Make It So: Google TV Revamp Adds Voice Navigation

The launch of the third version of Google TV introduces voice commands, an improved user interface, and better smartphone and tablet integration.

In a plain building on Google's Mountain View campus, lines of engineers lounge in their cubicles, unabashedly watching sports, news, and YouTube clips on their deskside TVs. Like a Best Buy warehouse, dozens of brand-new, flat-panel televisions are strewn throughout the office, some still in unopened boxes. When I catch one engineer searching 'Is Lindsay Lohan going to jail?' on YouTube, I couldn't help but ask what he does all day. The engineer cracked a smile and responded, "We watch TV."

However much this office may sound like a mecca for couch potatoes, serious work is being done inside its walls. This is the home of Google TV, one of the company's potential future flagship products. The search giant has made a significant investment in this smart TV platform, which it hopes will become the next-gen television experience that rules every living room. None of the competition—primarily Apple and Microsoft—have successfully won over couch surfers. Google, however, has lagged behind those competitors. The initial iterations of its TV product have failed to gain market share or critical acclaim, despite some boastful predictions made by executive chairman Eric Schmidt. One recent report from GigaOm indicated there may be a less than a million Google TV devices in use.

Google hopes to change its fortunes today with the launch of the third version of Google TV. The software upgrade introduces voice commands, an improved user interface, and better smartphone and tablet integration. (Clearly the company's engineers have learned something from watching all that TV.) But most significantly, in spite of the company's success on PC devices—YouTube receives more than 800 million monthly visitors, who watch roughly four billion hours of video—with the latest release of Google TV, it's clear the company has realized it can't simply port that same experience over to the big screen. As Google product VP Mario Queiroz, who oversees the company's TV projects, told me, "We're trying to make the TV not like a computer."

Siri TV?

In a small back-corner room, Queiroz stands in front of a massive television screen with a remote control in his hand. The room, designed as a test kitchen for Google TV, is finished with all the trappings of a living room—couches, rugs, potted plans—with one jarring exception: the one-way mirror lining the back wall, which the company's product managers and engineers use to monitor test trials. Queiroz isn't worried about hidden onlookers—though we briefly joke that Larry Page and Sergey Brin may be secretly watching. Rather, Queiroz is happy to show off Google TV's new feature: voice search.

Just as you do with Siri on your iPhone, you simply talk into your Google TV to search for content. "If you want to find a movie—say, My Big Fat Greek Wedding—you can just say 'My Big Fat Greek Wedding,'" Queiroz explains, as the film pops up on the screen. "Your Google TV will show where it's available, whether on this channel or Netflix or Google Play or Amazon."

Voice search works with a range of media—TV shows and movies, webpages and apps—and is designed to find content easily across fragmented services. "We don't you want to think, 'Okay, I need to go to this video on-demand service, and see if it's there, and then this one, and this one, and this one,'" Queiroz says. "You just speak it to your TV, as opposed to picking up the remote and clicking here and selecting there."

In addition, this version of Google TV includes a guide that lets you browse and watch content at the same time—a feature sorely lacking from past iterations. The upgrade also allows users to seamlessly play YouTube videos from Android tablets and smartphones on Google TV, a feature that the company unveiled Tuesday, which will help Google take advantage of the second-screen experience.

The aim is to give viewers more control over the massive influx of content afforded by web content. "If you look back 30 years, people had three or four channels, then cable came along and brought that to 300 or 400 channels," Queiroz says. "By bringing the web to your living room, you're going from hundreds of channels to millions of channels."

TV, Not PC

Almost every day, in the same mock living room Queiroz demonstrated the product for me, Google brings in real users to study from behind the room's one-way glass mirror. "Our engineers and product managers sit down and watch users experimenting and using our products," Queiroz says. "One of the things we learned is sometimes users don't know what they want to watch."

The realization was likely a tough pill to swallow for the company, which specializes in developing search products. In the TV world, however, few people search for content—they surf for it. The shift from search to discovery is an important move for Google TV, but the larger indication here is that Google is learning it can't keep treating the TV like a PC. Look back on past iterations of the product, Queiroz recalls, "We said, 'We need to make this a lot easier and a lot simpler."

