The mobile Web: The future of TV remote control

April 24, 2009

Hands up, anybody who has ever controlled their TV, DVR, game console, DVD player, or other fancy video gadget using the Web rather than a maze of slow clicks on an old infrared remote control.

Anybody? Congratulations, both of you.

I’ve been playing with Verizon’s newly updated Web-based remote control feature to do exactly that and I’m telling you, it’s sweet. Sorry that most of you aren’t FiOS TV subscribers so you won’t be able to try it, but for the few who are, give it a trial run.

You have to have an HD DVR and you have to sign up first, but within 24 hours they’ll get you up and running. You can then log in and control your DVR from your PC. If you’ve ever fallen asleep waiting for your DVR to respond to your remote control as you wade through a labyrinth of menu options, you’ll appreciate the speed and efficiency of this solution. 

verizon-webdvr

Here you see me deleting yet another episode of Bob the Builder, all in the name of research.

Controlling complex TV equipment from the PC is a no-brainer — the next step will be to port all of that control to the mobile phone.

To wit, I’ve been playing with the iPhone app that controls the Boxee player (which as faithful readers will know I have placed on my hacked Apple TV with much rejoicing).  Boxee is relatively simple to control with the Apple TV remote (though I  my kids keep losing the tiny thing) so it’s not like you need to turn to the iPhone app, but why not? Once you start getting the hang of controlling things from a more intuitive interface (the PC with a mouse, the iPhone with its touch surface), it makes you realize that the future of living room control is not to have a $500 Logitech universal remote or even to put a touch screen on your TV set. It’s much simpler than that — we’ll all just use our mobile phones to control our TVs, DVRs, game consoles, and everything else CE makers conspire to place in our living rooms. And that control can be live, as in, here’s what I want to watch right now, or offline, as in, let’s delete all of those Palladia concerts I recorded in HD while I was convalescing that now consume half the DVR hard drive (sorry, Neal Peart and the rest of the Rush gang).

Once we have a protocol for letting mobile devices speak to the TV, they won’t be limited to simple command and control functions. Here are a few scenarios that I can easily conjure:

  1. Want to play Uno on the TV? Okay, you might prefer harder fare when you think of card games. Either way, we can’t play card games at our house until the little ones are in bed because they gnash and tear at the cards. In fact, we can’t play card games at our house after they go to bed because of aforementioned history of gnashing and tearing has depleted our card reserves. But in a mobile-controlled TV world, bent cards are a thing of the past. Imagine if each player could employ their own mobile phone as their hand. The TV can keep the draw pile, the tableau, or whatever else the game requires.
  2. Let me share my photos with you. Today people share pictures and video taken on their mobiles by gathering around the 3-inch screen or posting them on Facebook. But nothing’s more immediate than “publishing” my photos directly to your Connected TV or cable set top box when I drop by for a visit, either over wi-fi or the 3G network. And if I can share photos with your TV from my iPhone, why can’t I also “publish” my mp3 playlist to your surround sound speakers?
  3. Need a keyboard, anyone? As more and more of your friends get Connected TVs and are joining chat rooms to swap ideas about the latest episode of Fringe while it’s airing live, you’ll be the one who doesn’t have to use a cumbersome USB keyboard to add your $.02 to the chat. With an iPhone or Android app that speaks to your Connected TV, you’ll be good to go — whether to enter a username and password or for constructing lengthy analyses of Agent Dunham’s wardrobe.    

Your turn, I’m sure you have better ideas of what such a mobile-controlled TV world could be like. Add your comments and let’s see what rises to the top.

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2009 is the year of the Connected TV

March 12, 2009

(sorry to long-time readers for the recent radio silence — between traveling and coming down with two successive bouts of some kind of flu, I have not been keeping up my end of the deal. I’ll make it up to you, I promise :)

I wrote about Yahoo’s TV Widget Engine in January, calling it the Belle of the CES Ball. I still stand by the sentiment, so much so that I wrote a very deep dive on the concept for Forrester clients which was just published this week. If you’re a client, check out the report here (and even if you’re not a client, you can see a summary at the same link). I won’t give away the precious detail here, but let me riff about the report’s implications a bit.

The most important thing Yahoo’s TV Widget Engine does is open a platform for innovation in the connected TV space, I said that before in the original post. However, the innovation that will matter most is programmer-led innovation that enhances TV viewing, by adding interesting information and interactivity over the live TV experience.

Why should content owners do this? Becuase this is the first technology innovation in a decade that will actually encourage live viewing of television. 

