Desktops, mobile phones, wearables – they’re all getting special treatment, with carefully crafted user experiences emerging from ongoing refinement. But left by the wayside are the lonely smart TV and its accompanying remote, not known for their stellar input capabilities. When the best universal remotes have more buttons than a missile launch control centre, prospects are grim.
Great design, or the greatest design?
In particular, you’ve probably experienced the frustration of trying to type on a smart TV. Everything is designed around information consumption, while user input is tacked on as an afterthought. Unfortunately, remotes are no longer just used for the occasional TV guide lookup; you can search Netflix or YouTube, surf the internet, send instant messages, or Skype from your couch.
A few companies (Apple, Roku) have succeeded in simplifying their remotes, but the typing only gets worse. Terrible typing solutions mainly fall into two categories: virtual keyboards and hardware keyboards.
The most prevalent solution is simply to present an onscreen keyboard: a grid of characters and a cursor. The cursor is typically moved one square at a time to painstakingly select letters. The impracticality of these keyboards mostly speaks for itself; words per minute speed in particular is abysmal. They’re equally common on TVs and video consoles.
Only five clicks from here to ‘u’
On remotes with trackpads or motion control, the cursor moves freely on the screen. The Wiimote is a good example of this:
Despite the availability of new robust motion sensing, it doesn’t innovate. The chosen interaction forces the user to repeatedly aim in two dimensions without physical anchoring, a gesture that can be straining. The performance and comfort of this approach is also then affected by TV screen size.
Stick a Keyboard On It
The other approach is to just provide the user with a full hardware keyboard (and maybe a trackpad, too). It seems like this is the same design approach TV remotes have been following for 30+ years and I’m not the only one who thinks so. When in doubt, add more buttons.
Again, game consoles have taken a similar approach with clip-on keyboards which were targeted at heavy IM users.
It’s a flip phone? Nope, TV remote
It’s a laptop? Nope, TV remote
The issue here, aside from the nightmarish franken-remotes themselves, is that the design doesn’t complement the TV or game experience. If I’m slouching on the couch with snacks, I want the laziest possible typing experience. Whatever I use needs to work with one hand, sideways or upside-down, without a ridiculous grid of buttons; but it still has to be fast. Similarly, if I want a full keyboard when I’m gaming, I’ll play on a PC. I want a way of typing that’s fast and effective, but that’s also part of my play experience and uses the same motion/vision/joystick controls.
Is it better on a game controller?
Other approaches and particularities
Some other approaches have been taken. Pairing with mobile phones may prove to be a reasonable technique, but has yet to take off. I would argue that this also breaks the TV watching/gaming experience and therefore isn’t ideal. Voice recognition is also making inroads, but from a consumer perspective reliability is still an issue. Also, if you’re already in a noisy movie or gaming environment, it may be both unacceptable and less reliable to use voice input.
There are, of course, many interesting outlier techniques, although none with mass adoption.
The console games market is particularly interesting as game developers can opt to build their own typing solutions. Beyond Good and Evil is a popular example of a different take on typing. It provides an infinite, linear, spiral interface:
One thing is clear: information throughput from user to TV has dramatically increased. We’ve hit the limit on how much of this problem we can solve by just adding more buttons – whether virtual or physical. We’re game for trying some new approaches to simplifying the grid of buttons.
Minuum + Smart TV
What makes the Minuum keyboard different from other keyboards is not just its form factor; it’s the combination of advanced language modelling and reduced constraint on interaction.
Minuum measures input along only one dimension. It requires only a single axis of information: a line. This simplicity makes it easy to apply Minuum to almost any sensor or scenario: tilting your hand, pointing left to right, sliding along a curved bezel. Also, as you know if you’ve tried Minuum on your Android phone, it’s backed by amazing autocorrect that lets your input be sloppy and imprecise. This means your interaction area can be any shape, big or small and still work well. Take a look at Minuum running on a smart watch: the flexibility of this technology lets us build simple and fast typing solutions for smart TVs and game consoles that “fit in” as part of the user experience.
One of our favourite ways of interacting with smart TVs so far is with motion control such as the Wiimote. The idea is simple, as shown in the video above: point approximately left or right towards the letter you want and tap – no need to be precise, and no need to move the remote up/down. Pull the trigger for a space.
The key difference with the stock Wii keyboard is that you don’t aim directly at the letter, you just point left/right; the vertical portion doesn’t matter. This means you can type with your hand in all sorts of relaxed, comfy positions: dangling over the couch edge, resting on your knee, pointing up while you’re lying down. In fact, you don’t even need to point towards the television. Minuum notices when you start typing and sets up its frame of reference wherever you are. You can also keep using the same interface or game controller you were already using. At the same time, you can type significantly faster than on any existing consumer TV keyboard.
Of course, on a TV, you just want to get to the watching, not spend time learning a new way to type. With Minuum we believe we’ve found a way to make it natural: just point near the letter you want. The letters follow the same QWERTY layout you’re used to, but compressed down to a line. So while you can improve over time and learn to type really fast, the first time you pick it up it will still be faster and easier to use than your regular TV interface.
The future of interaction with smart TVs has overlap with other new devices; the flexibility of the one-dimensional technology behind Minuum will eventually let you bring your keyboard with you everywhere, on your smartphone, TV, game console, Google Glass, Myo, Leap Motion, and more.