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  • 08.22.13

Could This New Set-Top Box Kill The Smart TV?

This summer a startup called Fanhattan previewed its first set-top box with a unique buttonless touch remote and a novel user interface. Now CEO Gilles BianRosa talks to Michael Grothaus about the challenges of intertwining hardware, software, and content and why current smart televisions fall flat.

Could This New Set-Top Box Kill The Smart TV?

Gilles BianRosa is the cofounder and CEO of Fanhattan, a company that originally launched two years ago. Their first product was an iOS app, which allowed users to search and discover all there is to watch across various content providers, like cable TV, Hulu, and Netflix. Now the company is getting ready to launch Fan TV, its first set-top box and thinks they’ve got it right where others like Apple and Roku have dropped the ball.

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First, how would you describe Fan?

Fan is the simplest way to discover, watch, and share the movies and shows you love. That’s a pretty broad statement so let me bring it to life with a real example.

Say you love Game of Thrones and there’s one episode from Season Two that you missed. You can go to Fan on your iPad, iPhone, or computer and by simply searching for the title you’ll instantly see that you can watch it on HBO Go, Xfinity, Amazon Video, iTunes, or Vudu. Select whichever option is best for you and within seconds you have it streaming. Alternatively, if you want to watch it later, just add it to your WatchList and Fan will notify you as soon as it’s available. It’s that simple.

Now, say you’ve seen every episode of Game of Thrones because you’re a die-hard fan and you’re looking for something new to watch until it’s back on the air. No problem. You can browse other shows of the same genre, get recommendations from your friends, or read critics’ reviews to inspire you. All of the information you need is in one place so you can stop searching and start watching what you love.

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Fan TV looks pretty cool. The hardware design is pretty slick. But what does it actually do?

I’m so glad you like it. If you think it looks cool, I think you’ll find that what it does is even cooler. Fan TV is a next-generation set-top box that combines live TV, cloud DVR, video-on-demand, and streaming services in one powerful, little device with a revolutionary touch remote. We designed the hardware over a period of 24 months in collaboration with Yves Behar and his team at Fuseproject. The base, which is so compact it can fit in the palm of your hand, is the entire set-top box. You connect it to your TV screen with an HDMI cable, add Internet via Ethernet or Wi-Fi, and plug it into the wall for power. You’re done with setup in two minutes. The remote is completely intuitive and all touch. It rests on top of the box but is battery powered so it never needs to be charged. Fan TV is the outcome of years of creative and technical design, testing, and iteration. We figured if everything else in your life is streamlined, your remote and set-top box should be no exception.

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Tell me more about Fan TV’s remote. A lot of people are saying it’s like no remote they’ve ever seen.

No one loves the current 90+ button remote monstrosities. Most of us don’t even know what all of those buttons do. The Fan TV remote is a touch remote with zero buttons–the first of its kind. You can navigate your TV with a swipe or a tap–much like you would by touching a tablet screen or a smartphone–but from your couch. The Fan TV remote lets you keep your eyes on the screen at all times.

What is the hardest part of creating a solution like Fan? The hardware? The software? The content deals?

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With Fan TV there are a lot of moving parts that are intertwined. All of these things are a challenge: Creating the hardware to match our vision, engineering the software for a service that is so extensive, and putting into place content deals to bring this service to life. I would say the most important aspect–not necessarily the hardest–is to continue blazing a trail in this industry. We are shaking things up and doing things differently because consumers are demanding something better than what’s currently in the market. Everything from creating the first buttonless remote to securing key partnerships is in service of that objective.

Let’s talk content. Content discovery is becoming a hot topic in the smart TV/streaming video arena. Is content discovery going to become the differentiating factor between services? Do all services basically offer the same content?

Actually, only rental or purchase “stores” like iTunes and Vudu have fairly comparable libraries. Subscription services like Netflix, Hulu Plus, HBO Go, Amazon Prime, and Redbox Instant have VERY different offerings. Similarly, ad-supported models like linear television–or even Crackle–have unique content and schedules. We call it the “Balkans of content,” and it’s all but commoditized.

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The digital music industry played out more or less like this: illegal downloads, then the iTunes Music Store, then streaming music services like Pandora and Rdio. Do you see the digital video industry playing out in the same way? Do people want to own or rent, via subscriptions, their content?

That’s an interesting question. There are many similarities, and digital subscriptions are clearly more popular than digital purchases, but I see a key difference: You can access almost all the music you want with only one service (whether subscription, or store). I don’t think this will ever happen with video. First, the way movies and shows are made, you will always have “windows” that the content will travel through, such as movie theaters, then purchases and rentals, then subscriptions, then ad-supported channels. There’s no other way to make the big-budget blockbusters that people want.

Second, the studios–benefiting from hindsight from their music counterparts–will likely keep the fierce competition for rights alive, so it’s unlikely one player would be able to aggregate all the rights early on, the way iTunes did with music.

Let’s talk about smart televisions. Fan TV is a media streaming box. Why not make a full-fledged “smart tv?”

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Fan TV is more than a media streaming box–it’s the one device that does it all. Plug it into input 1 and you’ll have everything you need. You can get rid of that clunky set-top box, the cumbersome DVR, the stack of streaming devices, and the pile of remotes. Fan TV will do the job of all of those.

The reason why smart TVs fall short of people’s needs is similar to why you don’t find DVD players in TVs : “2 in 1” products only work when the technology cycles of each component are similar. People might upgrade a TV every 5-10 years, yet the technology behind platforms like Fan TV evolves at the pace of the phone industry: every 24 months.

Also, it seems like no one has gotten the “smart tv” right just yet. Powerhouse Apple is still holding out until they can figure it out. To you, what is your idea of a “perfect” smart TV? What should it do?

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Using a smart TV should be effortless and intuitive. It should know what movies and shows are available to you across all the services and devices you’ve already paid for, and be able to help you find new entertainment and new services quickly and easily. A smart TV should fade into the background and put your entertainment first. Both the hardware and the software have to work perfectly together. They are far from this, and are getting farther in my opinion.

Also, consumers do not want their entertainment locked into one platform. What if I have a Samsung phone, and iPad and an LG TV? Fan is platform agnostic, and works with the services and devices consumers have. We see the Fan TV device as an endpoint–we think by far the best–to the Fan service.

Designing a UI and UX for a device that has a 42- to 70-inch screen is a lot different that designing a UI and UX for software on the device the size of an iPad and iPhone. What considerations did you have to take into account when designing the UI for Fan TV?

Here is a little secret: We designed Fan for the TV first, and then adjusted it for the iPad! We then learned a lot from the Fan iOS app, including how people discover, watch, and share different kinds of video content, and applied that back to designing the Fan TV experience in the 10-foot UI of your TV.

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Before I let you go, tell me one surprising thing you’ve discovered during your research and development efforts.

What we’ve gathered from consumers is that they are tired of diving in and out of a wall of apps to find their favorite shows. It eats up time and doesn’t make sense on a larger screen. It’s one of the pain points we’ve solved with our service–there’s no “wall of apps.” What you want to watch is aggregated right in front of you so that you spend less time searching and more time watching–which is how it should be.

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