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Why are Google TV and Apple TV the wrong approach?

As a long term user of an Apple TV (useful when hacked) and reading recently about the Google TV and adapter boxes to come, as well as other ventures into merging “internet Video” and “The lounge room experience”. These approaches almost always have a 20′ interface: one that can be read from the comfy chair remote from the screen.

Apple’s minimalist approach certainly fits that screen factor, but there’s no real way to get Internet content there, other than where there’s a special deal, such as with the YouTube access. But here we run into the fundamental problem with this kind of interface: try searching for a video in YouTube, or heaven forbid (if you’ve hacked the Apple TV with ATV Flash to get a browser), actually typing in a URL!

Yahoo and Google want to bring a “social” presence to the big screen, as do Boxee and others, but I think they’re fundamentally going about it the wrong way.

Why do we watch TV on that big screen anyway? I think there are two fundamental reasons why we watch TV on a big screen instead of a computer screen (and one of them may indeed be bogus): a bigger image and watching socially.

In our household we have an old G4 laptop that serves as the primary media server via an Apple TV to the biggest screen in the house: in the living area. We frequently watch shows on our computer screen instead of the big screen, particularly when it’s a show I might enjoy, but my partner may not. Or I watch old TV episodes while scanning slides or processing images. But we watch some TV together and when we do that, we watch it on the big screen. Why? Because we’re watching communally.

When I’m watching TV communally I’m already involved in a little social networking with the person, or people, across the room. If I wanted to tweet my approval (or not) of a particular program, I wouldn’t want to do that on the communal screen, I’d do it on a personal screen: in my case my laptop.

The big screen argument may well be bogus: where I’m sitting right now I have a view of our main TV and my laptop screen and my laptop screen takes up approximately 4x more of my field of view than the TV. I would have a bigger screen experience watching on my laptop at 3′ than a big TV at 20′. So, for a lot of content, it’s really only the social aspect that requires the large TV.

I simply don’t want Twitter/Facebook etc. on the program screen. (That big TV.) And I don’t really ever want to explore web video on a big screen TV display without a keyboard or better input device.

And the it hit me: Apple and Google (et al.) are going about it the wrong way. The program goes on the big screen. Period. The interface is on our laptop, or iPhone, or iTouch, or (the killer one) an iPad. All have a keyboard for easy entry of urls and search; there are social applications that work just fine on those existing screens.

Trying to put the interface on a screen 20′ away without a keyboard (and wireless keyboards aren’t really an option) is just wrong: not only is it the wrong place, I don’t want to clutter my program communally (which presumably I’m watching because I enjoy it) with social media that’s personal.

The two screen approach makes much more sense. Put the program on the screen – uncluttered like  the program’s director intended – and put the control and any desired interactivity on another screen. An iPad would seem to be perfect for this, but since I don’t plan on getting one, an iPhone or iTouch or Laptop could also run the interface anywhere on the same local area network.

It turns out that an interface designed for a 20′ experience works equally well as a 2′ experience, but with touch and keyboard at hand.

Ironically a display designed for 20′ all works well at 2″ on a smaller display.



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