The New Apple TV Is a Glimmer of Hope, Not a Revolution
TV is troubled these days. Not the content—we’re in the midst of a Cambrian explosion of excellent programming—but the process by which we discover, find, and consume it. Apple CEO Tim Cook said as much yesterday during the company’s big event in San Francisco. “The TV experience has been virtually standing still,” he proclaimed, while innovation flourishes in the mobile space.
The new Apple TV is Apple’s attempt to square those two facts. With all of its new features—tvOS, Siri, the tiny remote with the tinier trackpad—comes the slightest glimmer of a better future for smart television, one free of the UI problems we’ve seen thus far.
Among the many issues plaguing smart TVs is their sheer complexity. As we wrote more than a year ago, “They’ve always assumed more is better … heaping more streams, more services, and more content onto our sets without rethinking the interfaces for accessing them.” TV is satisfying because you get more out of it than you put into it—all you do is turn it on—but watching smart TV doesn’t feel intuitive and intelligent. You spend too much time scrolling through a wall of icons, deciding first where you want to go and only then deciding what you want to watch. Turning on a smart TVs is like idling in a digital Blockbuster store, forever evaluating the pros and cons of every show or movie in sight.
Like a few of its competitors, Apple has taken a step toward addressing this by integrating voice, using Siri to make content selection more conversational. In a demo, Apple TV responded to requests as friendly and granular as, “Show me anything with Jason Schwartzman.” And, according to our own boots-on-the-ground report, the feature works. Same goes for the new remote control, which ditches the up-down-left-right clicking motion that’s dominated television navigation for far too long. The touchpad lets your finger glide through icons—an interaction that finally brings smartphone UI to the bigger screen. If you’ve ever spent an evening on the couch, ceaselessly clicking through a grid of tiles or poking at an on-screen keyboard, it’s easy to imagine how much this interaction will simplify the search experience.
Still, this is just a faster version of the existing paradigm. You’re getting around easier, but you still have to know exactly where you’re going. Apple isn’t actually paring down TV in a radical way.
“We believe the future of TV is apps,” Cook said from the stage yesterday. Much of his announcement focused on the App Store: Apple is opening tvOS to developers, so we’ll soon see all kinds of new applications—games, e-commerce, etc.—on our biggest screen. It also means apps, and thus a homescreen with an app drawer on it, remain the backbone of the viewing experience. As long as there are tiles, we’ll be clicking through them.
That doesn’t feel like the right solution.
When the Best UI Is No UI
The truly smart TV is the one that doesn’t need you to do anything at all. “In my opinion the ultimate smart TV is the one that I turn on and it knows what I want,” says Dennis Steir, creative director at digital design agency Huge. So far, the closest we’ve gotten to realizing such an experience is through experimental ideas about TV, like the VEO TV concept from Smart Design. Like an old-school linear TV, VEO would automatically play shows. Unlike linear TV, VEO would use facial recognition software to detect who is watching, and base its selections on who is in the room. The agency rolled the idea more than a year ago, and has been working with other parties on unreleased variations of it.
With VEO and any of its newer iterations, “we are looking for an experience that feels like TV, but isn’t necessarily live TV,” says Heather Martin, vice president of design at Smart Design. If you’re stuck in the underworld of on-demand, you miss out on television’s ability to connect you to the public. In interviewing digitally native people (millennials, if you prefer) who grew up with fewer cords, Martin says they found that “when you talk to them, you realize they’re missing this element of connecting to the real world in real time.” Put differently, the days of watching the same late-night show at the same time as your neighbors and coworkers and everyone else are long gone. That shared experience, if you see it that way, is slipping away.
The easy counter argument is those same viewers almost certainly are hyper-connected through platforms like Facebook and Twitter, and therefore are connecting to the real world in real time. But Martin is talking more about serendipity than awareness. Surfing through live TV exposes you to content before you’ve actively chosen it. That’s the “real world, real time” connection: the channel or show you didn’t know existed, yet now like and watch.
Both Martin and Steir cite features like YouTube’s “couch mode,” or Netflix’s Post-Play as good first steps toward creating that feeling of live TV. Steir suggests that in the future, this could intelligently happen through a more context-aware system. “You could imagine that if I’m searching for something during the day on my phone, it could have some connected insight and serve that up to me,” Steir says. A concept by Brazilian designer Renan Feltri does almost that, through a suggestive system that would behave more like Google Now cards than the checkerboard of icons and apps you typically experience with smart TV interfaces. Feltri’s idea is network-agnostic, and instead filters suggestions according to your tastes. You can even “pin” shows, and feed the system’s algorithms with information about what you like.
For now, the challenge remains: TV is different. The simple, give-a-little, get-a-lot interaction we love about our televisions runs counter to what we expect from like laptops and tablets. And for now, we’re still too far in the latter category with smart TVs. Siri integration and a new touchpad remote aside, the new Apple TV system still revolves around the App Store. Couch potatoes aren’t done with tiles and icons just yet. But at least entering your Netflix password will be easier.
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