2013-07-24

Co.Labs

Google’s Chromecast Shows The World Isn’t Ready For Truly Smart TV

Google’s latest hardware is even more of an experiment than Apple TV. Will real smart TVs ever arrive?



Today Google unveiled the Chromecast, a USB stick-sized HDMI dongle that runs a modified version of Chrome OS and plugs into your TV, allowing you to mirror content from your computer, tablet, or smartphone right to the big screen in your living room. As Google describes the device on its Chrome blog:

To help make it easy to bring your favorite online entertainment to the biggest screen in your house--the TV--we’re introducing Chromecast. Chromecast is a small and affordable ($35) device that you simply plug in to your high-definition (HD) TV and it allows you to use your phone, tablet or laptop to "cast" online content to your TV screen. It works with Netflix, YouTube, Google Play Movies & TV, and Google Play Music, with more apps like Pandora coming soon. With Chromecast, we wanted to create an easy solution that works for everyone, for every TV in the house.

It’s easy to compare the Chromecast to the Apple TV, because Apple’s device allows you to stream content (called “AirPlay Mirroring”) from any Mac, iPhone, iPod touch, or iPad right to any television your Apple TV is plugged into. Arguably, the Chromecast looks nicer because it is much smaller (one wouldn’t even see it if your TV’s HDMI ports are hidden in the back, as most are), but the Apple TV still offers more features since it’s got an actual UI-based OS and allows you to shop the iTunes Store with no other device needed.

However, what’s really interesting about the Chromecast is not that Google is again stepping into the ring with Apple, it’s that it seems that now Google is as aware as Apple has always been that the mythical smart television is still years off. That’s because, as I’ve written about before, no one can quite define what a smart television should do--even tech giants Google and Apple. You can tell by the reductiveness of the device that this thing was built on a hypothesis--an untried one at that.

But as Apple has always taken a very, very, slow-and-steady approach to smart televisions, Google had previously jumped in head first without clearly defining and discovering what a real smart television could offer that our other devices already couldn’t--and those “Google TVs” haven’t reached any kind of critical adoption.

The Chromecast, like the Apple TV before it, signals that Google is now aware users are currently content with the stuff we can get on our tablets and smartphones--and that sometimes they want to throw what’s on their small screens onto the big screen in their living room. Beyond that, Google, just like Apple, is probably working hard at figuring out what a real “smart television” should do, look like, and offer that smaller, cheaper media streamers like the Apple TV and Chromecast, paired with content on our devices, can’t already give us.


Previous Updates


As WebTV Gets Deprecated, A Prayer For Smart TV

July 18, 2013

What on earth makes a “smart” TV? It’s worth asking that question this week, on the heels of the deprecation of WebTV. Known as “MSN TV” after Microsoft bought it in 1997, the platform--which basically allowed you to surf the web on your television--will be shutting down come September 30th. Apparently, a browser does not make a TV “smart,” or at least, not smart enough.

So what does? Ask someone who isn’t a techie to define “smart TV” and they’ll probably say something like, “Oh, it’s like a TV and an iPhone. You can watch shows and surf the web at the same time... Right?” But ask someone who is in the tech industry what a smart TV is and they’ll probably give you the exact same answer (although they may add, “It runs apps too”). Rarely are Luddites and turbo-nerds on the same page about this sort of thing, but in the realm of television, the future is so undefined that it’s anybody’s guess.

And that’s why the current crop of “smart televisions” haven’t caught on yet--and perhaps also why Apple, the company most believe will be able to take the product mainstream, has yet to get into the market. A product needs to be clearly defined before it can be engineered--and marketed--effectively.

But what is a “smart TV” really? Is it a TV with a media streaming box like an Apple TV or a Roku built in? Is it a TV with an app store? Is it the central control room of your house that lets you video conference with people and control the lighting and temperature and oven in your kitchen? Is it all of these things? Or maybe the browser is the key--and the problem is a dearth of new, usable interfaces for it?