What do I mean? Already, there are people who keep their laptops on their laps (where else?) during American Idol or Dexter so they can chat with friends or follow Twitter conversations related to the show. NBC even encourages people to text to a special SMS number during Heroes to get special updates and clues during the show. But all of those exepriences are outside of the TV screen and therefore limited to the few people willing to manage multiple devices. Imagine if broadcasters and programmers could do the work for you, overlaying the experience on the TV screen to increase your enjoyment of the show — as well as your desire to watch it live when the online buzz is the greatest.

The problem is we have a short window in which content owners (networks, producers, publishers, etc.) can establish the habits that will favor them in the long run. If they don’t catch on quickly, they’ll miss this chance to drive *gasp* actual live viewership and instead, technology innovators will focus on widgets that deliver other benefits that aren’t programming-centric. I personally think weather, horoscope, and personal ad widgets — while of interest to specific subgroups — will never catch on on the TV to the degree that program-specific widgets will. Why? Because people watch TV to watch TV, not read the news or scan personal ads. That’s what the PC is for.

Am I right? We’ll find out soon enough because Verizon just announced that later in the fall it will be pushing an open-widget development platform to its Verizon FiOS TV customers’ set top boxes. For those who did not know, Verizon has been developing widgets since 2006. However, the widget environment was proprietary and did not allow outside parties to contribute. Verizon has changed that with this latest version and as a show of force, it has built a Twitter widget designed to automatically scour tweets to find any that mention the show that you are currently watching — change the channel, and the widget will search for and display any new tweets related to the new show on your screen. 

This is a genius move. It demonstrates the value of synchronizing widgets with live TV without waiting for the Yahoo! widget platform to find its way into homes.

If I’m right (and Verizon finds a way to let customers know about this feature — which is always a problem when you push free features to set tops, most people never know they’re there), Verizon’s 1.6 million customers will be a very attractive test best for interactive TV widgets. If you are a developer, get hopping, let’s see what you can do.


Samsung adds Yahoo Widgets to its TVs

January 6, 2009

In yet another Pre-CES announcement — eerily similar to the one I blogged about yesterday when LG pre-announced that it was putting Netflix into some of its HDTVs — Samsung late yesterday announced it was putting the Yahoo Widget Channel into some of its 2009 HDTVs. Rather than online video delivery like LG announced, this channel will be an interactive ticker that will provide layers of information (read: traffic, weather, shopping) as well as opportunities to augment TV shows with application widgets.  

Let’s see: Internet content, easily delivered to the TV. TiVo, Roku, SlingCatcher, LG, Boxee, now Yahoo and Samsung. I sense a trend here, no?

In fact, I spent some time taping CES interviews with CNBC that will roll out over the week. Like every other press outlet, they wanted to know what I expected the big trends to be this year. I had to confess that the big trends are mostly going to be the same trends that we saw at last year’s CES. Only this year, they would matter.

That’s not to say that Sony and HP’s Net-connected TVs weren’t important trailblazers on the path to the future, they were. Even Verizon FiOS, which has been playing with TV widgets for two years now, was a critical first explorer of this new territory. But their wagons have bogged down in the mud and LG and Samsung are building a nice little interstate behind them. 

The big difference between these announcements from LG and Samsung and prior efforts is that the 2009 solutions are based on open content that already has an audience. Netflix has 9 million subscribers who want that content. Yahoo provides toolbars and web experiences to millions of people each day. Plus, both solutions will gradually be augmented by adding more open content experiences such that the TV is worth one thing the day you buy it, and more later down the road when the additional content and widgets are added.

It’s the culmination of many things I’ve been writing about, so obviously I’m excited about it. However, a sober note is always in order. I’m not suggesting Samsung will sell a million of these. Even between LG and Samsung, they won’t sell a million this year. TVs just don’t sell that fast. But learning from these examples, everyone else who makes TVs will work out similar solutions (dare I ask once again for a Hulu TV?). And Blu-ray and even DVD makers will do the same. Soon, there won’t be a TV maker who doesn’t offer this connectivity; that includes Vizio, in my opinion, who will clearly see the writing on the wall here. In fact, if Vizio announces something innovative early, it could really maintain its growth position in the US market. 

Specific to TVs, my public prediction from 2008 was that in 2013, 40% of all TVs sold that year will have Net connectivity. After that period, the number will rise rapidly, not even because all people will want that, but because — like the digital camera in your cell phone — TV makers will find it easier to include Net connectivity than to exclude it.

Stay tuned for more CES announcements throughout this week. I am on CES-lite this year, only spending two days there, but will have ample opportunity to spot the best and brightest in the world of video.