Monday, 29 June 2009

Man and Machine, in perfect harmony

Keen drivers may have experienced the feeling of their car becoming an extension of their body. It’s as if the mind’s eye expands its viewpoint to incorporate the car, and it becomes like extra limbs of the body. I imagine the same can occur for a musician and their musical instrument, or a surgeon and their medical implements, or perhaps even a rider and their horse. Psychologists probably have a name for this phenomenon...?

Of the two cars that I’ve driven recently, one exhibited this phenomenon more readily than the other. (I’m attributing it to the car, but of course it’s a trick of the mind, not of the car.) The reasons for the difference are quite subtle, but I believe it comes down to things such as this – in the car I prefer, it’s easier to control the engine speed during a gear-change, and therefore achieve a smoother, more controlled gear-change, because the accelerator pedal operates over a more useful range of movement. In the other car, the engine goes from idling speed to the red line with comparatively little movement of the accelerator, which makes it harder to match engine speed to road speed.

The key is this: for the body-extension phenomenon to occur, you have to feel fully in control which means it must have the right set of controls, and be responsive and provide feedback. If any of these are missing, then the mind trick fails, and you and the object remain separate entities.

I reckon the same principles apply to consumer electronics interfaces. If the UI provides controls that fit the tasks you need to perform, it reacts in a timely fashion when you instruct it, and you can always tell what state it is in, then there’s a good chance that your mind’s eye will expand to include the interface and you’ll feel you are interacting directly with the tasks.

Friday, 26 June 2009

Julian Clover on the progression of IPTV

As I mentioned last month, I was keen to start a monthly Q and A with IPTV industry insiders to discuss what’s hot and what’s not in the IPTV world. This month Julian Clover has been kind enough to share his views.

Julian Clover is a media and technology journalist based in Cambridge, UK. He has two decades of combined experience in online and printed media.

He is currently an editor of Broadband TV News and New Television Insider. He has contributed to The Channel, the magazine of The Association for International Broadcasting; Cable and Satellite International; Euromedia and the consumer title What Satellite TV.

He is also a committee member of the Broadcasting Press Guild and the IBC Conference.

Julian, as Editor of Broadband TV news, you have a strong involvement in the digital TV space, are there any areas of IPTV technology you are particularly keen to see advance?

The use of hybrid boxes is particularly beneficial to satellite broadcasters to bring in on demand content. Canal+ already have something in this area with Le Cube and you could reasonably expect other operators to be thinking along similar lines.

Widgets and applications for the TV are becoming increasing popular, how important do you think open standards are to the evolution of these applications?

You don’t necessarily need open standards, but providers do need to make their technology available to those with the know-how. The problems start if the leading platform becomes a closed shop.

The convergence of web and TV is now really coming together, what is the future scope for these services?

Ultimately, it is complete convergence, or at least close enough. It has already been proved that the family will not gather around to view the bank statements. However, it is entirely reasonable to be able to check the listings at the local cinema, and be able to get a review that has not been influenced by studio or cinema chain. The iPlayer always gets the glory, but there are many similar services from overseas broadcasters where not all the content is copyright protected. We could reasonably expect to see some of these available. The challenge will be for operators to provide convenient access while not discouraging people from taking their own paid for content.

Personalisation has become a hot topic associated with IPTV; do you think this is something essential for the progression of IPTV services?

It applies to any television platform but we have been promised personalised EPGs for over ten years, with the technology now seemingly only just catching up with the PowerPoints.

You’re based in the UK, what are the good and bad aspects of the TV Service that you receive?

The broadcasters do little to promote anything more than eight or nine programmes at any one time. There’s a lot to be said for a programme trail listing the complete night’s line-up, even if you end up ignoring half, or recording it for viewing another day. Programmes at the fringes of the schedule are ignored, and alas the same can often be said for those featured programmes on the iPlayer.

Do you think VOD will dramatically change the way we consume digital content, how have your viewing habits changed in recent years?

VOD will clearly erode the schedules, but the human need for a shared experience will ensure the big entertainment and sports shows get something resembling a mass audience. The PVR (Sky+ in my case) means that I jettison whole series, preferring to watch a series from start to finish, rather than missing episodes through not being at home.

Do you think the digital switch over will lead to an increased demand in additional IPTV services?

There’s no reason why there will be more of a demand for IPTV than any other platform. By now most people who are interested in a pay-TV option will surely have signed up. The fun starts as the pay-TV platforms attempt to attract customers from their rivals.

You work in the TV industry, so you must spend a good amount of time watching it yourself. What’s your favourite TV show and why?

I’m a complete news junkie, so can happily watch the news channels for several hours, though I’m still not sure the UK stations have the polish of their US counterparts. Coast, which has gone around the British Isles and is now venturing into Europe for the next series, has sparked an interest. But I also get lost in series that seemingly have no purpose and are allowed to meander until their US audiences tire of the format. Lost at least has an end date, but after five episodes I’m longing for Dollhouse to find a direction.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

The film industry joins forces for a new business model

I’ve covered different business models for TV several times before ( here and here, as well as in a recent post titled Is cable subsription model under threat?) - indeed it is something of a recurring theme. However, a new joint movie studios initiative announced last week by Lionsgate, Paramount, and MGM has the potential to really shake things up.