The causes of WebTV’s death are myriad, as Brad Hill, WebTV’s first official evangelist, writes for Engadget:

Assessing the demise of WebTV is probably unnecessary -- every proposed reason for Microsoft's decision has some truth. Computers have become household appliances. (Though still not easy or desirable for many people.) The long-sought internet / TV convergence is happening in new ways, most of them specialized to deliver TV-like content (not email). Mobile devices -- that's the real hammer to WebTV, I think. When the iPad was introduced, and was voraciously adopted by seniors, the tablet paradigm provided a new on-ramp to an internet experience. Touching an app icon is a vertical action, not unlike changing channels on a TV.

Brad Hill’s list of causes of WebTV’s death should be a cautionary tale to Samsung, Panasonic, Sony, and others who market current “smart” televisions. Many of these are little more than standard TVs with slick UIs, a web browser, and a very limited app store.

But as the death of WebTV shows, in order for the smart television to invade the living room, its sum must be better than the whole of the features our other devices can give us. And right now the Internet is much easier to browse on a tablet or laptop than on a smart TV. There are more apps for the dying BlackBerry platform than even the best smart television. Even video content offerings--something a smart TV should excel at--are just as good on tablets via all the streaming apps and video stores available to consumers. And don’t even get me started on remotes. No television can be considered smart if the remote has more than five buttons you need to press to easily navigate all of its offerings.

WebTV died because our other devices allowed us to access the same features more easily and comfortably. This should be a warning to all current “smart TV” makers. Your product won’t reach the critical tipping point of mass adoption until the smart television allows us to take advantage of the features our other devices offer, in an easier to use and more attractive package. That includes content accessibility, killer UIs, remote interfaces, and unique features that can only be done through a television. And for that to happen, what a “smart television” is and does needs to be clearly defined.


Could Apple’s “Magic Wand” Be The Next Universal Remote?

July 10, 2013

Many of us probably take for granted that we can pick up an iPhone, iPad, or MacBook and begin using it right away. But for millions of people around the globe computers and other technology have always presented use limitations due to personal handicaps such as those with vision and hearing issues, or physical and learning disabilities. As computers and, indeed, now smartphones, move from luxuries to necessities, those that have conditions that don’t allow them to operate the devices as easily as others can find themselves at a disadvantage.

Thankfully Apple, the number one consumer technology company in the world, has a deep history of providing cutting-edge assistive technology features built into its hardware and software.

But assistive technology is a lot easier to enable once and forget about on personal devices like laptops and smartphones, which typically only have one user. After all, a person who is hard of sight can simply set an iPhone (or have someone set it for them) to the desired accessibility settings once and get on with using it. But communal devices like televisions often have multiple users, and each one might have a different assistive technology need, which means accessibility settings may have to be changed multiple times a day depending on who is using the television--and that may be hard for a user to do depending on their situation.

That’s where Apple’s patent for a “magic wand” remote control come in. From the patent filing:

In response to detecting a thumbprint or fingerprint, wand or the electronic device may compare the detected print with a library of known prints to authenticate or log-in the user associated with the print.

In response to identifying the user, the electronic device may load content specific to the identified user (e.g., a user profile, or access to the user’s recordings), or provide the user with access to restricted content (e.g., content restricted by parental control options).

As I’ve written about in the past, one of the biggest problems with smart TVs is that many “smart” televisions on the market still cling to an outdate, 20th century method of input: the 60+ button remote controls. The remote control for television is an area ripe for innovation--and needs to be revolutionized if any TV can truly be called “smart.” The immediate advantages of a “magic wand” remote described in the patent are myriad, some obvious. As Christian Zibreg writes for iDownloadBlog:

If Apple could authenticate users who simply hold a magic wand or an iPhone 5S (rumored to integrate a fingerprint sensor underneath the Home button) in their hand, the solution could make parental and media permission controls effortless and secure while allowing for multi-user scenarios.

But what perhaps is not so obvious a use of this “magic wand” remote is that it would make accessibility on communal television so much easier for those that need it.

Such a device would be able to instantly recognize the accessibility settings any user needed simply by touch. A person hard of sight could pick up the remote and immediately see the text size and contrast increased in their on-screen channel guide. A person hard of hearing could pick up the remote and see subtitles immediately activated. Even a person with motor control difficulties, such as those who have lost dexterity in their fingers, could pick up the remote and the smart TV would know to increase the size of gesture zones when the wand is waved. In this situation, a user could swing the remote left or right to move forward or backwards through the channels. The wide swing zones automatically activated based on this user’s need would free them from having to make specific, narrow-area presses or taps a traditional remote control, or even a touch screen remote (like an iPhone), requires.

