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.”
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.”
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’?”
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]