Tuesday, 14 February 2012

What Needs to Happen in TV industry Before We Start Caring

This post might seem at first that this should live some where else than in Android UI Design Patterns blog. I will not be talking about Android smartphone user interfaces (well at least not that much) and I will not be talking about design patterns for Android phone apps. I will, however, be talking about Android and user interface. This post is about my thoughts and personal views about smart TV industry and especially GoogleTV and what I think needs to happen before the next living room revolution truly gets started.

User Interface Problem

By far the largest problem standing between us and mass smart TV adoption is the user interface. All current TVs are just few short evolutionary steps from the TVs of 1960s. The lack of progress is actually very surprising. TV has been big business for a long time. For decades basically every home has had one. 

Thinking back for the last 70 years where are the revolutionary innovations? While of course the technology that is in TVs has advanced tremendously true revolutionary ideas are missing. 3D TV? Digital TV? HD TV? No, that is innovation and progress but not revolution. People really don't care about 3D!

Poll on Slashdot, http://slashdot.org/poll/2323/when-it-comes-to-3d-tv 

In my opinion the only true revolution has been the remote control. A remote lets us stay on the couch instead of getting up when we want to watch something else. It was a massive step forward in TV user interface. Remote isn't a new idea though. The first wireless remote was built 1955 and it hadn't changed much after that.

1956 - Zenith Space Command, photo by Jim Rees (CC)

Adding More Pixels

All TV manufacturers seem to be hellbent to add more pixels and more functions to their TVs. This whole situation has great parallels to smartphone industry. It took an outside forces to step in and shake up the industry before the current revolution started. What Apple and Google did in smartphones must be done in TV industry before we start moving on.

Interestingly parallels of Smartphones and TVs don't end there. Take a look at this recent quote from Samsung AV product lead Chris Moseley:

"TVs are ultimately about picture quality. Ultimately. How smart they are...great, but let's face it that's a secondary consideration. The ultimate is about picture quality and there is no way that anyone, new or old, can come along this year or next year and beat us on picture quality." (quote source)

That is exactly what Nokia, RIM and Palm said about iPhone and later about Android before they were all in trouble for not realising what users really want. And it wasn't more Gs or MPs in their phones. 

The Remote

People say that in TV content is king. But if people can't access the content without a fight. Take a look at the remotes you have laying around. What percentage of the buttons you use?

This is one of the three remotes I have to use whenever I want to watch a movie. I've never used more than 4 to 5 buttons of this remote.

See the problem?

YouTube Remote

OK. I've now established what I think abut the current state of things but how about some ideas how things should be? Here goes. I don't know how many of you have tried Android YouTube remote app and YouTube lean back but if you haven't try it out now.

Step one:
Open http://www.youtube.com/leanback in any non-mobile browser. A laptop or desktop works fine. Make sure you're logged into your YouTube / Google account. 

Step two:
Install YouTube remote app to your Android phone from the Android Market, launch it and give it permission to login to your Google account.


You now have a very easy to use remote to your laptop / desktop for watching anything on YouTube. The Android app interface is intuitive and easy to use. If you want to search for a video you can use the familiar interface you have on your phone.

Let's think how this would transfer to a GoogleTV. The TV already knows your Google account so that step can be skipped. The TV is capable of launching a YouTube app when start the remote app on your phone. The whole step 1 can therefore be skipped altogether.

As for step 2, once you have the app installed only thing that have to done is to launch the app. That's it. Seamless, practically zero configuration remote for watching videos on a TV (well on a computer in this case). Also noteworthy is that the two devices don't need to be in the same network so the user doesn't have to worry about that either.

So which device is actually extending which?

A Remote I Want to See, Wild Speculation

We clearly have the technology to do better things that we do now. Someone just needs to step up do it right. Shaking up old industries is difficult form inside and small new players like Boxee are struggling to gain significant traction. 

Google is doing great work with its GoogleTV platform. GoogleTV has a lot going on. They keep improving the platform by trying to keep up with Android releases, adding better app support and better APIs. This isn't enough though. There's only so much Google can do alone (at least for now). The main interface of TV (the remote) is still build by OEMs. Google either needs to step in and make the industry shakeup happen or someone else will.

That someone else will most likely be Apple. Think what you want about Apple but indisputable fact is that Apple did revolutionize both smartphone and tablet industry. 

At the CES 2012 there was panic in the air. While Apple's entrance to the TV business was only rumor (and still is) every major manufacturer were competing against this yet to be announced device. But the traditional manufacturers are so stuck into their way of thinking that it seems to be impossible to innovate. What we saw at CES was frankly saddening. Every manufacturer took the same approach. They took their existing hardware and tried to jam every conceivable feature into their TV and remote. That doesn't work.

So, let me introduce the device that will disrupt this industry and take it into next level. This is what Apple TV's remote control will look like:

The remote will run all iOS apps. In fact the remote will run iOS. Apple will introduce set of new APIs that let the apps use connected TV to extend app functionality. You will be able, for example, to move a game, video or song you're playing to your TV seamlessly. Most of the functionality will stay on your remote as that is the familiar and powerful tool you've already used to. You can, of course, use any of your iDevices in the same way. Only configuration that will be needed is you to login to your iTunes account on your TV or accompanying set-top box. The TV will become a simple extension of your phone or tablet instead of being a separate entity.

While this all is just pure speculation and guessing (I have no insider information) I believe that we need to change the way we think about TV. TV must become a part of the ecosystem we're using instead of us inventing another ecosystem.

There's much more

In this post I willfully ignored voice and motion control and some other related technologies. While I believe that they can easily be viable control methods and might play big role I don't think any of them are the big shift and revolution. They will simply be technologies that will allow us to build more natural UIs. 

TL;DR or Conclusion

The shift we need must be more than new technology. We must start thinking TV as extension of our other devices and not to try make our other devices (or remotes) extension of TV. A TV is a large display. Let's treat it as one. TVs will be part of the smartphone ecosystems we already have. Tools for devs will allow them very easily move display part of their apps to any TV any time. Our TVs will become a natural extension of the best technology we already have.