Why are TV interfaces so bad?

TV interfaces suck. TV manufacturers have spent all their time working on hardware: increased screen size, display technologies (CRT, LCD, Plasma…etc), cinema style surround sound and now the bugbear that is 3D TV. They have virtually ignored the software side being happy to lumber us with sub par, clunky SLOOOOOOW interfaces that are just plain painful to use.

Why is this? Surely it represents a massive waste of an opportunity? A TV is a large programmable screen that just about EVERY household has. It is usually in the prime place in the sitting room, along with a number of other sets around the house. People already accept advertising on it to! People flick it on when bored and are looking for something to do! Think of the opportunities! Think what companies would PAY to have this potential exposure? And TV manufacturers do almost nothing with this. TV broadcasters know the potential value and use this but TV manufacturers don’t exactly make it easy.

TV broadcasters love the concept of interactive TV and viewers seem to too. Reality TV shows abound with phone/text/web voting opportunities. Day time TV shows love people who write or twitter in. Yet the main item used to receive this entertainment on – the television set – can’t do interaction. It’s one way only. And even then it’s a poor one-way system basically displaying the show broadcasters used to show. Teletext – which I argue is like a precursor for a lot of what we use the web for now (reading news, sport, getting TV listings, looking up cheap holidays) – while not being truly interactive, at least gave more information if you wanted. And even then broadcasters tried their best with limited technology to make it seem more interactive (Bamboozle anyone?). But Teletext was forced out by the web and TV manufacturers let it go without replacing it (Don’t even think to bring up the red button to me: if TVs interfaces are slow to load and change channel then the red button makes them look like the Top Gear team on the Autobahn!). So what’s the answer? Why haven’t TV broadcasters/manufacturers given us the ability to push the Green button to like something, and the Blue button to dislike it? With one click. Surely with an internet connection this should be easily to implement and suddenly we have a whole new genre of interactive TV programs (Press Green to see Ross date Rachel, press Blue to NOT give Joey his own TV series)?

What about Smart TVs

Yes so called “Smart TVs” are coming along now and showing some of the potential but even then it’s painful. Let’s be clear: “Smart TVs” are anything but smart at the moment. OK so you can add a few apps but, other than catch up TV services (BBC iPlayer, 4oD…etc) and movie subscription services (LoveFilm, Netflixs) does anyone really use the millions of other “apps”? M&S TV? Please… And have you tried the Facebook app on a TV? Urgh. And why has it taken so long to come up with them. Why, with Internet and catchup TV being all the rage for the last few years, did TV manufacturers only think to add them in this year? Computers have become cheaper and cheaper so I really don’t see why it’s taken so long to add catch up TV services to TVs. Remember the netbook phase years ago? They gave all the computing power needed for practically free and people spend considerably more than that on a decent TV. Skype is something I think should have been on TVs years ago and again is only starting to appear on high-end sets now. A cheap webcam and families can keep in touch for free over an internet connection (also now ubiquitous in nearly every home now). Which kids wouldn’t love to see granny regularly on the big screen and interact with her? Or daddy when he’s away on business (or mummy before people accuse me of being sexist)? What offspring who’ve migrated to the other side of the world wouldn’t love to see their whole family on Christmas day in the front room? Booting up a PC and all leaning over it in the office or passing round a laptop isn’t the same thing. Skype belongs on TV in the front room more than it does on the PC.

So Smart TVs are certainly taking us in the right direction. And it’s good they are trying to make them expandable (even if they are doing this by using the “Apps” word-of-the-moment that their marketers obvious think makes them seem hip and cool) but, with considerable less functionality than my iPhone, they are 5-10 years behind the ball and I’m an impatient person.

Don’t you want Apple TV or Google TV then?