Indeed, just as TV viewers don't want to deal with computer crashes during the Super Bowl or blue screens of death during presidential debates, they also don't want to interact with their TV sets via mouse, keyboard, and search engine. Those interaction methods may be acceptable on desktops and notebooks—but not plasmas and LCDs. "Certainly we need to make sure the operating system is really stable and powerful, so it's not going to crash like a PC does," Queiroz says. "More importantly, you want ways to interact with it that don't feel like a computer—that don't feel clunky. I completely agree that it's not always appropriate to use a keyboard in the living room to interact with the TV."

He adds, "We're trying to make the TV not like a computer. We're trying to give the TV the power of a computer, but to hide that power in the background."

Still, it's not clear whether voice commands, gridded TV-guide systems, or traditional remote-control navigation are any superior. But the company has realized that its past iterations were far too complicated. Queiroz recalls Larry Page telling him, "There needs to be no friction."

Says Queiroz, "So how can we get the user experience to catch up, so people aren't just overwhelmed and saying, 'It's just too difficult, and I'm not going to deal with it'?"

Fewer Buttons, Fewer Features

With something as novel and exciting as Internet-connected TVs, complete with browsers and apps and second-screen connections, it's easy for Queiroz's team to get carried away by adding feature after feature. But Queiroz is wary of doing too much. "Probably the biggest challenge we've had to overcome," he says, "is that there is so much content that we're trying to bring to the user, that the user can be overwhelmed."

The insight has led Queiroz to challenge his team to rethink features that have become so ingrained in the TV viewing experience that they may be irrelevant to the modern living room environment. He likens it to the development of Google Maps, back when MapQuest dominated the landscape. "Before to navigate a map, you'd be clicking arrow up, arrow right, arrow left," he recalls. "The first time you ever clicked on a Google Map and dragged the map around, suddenly it was like, 'Wow, that's cool.' How was that designed? A product manager and an engineer needed to move around a map, but they knew there was a different way to do it."

Indeed, the analogy serves to highlight the outmoded thinking behind most remote controls, which have become so cluttered with useless buttons that they practically need Google Maps to navigate. The company has worked to rethink some of its features. For example, Queiroz says, "one of the new features of this next release is a quick guide that also shows you a tray of recent channels. Through one button you now can see the last six to seven recent channels, instead of having just that one back button on your remote. You now have an infinite number of back buttons."

Of course, despite how many new features have been developed for Google TV, the product still has a long way to go. I did not get the chance to interact with the new version much, but from what I saw, the on-screen experience still looks to run a bit slow; the app market still seems a bit cluttered; and the user interface could use a bit more polish and consistency. I much prefer the Xbox's elegant UI, which I consider far superior to that of Google TV's. I also wish Google TV introduced a guide system more akin to what we've seen from startups like Peel.

Additionally, although I didn't get a chance to test the voice commands—they worked fine in a few tests Queiroz did—I'm still unsure whether voice control is the right interaction for TV. Surfing television, to me, has always been about serendipity—about accidentally stumbling upon that Die Hard sequel seemingly forever playing on USA. It's also slightly personal—you don't want to actively announce a guilty pleasure. Do I want my roommate hearing me asking my Google TV to play the 2011 version of Footloose? (Admittedly, not as bad as I expected.) Probably not. There is something so inviting about the passive nature of TV—and Google's product has always seemed too busy, active, and wonky for me.

Plus, the company faces increased skepticism not only from consumers and critics, but from its hardware partners, some of which are becoming increasingly tired of betting on the platform. But Queiroz remains optimistic.

"This is definitely a marathon," he says, "and it's just the early miles of the marathon."

