Making the television set interactive is not a new idea. Remember WebTV from the late 90’s? Today, almost every TV manufacturer is coming out with their own version of ‘Smart TV’, and there are a multitude of devices (such as Roku and Boxee Box) that enable consumers to have access to content that until recently was only available online. But although manufacturers are getting close, TVs are not smart enough (yet). Here are three reasons why.
1. The Best UI is No UI
TVs are a passive device. Getting to the content you’re looking for should be easy. Therefore, the more user interface (UI) that can be taken off of the TV, the better user experience a viewer will get. But designing a user interface for TVs is completely different from designing one for interactive devices — and that’s where most platforms struggle. Google TV’s interface is essentially scaling up the tablet to fit on a TV screen, forcing the user to fiddle with an overly complicated remote (as in Sony’s Google TV case) and squint while looking at the screen to find the proper menu to access.
Other platforms have tried to solve the problem, with varying degrees of success. Apple TV’s interface is clean, with big buttons. But it only lets you access limited sources of content. Roku is as minimal as you can get, and supports the widest range of third party content sources, but its UI design doesn’t compare with its competitors’ platforms. And while the Boxee Box is very elegant, it comes at the price of simplicity. As for the TV manufacturers, they’re all over the place–from fake 3D interfaces to clunky grid designs, they make the user do a lot of work, while offering little in return.
Probably the most promising approach at the moment is coming from Microsoft’s Xbox and their upcoming SmartGlass technology, which combines an intuitive user interface (formally known as Metro), and puts control back into the user’s hands, gestures and voice. It will be interesting to see how consumers react as other platforms adopt this approach (such as the 2012 Samsung TVs.) One thing’s for sure: this is definitely a trend to look for at The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) 2013 in Las Vegas, US.
2. The Second Screen is Here.
A somewhat unexpected result of the mobile revolution has been the Second Screen experience. Mobile devices, and in particular tablets, have allowed consumers to retain the passive, lean-back experience that the TV offers, along with the active, usually lean-forward experience that these devices provide. And the Second Screen has been a huge boon for the broadcasting industry. Mobile and tablet users use their devices while watching TV to post on social networks, Shazam a commercial, or check into a TV show. And this translates directly to how people interact with TV programming, sport events, and commercials. In fact, a Nielsen Wire survey of connected device owners in the U.S. and U.K. revealed that in the U.S., 88 percent of tablet owners and 86 percent of smartphone owners said they used their device while watching TV at least once during a 30-day period. In the U.K, device owners also logged heavy usage for tablets (80%) and smartphones (78%) while watching TV. (Source: Nielsen Wire, April 5, 2012)
The fact is that TV has always been a social event: we like to talk about what we’re watching. And with the advent of the Second Screen experience and new digital social trends, TV is becoming even more social. Some interactive TVs try to incorporate social plugins to their platforms, displaying social activity on the screen. But that is counter-intuitive. The TV should remain a passive device that delivers content, pure and simple, and at the same time enables users to seamlessly connect around what they’re watching using their own devices.
The Second Screen space is still very young and growing fast. Smart TVs will have to adapt by embracing it and letting consumers use the tools they choose to socialize around content.
3. Content is Still King.
No matter how wonderful the interface is (or isn’t), or how seamless the user experience is, without great content, interactive TV will forever remain a niche market.
Content is indeed king. With all due respect to “cord-cutters” (myself included), Smart TVs still have very limited access to much of the content out there, especially new releases, popular TV shows and sports. And while Netflix and other content providers offer great services in the US, their content is limited by streaming rights and other legal issues.
On the one hand, we’re getting a glimpse of the future of Smart TV – being able to search for whatever we want (whenever we want to), streaming content over the internet and interacting with our friends while doing it. But on the other hand, we’re still stuck in the past, flipping channels on our cable box and fumbling with remotes that haven’t changed since the 90’s to get to the content we want.
So, while today’s TVs might be packed with features, apps and new ways to access content, that doesn’t make them smart. Smart TVs will truly earn that title when they do all the work and allow the consumer to sit back, relax and, if we so choose, be stupid couch potatoes.
Itai Asseo, Vice President / Creative Architect, Digitas