Of course, the “magic wand” patent is just that--a patent. It doesn’t mean it will ever be an actual product. But if it comes to fruition, it would be a kick in the pants the traditional remote control needs and--more importantly--allow for much easier accessibility option activations that communal devices like televisions desperately require.

[Developers interested in making their apps accessible for all should check out Apple’s Accessibility in iOS guidelines.]


The TV Channel Guide Is Broken. Can Netflix Max Fix It?

July 8, 2013

As a child of the early '80s, it wasn’t too hard navigating what to watch on TV. We had five channels and you turned the dial to switch between them. By the end of the '80s we had cable, with a whopping 30 channels and you keyed in digits on the cable box’s numeric keypad to flip through channels to see what was on. By the mid-'90s the first on-screen channel guides appeared. This was handy because it let me see what was playing on my 90+ channels; all the programs were displayed on a linear grid. The early 2000’s brought TiVo and the first guides you could enter search queries into. Amazing. And since then, well, things haven’t changed much.

And for smart TV’s that’s going to be a huge problem.

Because in 10 to 15 years live TV and scheduled programming will exist for two things only: news and sports. Everything else will be on-demand. The new episode of the latest hit sitcom will no longer “air” every Thursday at 8 p.m. Instead it will be made available at a certain time and viewers can then choose whenever to watch it.

Not only will this on-demand programing for new episodes mean a traditional linear program guide is no longer needed, but when you combine all the on-demand currently running TV seasons (that is, “new releases”) with all the other on-demand content smart TVs will offer (100 years' worth of movies and TV shows) trying to navigate what’s available to watch via a traditional programming guide, or even more modern UI like you find on the Apple TV or Roku, could quickly get pointless. There’s just too much content to browse. You could flip through an alphabetized list of television shows or images of movie posters for weeks and not even skim 1% of all the content that will be available.

So how will content be found and searched on future smart TVs? It has to be in a better way than is done now because, just as search is the most important function for user interaction on the web, discovery will become the most critical aspect of user interaction on a smart TV.

That’s where I think Netflix has an interesting thing going for it with Netflix Max. Currently only on the PS3, but rolling out to other Netflix platforms soon, Netflix Max is a new interactive discovery tool in the guise of mini-games viewers play that helps them find what to watch next based on their answers to the game and also their Netflix analytics history, such as past viewing habits and ratings given to content watched. As Yahoo’s Jason Gilbert explains:

When you click in to play Max, you’ll be served a random game which will terminate in a recommendation from Netflix’s famous learning software. At the E3 Gaming conference in Los Angeles earlier this month, I got a chance to play around with Max for about 30 minutes, sampling three of the initial games that will ship with Max. There was Mood Ring, asks you which celebrity, or genre, or oddly specific Netflix category you prefer, generally offering you two disparate choices to find out what you are in the mood for; the Rating Game, which lets you rate a number of movies between one and five stars, and then spits out a title it thinks you will like based on those ratings; and an option that was like the "I'm Feeling Lucky" button in Google, which auto-plays a title based on your rating and viewing history.

For my taste, Netflix Max is a little annoying. I like the discovery aspect, but the games and Max’s voice are a bit too cutesie-wootsie. However, Netflix is to be commended because it shows that the company knows discovery will be the future of smart TVs and that they are aware that current programming guides--and even their own tiled UIs--are coming to the end of their useful shelf lives. Are mini-games the future of content discovery on smart TVs? Probably not. But creative and easy ways to put new content in front of users definitely are.


How Smart Remotes Could Keep TVs Dumb

June 24, 2013

Ask people what device they use most often with their TV, and the answer will likely be “my remote control.” Indeed, remotes have been synonymous with home televisions since the 1980s. However, they also seem to be the one device that could be holding back engineers tasked with creating the television of the 21st century from finding the best ways to interact with TVs of the future.

Engineers and design experts working on creating the first true smart TV need to get the notion of the remote control out of their mind. The remote control is a multi-buttoned monster of a relic that has had its day. It’s clunky, confusing, and 90% of the buttons on it are never pressed.

