Smart TV and text input

There was a lot of talk about smart TV at the Intellect Consumer Electronics conference last week. Much of the talk was about exciting ways of connecting boxes together. There was far less about how to deliver an experience that consumers will in fact want.

It won’t be sufficient to deliver “everything we love about TV and about the internet on one screen”. Existing content models (web and linear TV) won’t be sufficient to drive consumers to connected TV systems.

To provide a truly immersive user experience, we need new models of content and new interfaces. And that in turn means we need new hardware and software.

What sort of new content? Well, it’s unlikely simply to be a Twitter feed scrolling underneath a linear programme. And it’s even less likely to be email or banking, which are too complex for a lean back environment (never mind the privacy issues). “Social” TV content may well play a part so that we can share our thoughts about programming with our friends and like minded people. More interesting though will be new ways of enabling people to “participate” in content – through games, voting and even choice.

We’ll need to see new interfaces too. For instance inputting text from 3 meters away is difficult with a pointing device or other remote control. Standards to make text imput (essential to many interactions) easy are required. There are at least some ways of reducing the problems here.

At Amberlight we have recently run a small research project looking at this area. A few general guidelines for text input were developed:

1. Predictive text systems make users of smart TV applications much more efficient
2. Search results can be used very effecively to promote serendipity and content discovery
3. Showing people an interactive A to Z grid of letters (as opposed to a querty keyboard) is the best way of promoting efficient text entry
4. The whole system, including the remote control, should be simplified as far as possible in order to promote use: Apple TV scores really well in this regard
5. Viewers should be able to control the cursor on the screen via the remote control; as much flexibility as possible should be given to them to do this
6. Viewers should be able to edit text, including adding and deleting words, as easily as possible: cursor control helps with this
7. People should not be forced to read a lot of text as they are likely to ignore it
8. Plain and simple English should be used in all labels and instructions

No doubt over time we will see more extensive guidelines being developed for text input and many other aspects of smart TV. The industry is still learning. What is important though is that hardware manuracturers, service providers and programme makers don’t assume that technology will solve all the issues. Keeping an eye on the consumer will be pretty important too!

Smart media: smart TVs

Reading KPMG’s fascinating report smart moves for new media I was taken by the way that TVs seem to be holding their own against PCs.

KPMG asked people why they prefer to consume media offline. Many people chose as a reason “I would rather watch TV and films on my TV than on a computer”.

Presumably the main reason for this is screen size: laptops and iPads just don’t have the same visual (or indeed aural) impact as a 40″+ TV screen.

Screen size will inevitably be over-ridden when someone needs to access catch up TV. But I am coming across more and more people during research for whom the convenience of having a tab or a laptop and being able to watch TV wherever they want to in the house outweighs screen size.

In part this is a function of broadband speeds, in part the increase in domestic wireless connections, and in part better screen technologies.

And of course a portable computer does enable you, while you are watching a TV programme, easily to access interactive services such as social media, retail and even Google for those idle questions that TV sometimes raises.

Nonetheless the domestic TV is likely to continue to fight back as more people buy Samsung smart TVs (which are computers) and other people buy into services like YouView.

Perhaps then the tab and the laptop will be largely confined to the role of second (interactive) screen – text entry from 10 feet is not particularly easy so a device that enables you to search and navigate without having to wave a remote control about will be attractive for many.

However, I’ll still continue to watch TV in the kitchen in order to escape my dear wife’s obsession with reality TV shows!

The creative challenge of smart TV apps

At Amberlight we seem to be doing an increasing amount of work on smart TV these days. Some of the questions we are asked are relatively simple to understand – can people navigate through an EPG, can people interact successfully with a smart TV app, do people know how to browse content or use a remote control…

But the real issue, it seems to me, is not “How can we make it simple for people to do things on smart TV?” but “How can we understand what they want to do in the first place?”

The trouble is that smart TV isn’t the web.

When mobile phones that could be used to browse the web were first developed, it was a relatively easy thing to create applications that delivered web functionality within the smaller and simpler environment of a mobile phone screen.
So mobile applications such as the Economist’s iPhone and iPad apps, that Amberlight helped to design, are often little more than repurposed  versions of web based content. OK, so there are important design disciplines to apply when repurposing the content, but the mindset of the mobile user is in many ways pretty similar to the “search and click” mindset of the PC user.

