You Know What I Want to Do in 2013? Talk to My Television

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A plea to TV makers in 2013: give me radically simply voice-control for changing channels.

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Imagine doing this on your couch in front of your friends. And yes, you have to wear the sweater. Be recognized (Samsung)!

My old friend Mat Honan makes a good point about the recent NPD report about "smart televisions": they are horrible and no one likes them


As Honan put it with characteristic understatement: 

I think I can explain all of this with a single thesis: smart TVs are the literal, biblical devil. (That may be overly broad. Perhaps they are merely demonic.) But the bottom line is that smart TVs typically have baffling interfaces that make the act of simply finding and watching your favorite stuff more difficult, not less.

With regular televisions, the interfaces are bad because it's difficult to navigate between channels without storing a lot of channel numbers in your head. I find that as I watch TV more and more sporadically, the standard "Guide" interface gets worse. And that's not to mention the headaches that go with the glory of On Demand.

With "smart TVs," the interfaces are bad because, as Honan points out, they are trying to do too much. They are trying to become a computer on a big screen, or a phone on a big screen. 

What I want is a simple TV controlled by my voice. Here's the only use case I care about: I want to be able to lie down on the couch, say, "put on HBO," and have the TV bend to my will. 

Honan told me on Twitter that he doesn't want to talk with his TV. And I do get the fear. I don't like talking to my phone either. I'm faster inputting things on that little touchscreen than I am talking. Plus, talking to your phone feels lame in that revving-your-minivan's-engine way. 

But the TV is different. I do want to talk with my TV. In fact, it's the only place where a Siri-like interface makes sense now. The problem with Siri is that it can only do a limited number of things and people do tons of stuff with their phones. But we don't do tons of stuff with our TVs.  We want the channel to change. We want the volume to change. We want to record things. We want to play things. We want to turn the thing off. That's pretty much it. 

The things we interact with on televisions are already structured for robot interaction, too. Every channel has a number for chrissakes.So, the number of verbs the voice control system has to know is tiny and so is the number of nouns.

But as Gizmodo's Sam Biddle pointed out, no company wants a simple, slick voice input interface: "Every lily is gilded."

So, that's my suggestion for TV makers: get radically simple. Just give us a way to call out, "ESPN," while we nurse a hangover. Or "Iron Chef," after a long day at work. At most, I'd like my TV to answer a simple query, "Is there a James Bond movie on?" But don't get any fancy ideas. When it comes to TV interfaces, less is more. 

(Note: This may be the only time I'm ever going to say this, but if you're a TV company exhibiting at CES and you have such an interface, please feel free to get in touch with me. I won't be on the showroom floor, but I'd like to see how your product works.)
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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer calls Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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