The remote control was good for its time, but trying to build a “remote control of the future” based on conceptions of a 30-year-old device won’t lead anywhere. Think of it this way: In late 2006 when the rumors were pretty strong that Apple was set to unveil an iPhone, many people thought the device might resemble an iPod but also have the functionality built into the scroll wheel to make phone calls. Pundits shouted that the rotary would once again rise up and take back the crown from the T9 pad. Other people imagined an advance Palm Pilot type of device with a stylus.

But neither of those things happened. What happened was Apple started from scratch--as if they had never seen a phone before--and invented their own. And it ended up changing the computing world.

That’s what the handheld device (indeed, if there even is one) is going to have to be like in order to call a smart TV “smart.”

Writing for 9to5Mac, Dan DeSilva recently praised Logitech for its newest Harmony Ultimate Hub “appcessory” that turns any smartphone into an ultimate remote:

“For years, harmony has been one of the most respected brands in remote technology. It seems like the Ultimate Hub is a move in the right direction making this technology affordable for everyone. The Ultimate Hub will be available in the U.S. and Europe in August 2013.”

While he’s right that Logitech makes nice products and that it’s always a good thing when technology becomes cheaper because it speeds adoption, let’s stop praising companies for merely adapting old technology to fit slightly new standards, because a total rethinking is needed for the way a user will interact with a smart TV--and it’s not the remote in any traditional sense.

So what’s the answer? Voice seems obvious. But as Tom Morgan writes for ExpertReviews:

“In theory, voice and motion control are ideal ways to interact with technology, but not in their current forms. Currently, voice-controlled TVs have a pre-programmed list of commands that must be uttered exactly in order to register a match. If the company hasn’t programmed an alternative phrasing, you’re limited to a single statement to perform simple actions that takes a mere button press on a traditional remote control. The limited degree of recognition accuracy also means that unless you speak with a BBC-trained English accent, there’s a good chance your command won’t get recognized even if you get the wording correct.”

Could voice control be the “remote” of the 21st century? Sure. But as Morgan points out, the tech isn’t there . . . yet (but if I had to place my bets, Google will get there before Apple).

So what about gestures? My problem with gestures is that you run into the gorilla-arm syndrome. “Gorilla-arm syndrome” describes why touch screens don’t work well on vertical interfaces (like an iMac). Though the tech might be there, human anatomy still overpowers technological innovation. The fact is, we get tired holding our arms out in front of us (especially while sitting) and waving them around. It’s why we use our iPads in our laps and our iPhones held in our hands and don’t hang them on a wall like a painting.

But let’s say we could get around gorilla-arm syndrome. Current gesture tech still has many flaws to overcome. As David Katzmaier writes in his review of Samsung’s Smart Interaction control box for televisions:

“The problem was, despite excellent lighting, my attempts to activate gesture control were often ignored and I ended up waving foolishly at the TV. When it did work, navigation was inexact and frustrating--think of a coarse version of a Wii-mote--and after a minute or so of it, my arm became tired. I guess that means gesture control is a good workout.

My fist-to-click didn't register as often as it should have and I ended up flapping my hand open and closed repeatedly in an attempt to "click" an item on the screen. At this point, I seriously considered using my fist to do something else to the TV screen.”

So, what’s the answer to the best way to interface with the smart TV of the future? I don’t know, which is why I’m tracking this story. If you’ve seen or are working on something that might revolutionize the way we interact with our TVs in the future, please tweet me @michaelgrothaus. Because the world’s first true smart TV could have all the content deals it wants and have the slickest UI ever designed, but if it doesn’t have a novel, intuitive, and easy way to navigate it, it could very well be more of a pain to use than today’s TVs with their average of 60-plus buttons per remote.


Apple TV Gets Smarter (By Borrowing Popular iOS Apps)

June 20, 2013

Apple doesn’t like rushing products out the door before they’re ready. However, that doesn’t mean the company is resting on its laurels. Indeed, today the company quietly rolled out the Apple TV 5.3 software update that brings more features to Apple’s set top box.

