Democratizing the TV?

In 2007, I was that guy that didn’t know how Tony Soprano died. I missed out on one of the biggest events in HBO history because I was in a “no time for television” phase, meaning I thought TV was an isolating medium and I had better things to do. That is, until I found myself in more social situations where, surrounded by Lost conspiracy theories, I’d have to cleverly change the topic or go get another drink.

So what is TV? An aging medium of solitude and popcorn? Or a potential igniter of social sparks?

Consider this: Back in the 50’s, when families could afford one television, it sat in the middle of the living room surrounded by people and was social glue. Shortly thereafter, prices dropped and family members started disappearing behind closed doors to watch their favorite shows on their personal TVs. Today, headphone-clad commuters watch streaming TV or YouTube clips on handhelds on their way to work, and social network chatter has elevated TV to a social medium once again. 

Imagine, however, a night in with sofa full of your friends or family members. Old TV doesn’t care how many people are in front of the TV. When you’re with your girlfriend/boyfriend, your spouse, your friends or family, when TV watching becomes the main event, what’s different?

Last year, I started exploring what it means for a remote to know who you are. With industrial designer Alex Rochat, I explored what a “democratic TV” might feel like, giving equal share of play to everyone sitting around the coffee table. The concept is simple – a set of plush “remotes” each tied to an individual. They feel more like furniture than technology. There are no buttons – only a twist, squeeze and pull to access not only basic TV functions but a collection of social tools that let you grab and broadcast content, and provide live feedback to programming and web clips. We’re also toying with the notion of 3rd party TV apps (think iTunes Store for your television). Can’t decide what to watch next? Maybe it’s time to download the “Rock, Paper, Scissors” app?

There are a lot of exciting things happening in UI innovation. Kicker Studio recently published a YouTube video of a conceptual interface prototype that allows a TV watcher to gesture in the air to control basic TV functions. Dan Saffer does a good job keeping it TV-simple and feeling like entertainment, not work, with a UI that makes it easy to get at the core functions of TV. Gesture-based enhancements could raise the bar for the TV experience as a whole, and the industry just might be ready to give it a go.

— Ron Goldin

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