. It also launched Miso Sync earlier this year, an experimental app made only available to Android users who had a Boxee device in their living room. Sync’s target audience was clearly limited, but it presented a deeper, more compelling experience than the original app.
Think of Sync as a more interactive VH1 Pop-Up Video, only for standard TV programming. As a hypothetical example, a user watching say, Glee, could launch Sync, and the app would track how far along they were along in that episode and present them with relevant information like biographical info about a particular actor or the name of a song playing the background.
As the company observed usage, they noted viewer questions like: Who is that guest star? What other shows have they been in? Where is that jacket from, and where I can buy something similar? They also realized that people wanted different types of information presented at different frequencies depending on the kind of show they watched.
Though Miso is no longer allowing new users into Sync, the company will incorporate its user observations into new features for the original cross-platform app, which currently reaches more than 200,000 users. (Niyogi wouldn’t discuss growth in detail, only to say that Miso’s growth is good but not great.) Now the challenge will be to create a richer experience with that data, attract both high-profile partnerships, and hammer out a concrete business model to tap into mobile advertising, a market where customized ads based on individual user behavior offers some promise.
“We’re just at 0.01% of where we want to be,” says Niyogi. “We do have a long way to go, and we have a lot to prove in the long run, but we have been very focused on building something that naturally filters the way you watch TV. And because of that focus, you’re going to see features that represent that.”
To see how the latest round of startups fare — and which one comes out on top — look for coverage of this year’s “Startup Idol” competition, hosted by Senior Editor at Large Adam Lashinsky on July 19. Follow the conference here and on Twitter #fortunetech.