Significantly, today’s update shows that Apple thinks the road to a true smart television might be paved with features borrowed from iOS--most notably, some of its most popular apps. Now when Apple TV owners turn on their TV, they’ll be presented with new “channels” that are essentially ports of the iOS apps WatchESPN and HBO GO. Depending on what country the user is in, they may also see new channels from Sky News, Crunchyroll, and Qello.

Is third-party content important on a smart television? Of course. But not just any third-party content. To suck users into a world where smart TVs dominate, you need to lay a trail of bread crumbs made of the best content out there, something Apple’s Eddy Cue seems to recognize; he said this in a press release announcing the new channels:

“HBO GO and WatchESPN are some of the most popular iOS apps and are sure to be huge hits on Apple TV. We continue to offer Apple TV users great new programming options, combined with access to all of the incredible content they can purchase from the iTunes Store.”

However, the thing about these new Apple TV channels is that all but one (Sky News) requires an additional subscription to access (or you must already be a paying subscriber to that channel through your home cable plan). For people who want to truly cut the cord, it doesn’t seem to make much financial sense to get rid of the $50 a month traditional cable plan that offers hundreds of (okay, mostly unwatched) channels if every à la carte channel on a smart TV is going to cost between $4.99 and $11.99 a month.

But as Wilson Rothman writes for NBC News, that doesn’t matter--for now:

“Regardless of the limitations, the news is welcome, not just to "Game of Thrones" fans eager to relive the crushing emotional blows of the Red Wedding, but to anybody wondering about the future of Apple TV. The more content deals Apple can ink up, the better the prospects for that elusive "iTV." If Apple can't do it up big--and that means getting contracts from most or all of Hollywood's biggest content stores--it will fall short. HBO is certainly a must-have these days, at least for premium-content bragging rights.”

Still, the day a truly smart TV takes living rooms by storm, I don’t see it being one where I need to spend $60 a month to get access to 10 or fewer channels. Content is king, but for the most part, we live in a 99-cent economy as our app and song downloads clearly show, which means that, for now, the Apple TV needs to improve its learning curve before it can be called “smart.”

Why We’re Tracking The Evolution of The Smart TV

My ideal version of a perfect “smart TV” is this beautiful millimeter-thin pane of crystal clear glass that is invisible until it’s turned on. And once it is, it has access to every film, television show, and sporting event ever recorded--all through the cloud. It’s got apps and content galore. Further, its a two-way communication screen that allows me to talk to any of my friends and colleagues, no matter what device they are behind at the time. This perfect smart TV lets me navigate it by voice and hand gestures in the air. It’s my home assistant that can access any of my computer files--from emails to pictures to video games--from any device I own. And because this perfect smart TV contains every kind of media I could ever want access to, it has only a single cable that plugs it into an outlet. No other ports are on it because they’re no longer needed. External Blu-ray players, video game counsels, and DVRs are so early-21st-century.

But all this is just a fantasy in my head, of course. A true “smart television” doesn’t exist yet--no matter what the marketing material for existing offerings may say. Apple’s kinda sorta doing it with its Apple TV; Google did their version with the Nexus Q, which quickly went nowhere; and companies like Roku, Microsoft, and Sony think they’re on their way, too.

But no one’s there yet, because no firm definition exists of what makes a smart TV, well, “smart.” Is my vision of the ideal TV “smart?” Perhaps. Then again, I’m sure I’m leaving a lot out. And that’s what this tracker is for. Here, we’ll look at the latest advances in television OS’s, cloud services, and UI’s suited to the living room.

Don’t be mistaken: Smart TVs are coming. It’s just that we may have to go through many equivalents of the Palm Pilot until we reach something as refined as the iPhone 5.

If you’re interested in the evolution of the smart TV, be sure to follow this tracker. Here, we’ll explore the latest hardware and software advances that will one day get the television of the 21st century right. And if you’re a developer involved in trying to get us there, get in touch with the author @michaelgrothaus to let him know what you’re up to.

[Image: Flickr user Andy Price]




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1 Comments

  • Man are you far off, the world is ready, content providers are not, but its finally happening. With important sites such as hulu and netflix finally on board it is happening quickly. I for one just wish the chromecast had a remote for simple playback adjustments such as pause and resume.