[Image: Flickr user dailylifeofmojo]

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5 Comments

  • PeterCaoMars

    Q&A about Fascism crimes on land of Palo Alto, CA in which
    Sebastian Thrun/Gabriele Scheler/Ed Feigenbaum/Eric Schmidt/Angela Merkel had
    involved and which were covered up by certain malicious officers with
    miscarriage of justice

    ===============

    Ducatigirl,

    No matter what kind of relation you have with
    Gabriele Scheler, or even if you are Gabriele Scheler herself, when you got the
    idea that:

    >>>"He has also filed some false
    police reports, which PAPD has been kind enough not to prosecute him for, as in
    the case of Gabriele Schiele, a German student"

    ------ Don't believe in Officer VVV (same as
    ZZZ/YYY/RRR) who's in charge of Gabriele Scheler's accusations; VVV had already
    lost his/her credibility after being cowardice for so many years in light of my
    public challenges; don't believe in this officer, such an officer namely VVV is
    fooling around with all people involved, including with criminal suspect
    Gabriele Scheler, with Stanford, with Google, with Sebastian Thrun/Eric
    Schmidt/Angela Merkel, and with victim as I am, etc.; Don't believe in anything
    VVV told you in name of judicial authorities; VVV had no credibility as an
    officer at all;

    --- The crimes are not only coming from those
    fascists who had committed these crimes, but also from certain malicious officers,
    especially VVV, who’s miscarriage of justice;

  • PeterCaoMars

    Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, had provided political
    support for a series of fascism crimes which related to a cold-blooded killing
    of an innocent Stanford student May Zhou (a girl of U.S. citizen, Taiwan
    origin, MIT alumnus and Stanford Ph.D. candicate) as well as an unsuccssful
    plotted murder on me, all started from an on campus atrocity case in Stanford
    University [Stanford Police Case Number: IR #04-111-0335;Victim: Peter Cao;
    Criminal Suspect: Gabriele Scheler  ], in
    which an extremely irrational Germany lady named Gabriele Scheler had bitterly
    assaulted me. Chancellor Merkel might as well back up a coup in Stanford after
    she visited Stanford in 2010, though it was cracked down by California Judicial
    Authorities in time. It is an interesting question of how much Chancellor
    Angela Merkel had invovled into such series of facsism crimes on land of
    America. I bet with the intervention of Germany power into these cases, such
    series of fascism crimes would never be clarified and such fascism crimes on
    land of America would never be concurred by U.S. Authorities. A very serious
    offending to the dignity and sovereignty of people of the United States as well
    as to the whole world of humanity

  • PeterCaoMars

    Q&A of flaws in the handling of Stanford
    student May Zhou’s death by certain police officers, which
    served a big role in a series of fascism crimes, in
    response to Eric Schmidt and Sebastian Thrun’s side of their argues at  [iDOTdoubtDOTit/tag/sebastian-thrun/]
    (replace DOT with . to get the right address)

    =====================

    "Dr. Kelly Arthur of the Sonoma County
    coroner's office, is reported to have reviewed it and said she stood by her
    original finding that there were not any signs of trauma." --- that still
    would not gurantee a suicide conclusion, would it? where/when/how did those
    trauma come into being, then? Can Dr. Kelly Arthur explain? or would it be
    wiser for the officer who drew conclusion of suicide to make sure
    where/when/how did those trauma come into being before drawing conclusion of
    suicide?

    -------------------

    “Except Peter Cao, who asserts that Mengyao Zhou
    was murdered by or with the
    help of Schmidt and Thrun, in order to intimidate him personally.” --- Schmidt
    did threatened my life with the death of May Zhou for sake of Thrun during
    their fight with Stanford. I said they killed May Zhou to intimidate me and to
    terrorize Stanford; you omitted the serious part. My statement is far more reasonable
    than police can give, don't you agree?

    --------------------

    "...
    and an email that Zhou sent to her 16-year-old sister as “consistent with a
    goodbye note.” 
    --- can we see such an email before we could believe it? How much good-bye is
    there in it? How to explain the fact that May Zhou had transferred money to pay
    off debt before her disappearance?  

    ---------------------

    “But then you can’t expect someone killing
    themselves to make choices that appear rational to others. If it’s not
    tasteless to speculate, perhaps she felt ashamed and wanted to hide herself.”

    --- Is that the way you describe death of an
    innocent girl as May Zhou is? Shame on you!

