Idiot box, smarter remote

Start-up Sensara is trying to transform TV viewing through its Sensy app, which turns a smartphone into a remote control and a search tool for TV content


Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint
Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint

Look at anybody’s living room and you will see how technology has changed things—vacuum cleaned floors, speakers with surround sound and flat televisions (TV) mounted on the wall. “But what has not changed is the way we watch TV,” says Bharath Mohan, chief executive officer of Sensara Inc., a company that aims to transform the TV viewing experience.

Bengaluru-based Mohan always wanted to help people gain access to better and more information. Pursuing his passion, he studied computer science for his master’s degree and then joined Google in 2005 as a software engineer while still working on a PhD at the Indian Institute of Science. But Mohan soon realized his interest lay in the start-up space—the freedom to experiment and the opportunity to be in touch with the market were irresistible draws. In the years that followed, he co-founded a number of start-ups including Dhiti, a content recommender widget for publishers, and Insieve Technologies, an intelligent network that recommends content based on reading behaviour, before launching Sensara in 2015. “The draw of start-ups is that you can do a lot more, faster,” he said.

Sensara was created in response to an observation that single TV households very often spend a lot of time in deciding what to watch. The company’s 14-member team also observed that TV viewers never let go of mobile phones even while watching their favourite programmes. The opportunity was obvious to Sensara’s founders. “There was a lag in technology because set-top boxes, which work on infra-red remotes, do not adapt to new technologies such as Bluetooth, WiFi etc.,” explains Mohan. The Sensy app was launched in June 2016 to fill this gap and with the aim of reaching every living room.

There are two parts to what Sensy does—it helps you search for content on TV and also acts as a remote, therefore helping you change channels with a touch on your smartphone. It has been downloaded close to 100,000 times on smartphones.

Sensara’s Sensy Remote app was the winner in the Media & Entertainment category at the mBillionth Award South Asia 2016, organized by the Digital Empowerment Foundation in New Delhi in July.

Some of Sensara’s major challenges came in the initial stages—set-top boxes were working on older protocols, the industry was not yet organized and many mobile phones could not be synced with set-top boxes.

The problem was complex enough to send the team back to their books. “Maybe, because of the challenges, hiring has never been a problem. Everyone is motivated to find a solution. It also helps that the engineers can take home the product they build and actually show it to the family,” said Mohan. Meanwhile, with several remote designs available throughout the country, especially in the unorganized sector, decoding these was another major obstacle. The lack of any standard or database added to the problem. “We often asked people to send us the remote from their market so that we could add the support for it,” explained Mohan, who is hopeful that with more testing, the situation will get better.

The solution the company came up with for many of these challenges was to create the hardware itself. Sensara soon came up with Sensy Home—a device that works as a bridge between TV sets and smartphones that do not have infra-red emitters.

“To build a company like this, you need to have a long-term approach. Initially the product will not be refined, and so you have to constantly keep improving on it. You cannot make revenues overnight,” said Mohan, who spends most of his time building relationships with investors.

Sensy has received funding worth Rs5 crore from Anant Pandit, director of venture capital firm Gana Yantrika, and Lalitesh Katragadda, a former Google country manager in India. Most of the funds have gone into research and development.

Marketing too has been a challenge, considering the amount of finance required for advertising on TV. Mohan hopes that the growing popularity of Google, Facebook and YouTube advertising, would help. “But this segment will also get saturated very soon, because you are showing ads to the same people. There is nothing in between the small-time marketing and real, large-scale marketing,” he said. With its India focus, Sensara aims to reach out to 10 million phone owners in a year’s time and plans to expand into international markets as well. Mohan believes that with its competitive pricing, Sensara can cater to markets such as Singapore, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

Mint has a strategic partnership with Digital Empowerment Foundation, which hosts the Manthan and mBillionth awards.

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