I’ve been waiting for a long time for a company to really lead the charge in the living room and make web services/apps on a TV screen into a must have. Everyone is fighting to be the front runner but I wonder whether Microsoft might just win if their recently announced SmartGlass technology working with Xbox 360 is as good as it sounds.
To really succeed, I think two fundamental UX issues need to be solved (alongside compelling content obviously):
- Interoperability: both in terms of transferring content from one device/location to another, without manufacturer specific barriers.
- A new kind of remote control: such as control from a second screen (again without manufacturer specific barriers) that overcome the major usability issues of controlling a TV screen at a distance with a d-pad, select, back and not much else (no mouse, no keyboard).
At E3, Microsoft have just announced a range of new services they are bringing to the Xbox 360 (hopefully from this autumn) which seem to provide both these things using SmartGlass technology:
- Easy transfer of viewing from one device to another: changing from viewing on your tablet to your TV (via the xbox) with as little as one tap.
- Accessing extra contextual content on a second device: your tablet would know exactly what you’re watching and provide appropriate content such as more about the characters currently on screen. Or to provide extra information (like game stats) while you play a game.
- Second device as a controller: you could use your tablet whilst watching TV or playing a game as an extra controller itself. As Microsoft also intend to launch Internet Explorer on the Xbox, the second device could also be used to enter text and control the web browser like a keyboard. Throw in the features of Kinect maybe one day and that opens a whole other world.
Great news but here are some of the potential stumbling blocks:
- Easy transfer but only for one household member: they need to resolve the general issue that households often have several occupants. There may be multiple second screens with scenarios even involving users ‘swapping screens’. Can SmartGlass handle multiple users or will users drown in complexities around ID, logon, security or all pretend to be the one ‘Gamer’ in the household who has bothered to log onto the Xbox. And what about transferring from a Smart TV to a second device or to the Xbox – can it handle that too one day?
- Second device compatibility: the claim is that SmartGlass will work with Windows, iOS, Android – this is essential to the success of the second device concept. iPad users particularly must be a big target and Microsoft need to be careful not to prioritise Windows and miss a trick with their customers who already own iPads, iPhone's, Android devices etc.
- UI design on the second device controller: if they don’t get this right it simply won’t work. Any extra content has to be well considered and appealing but beyond that the basic controls and interaction with the TV should be seemless and avoid the Look up / Look down issues of classic remote control usage. Of course, this isn’t a one-off thing, the controller / add-on features will have to be well tailored for each and every application. I look forward to providing advice on these in the years to come…
All in all, I think this is great news and a great step forward. Good luck to Microsoft and I look forward to seeing the results.