Internet video is largely dominated by short clips. YouTube, probably the most popular video upload service limits the length of individual videos to ten minutes for most accounts. So what happens if you just feel like relaxing in front on the TV, kicking off your shoes and just want to be entertained without having to make lots of decisions on what to watch? Fear not, solutions are emerging to meet this requirement and out of curiosity I sat on my sofa and tried two out: the new YouTube Leanback and Redux.com's “Watch in TV mode”.
I am fortunate enough to have a computer permanently attached to my TV so I launched a browser and started up YouTube Leanback, which was only released to the public in a beta form last week. YouTube's own writeup on it gives you lots of information about how it works and since the announcement of this service at Google I:O I have been curious to try it out. YouTube Leanback just uses Adobe Flash in a normal web browser to render. It is controlled just with the arrow keys and the enter key and any attempt to use the mouse brings up a reminder of this.
The idea is that when you launch it videos start to play automatically, based on your subscriptions and, if you have hooked up your YouTube account to Facebook, the videos that your friends are watching. If you get bored of this feed you can switch to other genre based feeds such as Comedy, Education, Entertainment and so on. You can search if you want to and also control playback of the video. If something isn't to your taste you can easily skip to the next item, something I found especially useful in the Comedy stream where the quality was rather variable!
The interface is quite simple and icons are rendered large enough to be seen across a room. I found it worked well. One problem I did find though was that it would favour high definition videos which was an issue for me as I have quite a slow broadband connection. It would be great before release if there was an option to control this (e.g. in Boxee you can toggle playback between standard and high definition for YouTube videos). The production quality of the videos was very variable as you might imagine, but being able to skip made up for that a bit as I still felt in control and also as each video was quite short you could just wait a few minutes for it to end.
It would be great if there was a YouTube Leanback application for Boxee, maybe someone is working on one out there as it would very well with this platform. Having to launch a browser, type in the address and launch it is not quite an optimised experience at the moment, but I am sure once it takes its place with the rest of the Google TV platform the experience will be much smoother. One thing I did feel was missing though were good social features, it would have been interesting to be able to share good videos with my friends or bookmark them so I can go back later. A simple “Like” button is a very powerful concept!
Another service offering a “lean back” type experience is Redux. They have a website and a Boxee application where you can catch up with weird and wonderful of the web. You can watch videos individually or click “watch in TV mode” on their site to enjoy them in sequence. The Boxee app also offers functionality to watch a stream of videos. Redux has a more social features, on the website you can share videos with friends through various social networking sites and show your appreciation by giving “props”. In the Redux Boxee app this does not all seem to work and the normal Boxee function to share a video with your social networking sites seems to break as the video link does not get posted. This is a bit of a shame as the app seems to work generally well, bringing you content as soon as you start it up. Redux describe themselves as providing “Friendsourced Entertainment” and their site is well worth having a look at.
Using both services felt natural, it is possible to enjoy video content from the web without having chose a video every ten minutes. It maybe would be good if these services learnt from what you decided to skip past, a bit like Last.fm does. It can be entertaining to just relax and see videos that you may have missed if you had to search out everything manually and maybe it could be a good way to discover new programming and producers. It is not really a replacement (yet) for traditional television instead it feels like it occupies ground in between that and on demand video clips. An hour watching content from these services is more than enough at the moment, but as this technology improves and more programming goes web native this situation will no doubt improve.
One thought I had when using these applications was how much difference relatively simple interactions with sites can make. The ability to skip a video, like saying “Next!” at an audition puts the viewer in control, despite these services being designed for relatively passive viewing. Being able to “like” something is important too, a simple decision to make, you only have to decide if you like something, not even if you dislike it and yet this can be very useful data. This is still very early days for this type of service and it will be fascinating to watch how it develops over the next few years.