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  • 10-feet is not 1 foot x 10

    TV just isn't what it used to be. It isn't just an idiot box where we can flick it on, channel surf mindlessly, change the volume, and turn it off when we're done.



    It's not just about tuning in to some pre-programmed channel anymore - its about gaming (PS3, 360, Wii), movies (DVDs, divx), videos (YouTube), photos, and plain old TV (FTA, Foxtel). Manufacturers have been working to make these increasingly complex devices easy to use; most significantly is what has been coined the 10-foot interface.

    The 10-foot interface refers to the user interface that's built into devices to allow users to access the variety of functions it has without having a button for every one of them on the remote (even though it feels like it does). 10-foot refers to the general distance the user will be from the screen. Most new TVs have menu systems, as do DVD and HD recorders, DVD players, and set top boxes to name a few.

    The most complex of all however, are the media center interfaces, e.g. MythTV, Windows Media Center (MCE), Tivo, Netgear's Digital Entertainer HD and Apple TV. These devices have enormous capabilities, able to watch/timeshift/record TV, watch DVDs, surf the net, watch YouTube videos, play music, control lighting, launch nuclear weapons at your neighbour for being too noisy... you name it, it can probably do it. To let you access all these features, these devices present layers upon layers of menus, all with a smattering of big-sized buttons (and more hidden by a keypress), all accessed via a remote from the 90s except with the number of buttons multiplied by a billion. Effectively, they've taken computer user interfaces, blown them up so we can see it from 10-feet away, added a splash of paint, polish and shine, and thought "that'll do".

    These devices are supposed to make our lives easier. Try finding a particular song on them and playing it. You'll either spend ages scrolling through your massive list of music, or you'll throw the remote at it in rage trying to key in the song title using the on-screen keyboard. My favourite exercise in frustration is trying to enter your wireless security key into them using a remote Smile.

    The humble remote is the weakest link in the whole experience. It started failing when VCRs became programmable, and just went downhill from there. Using it with a 10-foot interface makes me feel like a puppeteer - helpless and frustrated. While manufacturers upgraded almost everything else, the remote has conceptually stayed the same, and given minimal attention. Does anyone still use the number pad on it? Does any one actually remember channel numbers anymore?

    There have been third-party attempts to revitalize the remote, like the Logitech Harmony 1000 Universal Remote. But without proper manufacturer support, it's an uphill battle.

    However, the remote I believe, also holds the key to resolving the problem of operating these devices.

    Instead of jamming the whole user interface on to the screen, it should be separated - the presentation side (i.e. playing videos, music visualizations etc.) should be on the TV, while the operation side should be on the remote.

    Let's start with the remote. It should have minimal physical buttons, with the majority of the functions accessible via a touchscreen... with multi-touch, why the hell not Smile. The display should not show the content on TV, but rather the details of it, and the possible operations. It doesn't necessarily have to be in sync with the TV (i.e. linked so it shows the information related to what's on the TV) - what's important is that it controls it.

    In the music only world, there's already a few early examples of this:


    So in effect, the user interface, except the content, is moved on to something a lot more usable, practical and accessible.

    But that doesn't mean the TV should be devoid of any user interface. The problem with a setup as described above is that there is no longer a social component to consuming content (damn I hate that phrase). I'm not talking social over the net, but rather with the people in the same room. At max you could have about 2 other people squinting at the remote, and that's boring. 

    The TV should instead be both a presenter of content, and a secondary screen for the remote. So if I'm scrolling through YouTube videos on the remote, everyone else in the room should be able to see what I'm scrolling through on the TV. No buttons, options or anything superfluous - just the content I'm going through on the remote.

    Apple TV + a nicer looking interface + iPod Touch + a few more buttons would be a good start. But of course, Apple TV is only a 'side project'.

    It really isn't such a hard concept to bring to fruition, and would make these things a lot easier to use, but there isn't really anything out there like this that I know of (Pocket PC interfaces don't count - they're an ugly hack). Maybe the problem is that designing and manufacturing electronic components is costly compared to software development. Or maybe the skill sets required for it is so different to the skill sets these companies have that significant investment is needed. Or maybe no one else seems to think 10-foot interfaces in their current incarnation are a bad idea.

    I wish I had a few million dollars, a team of software engineers, a team of designers, a team of electrical engineers and a manufacturing plant handy sometimes...



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