Let’s get this out of the way. Apple TV is not what I’m talking about here. That may be how we will watch shows in the future, but at present it is missing the one massive thing that makes television such a hit – live TV. Most people watch TV live, or at least recorded from live TV (whether recorded by DVD, Sky+ or by using catch up TV which I’m going to include in that group). So having a box which only shows content from iTunes or your media, or even the internet is not what I want. As I say maybe in the future we’ll not be as bound by the TV schedules and these media computers will be the way to watch entertainment, but for now they as nice add-ons to your TV rather than replacements. I want a better interface for my Live TV and yeah would gladly take all the functionality of these boxes at the same time but for now they are not what I’m looking for. Google TV seems a little better and does attempt to include live TV and be what I want but, from what I’ve read it still seems pretty poor. Also it’s another separate box. I want my TV to have a decent interface – not have to buy an add on to work. Especially in this multi television set world most family homes now live in.

OK so you want a PVR?

So let’s discuss PVRs (Sky+, Virgin, BTVision, YouView and the less popular stand alone ones). Sky+ is the original (for the UK at least) and, IMHO, the best of these and also the most expensive. Ignoring the content on Sky as that’s not really what I’m talking about here, the Sky+ box was the first mainstream PVR in the UK (Tivo never really caught on here though has recently been rebranded as part of the Virgin package). So Sky was the first mainstream company that introduced the concept of pausing live TV, rewinding, or recording programs with one touch to the general British public. And they did it well. My mum (who never understood VideoPlus codes or the difference between all the DVD formats) can record a show using Sky+. Additional tools like multiple tuners (allowing you to watch one channel and record another), Series Link (press one button and every future episode is automatically set to record for you) and Anytime (allowing your Sky+ to use spare capacity to record shows you might like) showed extra possibilities. Sky has, in my opinion, not done much recently in this space. Yes it’s added HD, remote recording, Anytime+ and, most recently but again far too late in my opinion, added catchup TV interfaces, but other firms now have some interesting features not on Sky without the massive price premium: Virgin has better search and “similar programs” features and YouView has a TV guide which runs form the last two weeks linking directly to the Catchup link, on top of the usual next two weeks. So Sky needs to pull it’s socks up if it’s to stay ahead but it wants to maintain it’s lead. Saying that, it’s still the one I use now and I cringe when I have to revert to my TVs own interface. I’ve tried the others and they are getting better and are significantly better than the inbuilt interfaces on the TV but they are soo slow and not as intuitive. With Sky+ it just works.

So yes a PVR is what I want. They often have good interfaces and some firms (particularly Sky and Virgin) have then used them to add on additional functionality that works usefully and allows us new ways of watching shows. But why do I need this separate with the costs associated with the initial hardware outlay, subscription and of course the medical costs needed to straighten out my poor malformed fingers after trying to switch to HDMI1 once too often (reminds me of Streetfighter hands I used to get after an all night Nintendo session)? Also a decent PVR is only a step in the right direction. I want more interaction. While Sky might be willing to do some clever things with Sky Sports (multi angles, different commentary…etc) it’s very specific to their premium channels. So again good but not good enough.

What about Games consoles?

Games consoles have also had a special place for our entertainment needs. They were born directly into the living room (unlike PCs) and were plenty powerful enough to be able to do more – which Sony and Microsoft have certainly taken advantage of recently by adding media abilities. Indeed there is now talk that more people use the XBox to watch TV than to play games. I’ve a PS3 hooked up to one of my TVs and use it to add catch up TV and Lovefilm as that TV (only a few years old) doesn’t have it. It’s quite clever this can be added, as well as the fact it’s a Bluray player, and got a (very basic) internet browser allowing you to stream Spotify and the like. Oh and did I mention you can use them to play games? Again a good expansion to television But it’s still a separate box and it has with no Live TV or PVR capabilities. Also, as it’s basically a very powerful computer linked to the TV and, while it’s promising they’ve added things like catch up TV, it’s still a massive under utilisation of the possibilities here.

So what do I want from a TV interface?