It is not the same for Smart TV.

A text-based magazine app on a Smart TV would be destined to fail. It’s not just because lots of text is uncomfortable to read from 10 feet away (unless the font is the size of the font of a cross track poster). It’s not just because people looking at a TV are normally expecting video.

It’s because people watching TV are not in “lean-forward” mode. That means they are not generally expecting to, or prepared to, interact much more than clicking a remote to change channels, pause a film or mute the sound.

The sorts of interaction you find on the web or on mobile devices are simply too complex for most TV viewing situations.

So what sort of apps can we expect?

Not banking probably or paying your bills. Shopping – yes. But not catalogue shopping  – more like clicking through on that lovely necklace you have seen on QVC rather than picking up the phone. Or making a bet when you are watching the National. Simple e-commerce applications.

And of course there will be apps that closely relate to TV watching behaviour: curating content; personalising viewing; and identifying new content via recommendation engines.

But what else? This is where things start getting interesting.

The TV viewing environment is often social – shared in a way that mobiles and TV are not. That means that many apps will benefit from some form of social dimension.

The content is often highly engaging (such that you don’t necessarily want to exit from a liner program, even temporarily; it is frequently real time. Events, news, but also soaps and reality TV – all of these can be “appointments to view” where the viewer doesn’t want the pleasure delayed. So the app needs to be even more engaging – or to provide the desired experience outside the linear stream.

And the viewer may well be in couch potato mode – changing channels is enough of an effort for many; so the app will have to be very simple and highly intuitive.

And finally the app will have to have some relevance to the linear programme – to enable the viewer to gain greater enjoyment of the editorial through using the app. And that is where the main creative challenge still resides.

Ten Cs of DAB

At the Intellect Consumer Electronic conference yesterday and heard Ed Vaizey speaking.

He is an engaging and amusing speaker – slightly “BoJo lite” perhaps – and he had several interesting things to say about digital radio.

Alongside the news that the switchover to DAB by 2015 is now just an “aspiration”, he made some excellent points about why digital radio hasn’t taken off in the way some predicted. The four Cs, he said: content, coverage, cars and consumers (although he did add a fifth – cell phones).

Always a one for lists I think there are in fact at least 10 Cs!

Content: of course. Radio generates deep engagement with its listeners. Without good content why would anyone listen to a new digital channel. And the furore around the threatened axing of  BBC 6 Music does indicate that digital radio can generate extremely loyal audiences.

Coverage: another no brainer. If DAB coverage is limited then people outside the coverage area, and also people travelling through or to areas that are not covered, will obviously be less than enthusiastic about it. Having said that according to uk-dab.info I should be able to pick up several dozen stations in SW6 – but I cannot pick up any. Coverage needs to be good coverage.

Cars: people in cars are a big part of the radio market; standards are starting to develop and reasonably cheap car converter kits are now on the market. But until motor manufacturers fit DAB as standard, people are unlikely to take the platform seriously

Cell phones: the same is true with phone. Many phone come with FM radio. Rather fewer with digital radio.

Consumers: well, they need convincing of the benefits. Why fix it if it ain’t broke, they will say. What’s in it for me if I switch? And the benefits aren’t immediately obvious to anyone outside the industry.

Continuity: that’s another consumer issue; in the short term, while FM and DAB are both available, consumers need to be able to switch seamlessly from one to the other, for instance when they move from an area where DAB is available to one where it isn’t.

Carbon: DAB needs to work using low energy – not because we are all told to be carbon conscious, but rather because technologies that use too much energy give out too much heat to be successfully miniaturised.

Cost: now that you can get a very nice Pure portable digital radio for £35, cost is far less of a problem than it was a couple of years ago; but the cost of radios that enable you to do more than listen is still a problem.

Certainty: the industry won’t invest without the certainty that DAB is going to be a success; government has a role to play here in identifying how they will make DAB happen.

And finally Commercial opportunities: what are the marketing opportunities on DAB that match and ideally go beyond standard radio advertising? If advertisers are not convinced of these, it’s hard to see how DAB stations will ever be commercially viable.

That’s 10 Cs I think – you can probably think of some more!