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Imagining an Apple television

Marco Tabini | Jan. 4, 2013
Rumors that Apple is working on some sort of television set never seem to die down. Speculation on this subject has abounded for years--including the occasional article here at Macworld--fueled most recently by Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs and noncommittally confirmed by his successor in an interview with NBC's Brian Williams.

So far, Apple's response to this problem has been to come up with a remote that only has a handful of buttons--hardly a game changer, particularly when you consider that the Apple TV is not much easier to use than any of its competitors.

I can't speak for everyone, of course, but this feels like the wrong approach to me. I expect the electronics around me to understand what I want to do without forcing me to learn how to use them, and I would much rather walk into the living room and say something like "I'd like to use the Playstation 3," or "Play the next episode of Scrubs" than have to fumble with five remotes or invest in a new device just to turn everything on in the right order.

This is where I would love to see a service like Apple's Siri emerge to replace the aging remote--perhaps not completely, because nobody wants to have a shouting match with the TV set at two in the morning, but certainly for most everyday uses, turning the complex hierarchy of on-screen menus we have to deal with today into a simple command-based interface that anybody could grasp. (Plus, as our generation gets older, a smarter TV set means that our children won't be able to make fun of us because we can't make the blinking zeros disappear from our VCRs.)

Identity crisis in the living room

A voice-based user interface, perhaps coupled with some sort of video recognition, could also dramatically improve the way a family like mine chooses which content to watch.

Most on-demand services have invested heavily in recommendation engines that tailor their offerings to the preferences of individual users, but these are often hindered by the primitive user interfaces we have to deal with, which are unable to easily distinguish between various members of the family.

Take, for example, Netflix--a company that blazed the trail of on-demand content. Every member of my family uses the same account, leaving its recommendation engine with the impossible task of reconciling the tastes of someone who, as far as it can tell, likes military movies, Japanese anime, My Little Pony cartoons, and the Transformers franchise.

It's unlikely that any algorithm will be able to come up with suggestions that match these tastes--precisely because they do not reflect any one person's preferences.

A Siri-like service, however, could be trained to distinguish each member of my family by their voice (or possibly, by their appearance--something that Microsoft's Kinect is already capable of doing), discretely building a separate profile for each one and providing a user experience that better matches the way each of us uses TV.

 

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