Epix is an new HD TV network that will air movies after they have appeared in the cinemas but before they are released on DVD or BlueRay. But consumers won't pay a subscription or pay-per-view charges, nor specifically need to request the channel is added to their package; and the service will have no advertising. Even better, the same content is available to Epix customers at at 720p resolution.

So what is the business model and how can the movie studios afford to do this? Well for a start, Epix is only available to customers who are taking their tv providers' TV service and Internet service. Epix believe that their service can act as a key differentiator when customers choose a TV package. Epix are also planning to install caching servers directly in the provider’s datacenter thus avoiding the need to stream HD video over second or third party Internet connections. Epix can thus take a slice of the bandwidth cost savings that their caching servers realise for the operator. Epix aren't interested in relationships directly with consumers - they are looking to build partnerships with the cable, Internet and satellite companies.

Looks like Epix could be one TV network to watch.

Monday, 22 June 2009

I Hate Touch Screens

I do think touch screens have some obvious advantages, because they have no fixed layout for UI components, which means the layout can be rearranged for each type of task, and there are no nooks and crannies for dirt to lodge in (try turning your PC keyboard upside down and give it a good shake - it's horrifying what falls out).

However, for a UI that I use regularly, such as my phone, a touch screen offers very little scope for honing speed and precision of use with time, because there's no tactile feedback to indicate whether a key was pressed accurately.

I wish mobile manufacturers would put a transparent mechanical keyboard over the top of the touch display to give the keys feel, while leaving their labels dynamic. The keyboards could also be slid or flipped out of the way when the display is all just for output.

Friday, 19 June 2009

Needless Inconsistency

I'm using a smart phone with an OS that shall remain nameless (to protect the guilty), but I've found three different screens where three different operations are required to back out of a sub-menu or screen if it's been entered by mistake. There's a button with an arrow pointing left, which sometimes does it, sometimes it's necessary to touch a "cancel" button at the bottom of the touch-screen, and sometimes a menu must be opened to find the "cancel" option.

If I was playing a game it might be fun to search for these things, but here it is just tedious.

A good UI picks a small, powerful and intuitive set of interaction "patterns", preferably aligned with existing experience, and uses them everywhere. Otherwise it's like having to learn 1,000 verbs of a language when only 10 are necessary.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Five things you need to know about user interface design

A while back I spent some time on the phone explaining to someone how to read and send text messages. Navigation within the Inbox was proving far harder to explain than I’d expected, until I realised that my text-newbie was not familiar with the concept of a scroll bar (she’s never used a PC...). The phone’s display, and the way it reacted to button presses, made more sense once this was understood.

Here are five tips for UI designers, to minimise the amount of knowledge required to use a new interface:

1. You can reduce the number of new things that must be learnt by building on existing knowledge, although the text lesson highlights the fact that different people have different levels of experience, and so you can’t rely entirely on prior knowledge.

2. Choose a small set of flexible interaction patterns that can be applied again and again - don’t make the user learn several different ways to perform similar operations - let them learn something to achieve one task, then be delighted to find they can use it for similar tasks

3. Make it intuitive - if a highlight is to move left and right along a set of selections, don’t use the up and down arrow keys to do it

4. Structure the interface to match the tasks the user will perform, not the structure of whatever it controls

5. Build on conventions - car makers do this, out of necessity in some cases (steering wheel and pedal arrangements), but also in other areas (the indicator stick, for example, is common to most cars). For TV UIs, most people are familiar with the idea of something being highlighted, and four arrow keys moving the highlight from one item to the next, and those that aren’t will quickly catch-on because it’s intuitive.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

More for Channel4

If you like watching daytime banter between big haired presenters and culture shocking, stress busting evening entertainment on Channel4 then you’re about to get lucky as C4 is putting up 4,000 hours of archived content online for free from 3rd July.

According to CNet UK, Channel4 will be making programmes like Time Team, Location, Location, Location, Shameless, Queer As Folk and Unreported World available via its 4oD service. However, it’s pre-warned that C4 won’t backdate all past programmes and viewers shouldn’t expect “bizarre, experimental three-part documentary from the 80’s”. In return for this classic content you’ll have to sit through a few adverts of course, 4oD is an ad-supported VOD provider like most of the VOD services in the UK, as posted in On-demand TV competition heats up previously.

In a similar vein, BBC iPlayer is reportedly working on an agreement with Youtube’s parent company Google to extend its service outside of the UK although there are significant DRM issues to be dealt with first.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

What can we learn from in-game browsers?

I read an excellent article on Gamespot comparing the latest web browser technology for gamers where the browser is used as a secondary application during gameplay.

Developers have been working closely with the gaming community for some time, building promising new features that allow gamers to browse the web during a game play. Some in-game browsers (the likes of X-Fire and Steam) are still very much like standard web browsers in terms of their usability and functionality.

On the other hand, game developers GotGame have built a more innovative solution called Rogue. The quirk of it is that it allows gamers to switch to web browsing instantly and continue to engage in the game whilst users browse the web semi-transparently. It’s an impressive development that’s worth exploring.

Take a look at how it works.

The approach that Rogue have adopted demonstrates that web browsing should be built to compliment and enhance the user experience when being used in a less traditional way, something we’re also aware of when delivering web based services to the TV.