For a start I want my TV to do what it does – but considerably better. TV companies make TVs. Why do computer companies seem to come up with better concepts for handling TV content? Yes content is increasingly a software concept but television manufacturers should be trying to keep up. So here’s my pleas for the TV manufacturers:

  1. For a start PLEASE make it FASTER. Changing channels should not result in a 3 second black screen!! Bringing up the TV guide should not take as long as booting my Windows 7 laptop – and that’s after I’ve spent a few seconds hunting around for the Guide button.
  2. Changing to Sky+ or PS3 shouldn’t require trying to remember which button is for “Source” so I can flick through all the options (DTV, ATV, AV1, AV2, AV3, HDMI1, HDMI2.. oh damn HDMI1 was the one I wanted wait a second while I go round again…). We are encouraged to use HDMI so why is it so difficult to turn it on to that? When I used channel 9 for Sky I used to be able to go straight there with the Sky button but now I have to play origami each time and then spend my spare time.
  3. Have a decent, responsive interactive TV guide. Where you can easily page up and down and 24 hours forwards and backwards. Where pressing the Info button on a program gives you info that is readable (Samsung why do you make it too small to read and insist we hit the red A button to make it bigger – you make me feel like an OAP). Allow it to be searchable.
  4. Integrate basic PVR abilities (Pause, Rewind and Record) – HD’s are cheap and there is no excuse. OR if you don;t want to pay for that then allow us to use the fairly useless SD slot to add this capability
  5. All new TVs should have the current 4 Catchup TV services (BBC iPlayer, ITV Player, 4oD and Demand5) by default (my 2 year old Samsung Smart TV can only get BBC iPlayer with an app and not the others). It would be nice if these were integrated into the TV guide ala YouView

Once we’ve got these basics out of the way, you can start thinking about the future: Is there any better way of interacting with our televisions? A smarter remote? An iPhone/Android app for a more advanced remote for the geeky power user without the cost of supplying one with the TV? A Wii gesture style remote? Something new and innovative? Can we connect to the internet for interactive options/web browsing/twitter ticker at bottom of screen with comments on current program? How will the interface for this work? Do we need a keyboard on our remotes? What else can we use this big black space of opportunities for? Can we have other entertainment on TVs? Maybe encroaching on Apple TV and the like but the TV is crying out for more use at a party as a jukebox with either with cool visualisations or a photo slideshow (not that I want to bring back the 70s concept of holiday slide shows) and perhaps a touch interface (though maybe not a good idea for drunk party guest to be pushing my expensive TV with their smudgy beer stained fingers). At the moment my friends often can’t even figure out how to watch TV (“Don’t use that remote – here’s the Sky remote, Sky’s on HDMI1 btw, and to get to that you need to press… oh never mind give me the remote back and tell me what you want to watch…”).

I think the future of TV involves a decent interface with ALL the current abilities of Smart TVs, Sky+ and Apple TV and more. It’s not that I’m just too cheap to pay for all these separately. I just think TV manufacturers are missing a trick here. Hiring a few clever software engineers, and some interface experts could give them a massive advantage here. Good interfaces are not easy to do and the 10 foot user interface is not a paradigm that’s been adequately solved yet but I honestly think that part of the reason is that so few have actually tried. TV manufacturers are not concentrating on this and I think they should. We’re reaching the limits of what to do hardware (I honestly don’t need a bigger, higher definition TV or a 8th sub-speaker) and we’ve only scratched the surface of the software and what possibilities concentrating on that will open up.

There’s been a lot of talk of Apple actually launching a proper TV and I for one can’t wait. Yes it will no doubt it will be expensive, and yes it will probably demand you use iTunes (not something I actually mind to be honest – in fact I’d goes as far as saying I like iTunes) but the TV interface needs a kick up the arse because the TV manufacturers are either too lazy or just concentrating on the wrong things. Whoever does it first I don’t care. Apple, Google, Samsung, Sony, Toshiba, Sky, Virgin.. whoever. But my money’s on Apple: They are unique in being a software AND hardware firm, they have form with shaking up a stagnant sector, and they normally do really, really great interfaces. So please let the rumours be true and let us have a smart iTV…

Some interesting further links:
The New Apple TV… The Potential for Something Great. (iCloud PVR)
Re-Thinking User Interface Design for the TV Platform

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