We spent some time yesterday with Hillcrest Labs
's Andy Addis. Hillcrest has been working on improving the TV control experience since the beginning of the decade. The company’s founding principle is that navigation through a world of effectively unlimited television and video content cannot function effectively with the classic remote control/electronic programme guide model. It believes that television interfaces will eventually move towards a pointer-based system. A key challenge was to create a pointing device that works effectively in the standard TV lean-back, 10-ft scenario, where a firm, flat surface is typically unavailable. This led to the “air mouse” concept that is available through Logitech and is the company’s first commercial product.
It has also now been extended into the “loop” television control device concept. TV viewers have become used to sitting back on the sofa and controlling channel selection and, more recently, interactive features, over the past 30 years or so. It is worth recalling just what impact the wireless remote control had on TV viewing and usage when it began to penetrate the TV market in the 1970s and 80s. Most people have forgotten the time (if they ever experienced it) when changing channels meant getting up out of the seat and flicking switches on the TV. It’s no wonder that TV channels of that era concentrated on winning eyeballs early in the evening with their best programming, safe in the knowledge that many viewers would stay with whatever shows followed on the same channel, not to say the advertising that funded them. Once viewers were able to control what was on the screen more easily, viewing habits began to change beyond recognition, and channel surfing became the norm.
On-screen programme guides have helped viewers cope with the digital era, when hundreds of channels are available. But there’s no question that they are being pushed to their limits by the traditional remote control/EPG combination. Navigating through Sky Digital’s endless channels is a time-consuming and frustrating process. It’s no wonder most viewers spend most time with the channels they know best.
Hillcrest’s approach combines the principle of pointing at the screen with a highly visual presentation approach. In demonstrations, the viewer can move the cursor around the screen very rapidly. On-demand movies begin with a wide selection of titles, presented as though they were DVD covers. The details on each title are barely legible at the top level of the menu but they are grouped into genres, and the viewer can easily zoom in to each genre or a specific title that may be of interest.
The CES demonstration was shown on a PC as well as a set-top box based on a Sigma Design chipset. On the PC, navigation is very rapid. It slows down somewhat on the set-top box, but is still faster than most of today’s commercial digital TV platforms. The navigation experience is as close to selecting DVDs in a video rental store as I have seen. Hillcrest has integrated most of the usual “digital home” options into its reference guide, including TV channels, music libraries, games and photos.
“The Loop” control
takes some getting used to, but is easily learnt. There are two buttons, select and back, and sensors and proprietary algorithms mean that the pointer works whatever angle the control is held at.
Hillcrest is working with CE manufacturers with a view to licensing its technologies. It has also had interest from digital TV service providers. The company is encouraged by the rapid success of Nintendo’s Wii, which appears to confirm that games players are willing to embrace new control concepts. Persuading several billion TV remote control users to overcome the inevitable inertia and switch to a new concept may take rather longer, so we will look for commercial deals with major CE players and service provider industries for evidence that the lean-back audience is ready for another radical change to their viewing habits.
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