At CES in Las Vegas where the converging consumer, IT and telecoms industries like to showcase their innovation and latest technology, there are clear indicators to the main challenge of the day. It’s not a new one, but one that keeps resurfacing every time there are major spurts in innovation – making the user interface (UI) easy.
Sure, all these gadgets and functions can be combined, but how are people going to use them? It is no longer sufficient to have an easy-to-use device or application – the entire environment needs to be easy, and now that also means spanning multiple form factors.
Until the arrival of the sleek UI of the iPhone, the mobile phone user experience was pretty much a mish-mash of too simple phone menus and too complex desktop computer metaphors. The iPhone’s success is partly reliant on the tight Apple design and control, but mostly on being more able to create and exploit a new UI experience based on touch, multi-touch and swipe.
This has been extended into a larger form factor with the tablet – no longer perceived as a laptop without a keyboard or needing a clumsy stylus like earlier iterations of the concept, but a category of device in its own right. So much so that it is affecting the mobile phone market at the larger end, creating an intermediate device type, see Samsung’s Galaxy Note 2 and the newly launched Huawei Ascend Mate, known as the ‘Phablet.’
At the larger end of the device form factor, the smart TV is already in a similar place to the early smartphone market. Vendors still try to cram too much functionality in and the majority of smart TV owners use or understand very little of the expensive innovation that has been shoehorned onto their walls.
User interfaces have evolved little and are based on another mish-mash – this time the TV industry’s awkward thrashings around Electronic Programme Guides (EPGs), derivations of computer pointer driven interfaces, and in some cases gesture and voice.
As if the problem was not bad enough, vendors are again pushing a home automation and integration agenda. Conceptually, it sounds great. Control your entertainment, heating, lighting etc. from your smartphone, tablet or TV (or PC if you still have one of those old things).
This has brought another old concept back to the fore – should we have one interface and OS for all types of devices? The idea has some appeal, especially if it means that applications can be developed once and used on all platforms, but the reality of usage models is quite different between ‘lean back, lean forward and slouch’ (TV, computer and tablet), especially in the critical area of user interface.
Despite massive changes right across the IT spectrum, some old fashioned concepts remain strong. The keyboard, and even mouse are putting up a good fight against the touch and swipe brigade. Even voice input has yet to really set the world alight, despite the technology maturing and improving significantly over the last three decades.
More promising, perhaps, is the use of pointing cameras back at the user – see Microsoft’s Kinect – to recognise both who they are and what gestures they are making.
It will be interesting to see how the TV and visual entertainment companies address the challenge, but if they fail to streamline and simplify the experience in a way that satisfies consumers, they may have to deal with a certain Cupertino company still waiting in the wings. However, thus far, even Apple has by its own standards struggled in the TV space.
Despite some protestations in certain vendor quarters, it is unlikely that the ‘box’ in the corner will be the hub of all activities as the TV no matter how smart, just like the home PC before it, will turn out to be a ‘peripheral’ to the overall system.
Households will have multiple devices, each with varying functionality, not one clunking central do-it-all base station. The common thread will be the network, not a smart hub. With the home network linking all devices together and to the wider world, services can be delivered on demand, with entertainment in both private and public clouds. However, this requires open standards, something that has been frequently elusive in this technology sector, despite efforts over many years.
One of the better initiatives is the Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA), which has a number of big name members in TV, IT and telecoms, and its certification is starting to crop up more often especially in newer devices. But there is still glaring absentees, and to really win over the consumer this type of cross device integration has to become the norm – basically, it needs more push from its current membership.
With everything at home talking on the network, control can be passed to the mobile device in hand, with applications able to adapt, evolve and mash up the services being delivered into a dashboard array that makes most sense for the individual.
The original PDAs were once described as companion devices to PCs and now their successor smartphones and tablets are capable of building a similar relationship to all other smart devices in the home, from TVs to toasters. All the old ‘remotes’ can now safely be left down the back of the sofa where they often lay, the future of TV is smart, but probably not in the box.