joe moon

The 2-Foot User Interface for the 10-Foot Screen

Television user interfaces could be so much better. I thought that with the introduction of set-top box internet video solutions, user interfaces would make menu and playback navigation and content management easier, especially now that we have ways to interact with these boxes using our smartphones.[^1] If anyone, I thought Apple–with their customary attention to user experience and their vertical integration–would have an elegant solution to interaction with TVs. But when I hooked up our new Apple TV2[^2] and tested out the remote application on the iPod Touch and the iPad, all I got was a simulation of the physical remote control.[^3] Everything else I’ve tried is pretty much the same, to include: Boxee and Windows Media Center (couldn’t even actually find an Android or iOS app to work with this, unsurprisingly).

The 10-Foot User Interface

Used to be that all you needed was a few buttons on your remote: power toggle, channel up and down, volume up and down; plus some optionals: numbers 0–9, mute toggle, channel recall, etc. Once you got used to it, you didn’t even need to look at the remote, which was nice. But as television sets became more complex, with more options, settings, and configurations, remotes got loaded with more buttons. Peripheral devices added even more buttons, usually on a separate remote, which you could integrate into a single universal remote if you wanted to and had the technological wherewithal to do so.

At first, with simple sets, this really was fine. And even as TVs got more complicated and loaded with more functionality, you still needed a way to control all the additional functionality. There wasn’t any other place for this than the remote and there wasn’t any way to do it on the remote without adding buttons.

Meanwhile, from the other direction, desktop computer interfaces were simplified and enlarged for use on the TV screen (from 10 feet away). Window management was (naturally) discarded for a simple environment optimized for doing one thing: watching video.

As these two TV paradigms converge in devices like the Apple TV,[^4] Boxee Box, and Google TV, as well as in TVs themselves, the functionality starts to overwhelm the UI bandwidth: UI elements increasingly clutter up and obscure the screen, menu hierarchies become deeper and more complicated, and the fact is that a TV is not a computer monitor and it sucks to do computer monitor things on a TV screen.[^5]


No one’s really been in a position to be able to rethink TV UI until very recently. Even now, one cannot make the assumption that a TV watcher has a peripheral with which to interact with the TV[^6], so the system designers still have to provide an on-screen UI by default.

But I think it’s getting closer. Watching TV with a laptop, tablet, or smartphone in hand is becoming more popular, as people idly multitask, google, or participate in social media as they watch.[^7] And if you take it for granted that your user has a secondary screen, you can start to really change the way TV UI works.

As a starting point, you could relegate all UI elements to the secondary screen, leaving the primary screen completely over to what it’s specifically designed for: playing video. The secondary screen, meanwhile, because it’s a 2-foot or 1-foot UI device, can present a lot more information, and present navigation that is faster, more informationally dense, granular, and intuitive than the on-screen navigations that we’re used to.

You could also add more features, like playlists or queues,[^8] app integration,[^9] games, and multiple video streams.[^10]


Looks like this might solve all my complaints.


[^1]: And iPod Touches.

[^2]: Bev got me one for Valentine’s Day.

[^3]: At least text entry was much easier; hitting a text field would invoke the touch screen keyboard.

[^4]: The ATV isn’t actually a convergence device, since it doesn’t take input from traditional signals like analog broadcast, cable, or peripheral physical media players, but it sort of will be if IPTV ever becomes a reality.

[^5]: This is why WebTV failed, or at least why it sucked.

[^6]: Obviously because not everyone has one and shipping an iPod Touch equivalent as a remote is certainly cost-prohibitive.

[^7]: Also, some high-end universal remotes cost as much as iPod Touches.

[^8]: Which becomes more important as short web clips become a ubiquitous, first-class medium.

[^9]: Twitter with automatic hashtags for whatever you’re watching?

[^10]: Like picture-in-picture, but more robust.