    --- Would the officer in charge of May Zhou's
    case agree? How to get connect with such an officer? I have serious stuff to
    report

     

  • PeterCaoMars

    Q&A about Fascism crimes on land of Palo Alto, CA in which
    Sebastian Thrun/Gabriele Scheler/Ed Feigenbaum/Eric Schmidt/Angela Merkel had
    involved and which were covered up by certain malicious officers with
    miscarriage of justice

    ===============

    Ducatigirl,

    No matter what kind of relation you have with
    Gabriele Scheler, or even if you are Gabriele Scheler herself, when you got the
    idea that:

    >>>"He has also filed some false
    police reports, which PAPD has been kind enough not to prosecute him for, as in
    the case of Gabriele Schiele, a German student"

    ------ Don't believe in Officer VVV (same as
    ZZZ/YYY/RRR) who's in charge of Gabriele Scheler's accusations; VVV had already
    lost his/her credibility after being cowardice for so many years in light of my
    public challenges; don't believe in this officer, such an officer namely VVV is
    fooling around with all people involved, including with criminal suspect
    Gabriele Scheler, with Stanford, with Google, with Sebastian Thrun/Eric
    Schmidt/Angela Merkel, and with victim as I am, etc.; Don't believe in anything
    VVV told you in name of judicial authorities; VVV had no credibility as an
    officer at all;

    --- The crimes are not only coming from those
    fascists who had committed these crimes, but also from certain malicious officers,
    especially VVV, who’s miscarriage of justice;

  • PeterCaoMars

    <><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><> 

    Sebastian Thrun/Eric
    Schmidt/Gabriele Scheler/Angela Merkel/Ed Feigenbaum/Kaifu Lee, etc. had lost
    his credibility when he got involved into fascism crimes which had endangered
    human lives
    ——————————————————
    There is actually a war between fascism and anti-fascism, at this stage,
    fascism still prevails in our lives, Eric Schmidt, Sebastian Thrun and Gabriele
    Scheler are just front figures we could see in this fascism circle, there is a
    whole pack of fascists behind them

    Eric, as we can
    see, starting from Gabriele Scheler’s atrocity case on Stanford campus back in
    2004, many people, including Gabriele Scheler, Sebastian Thrun, you Eric
    Schmidt, Professor Ed Feigenbaum of Sebastian Thrun's boss in Stanford Computer
    Science department, a big donor CCC of Stanford Computer Science department, and also Eric Schmidt’s colleague in China
    Kaifu Lee, had made contributions to such fascism crimes which had cost human
    life of Stanford student May Zhou and crimes which had retaliated on victims
    and almost cost life of the victim as I am …

    … … and someone
    who had provided legal coverage for your fascism crimes, including a powerful
    officer from Santa Clara DA Office, namely ZZZ (and after ZZZ, another officer
    YYY), and the officer VVV who’s in charge of Gabriele Scheler’s case and who
    had further collateralled with your side(suspect Eric Schmidt, Sebastian Thrun
    and Gabriele Scheler’s side) to conspire and curse victims( Stanford, May Zhou,
    me) in every possible way since 2006 till today; and maybe include the officer
    RRR who insist on May Zhou’s death as a suicide or accident, even though I had
    clearly pointed out who’s involved in May Zhou’s murder case …

    … … and someone
    who could provide political support for your fascism crimes, including top
    politician from the country of Germany whom we all know — Angela Merkel,
    Chancellor of Germany, and maybe include a retired top politician from UK as
    well, etc. and more and more to find out later …
    —————————————————
    I believe, though some names missed out, all names mentioned in the above
    comment are part of this fascism circle

     

    <><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><> 

     

    --- Such fascism crimes are not only coming from those fascists who
    had committed these crimes, but also from certain malicious officers who’s
    miscarriage of justice;

     

    --- As the primary victim of a series of fasicsm crimes, in which
    Eric Schmidt/Sebastian Thrun/Gabriele Scheler/Angela Merkel/Ed Feigenbaum/Kaifu
    Lee had involved, and as the primary victim being treated with miscarriage of
    justice by officers ZZZ/YYY/VVV/RRR for many years, I believe by law I have the
    right to request, and I hereby publicly challenge those who accused me and
    those I accused, and request to clarify the whole case at authorities with
    confrontation

    <><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><>