I’m not one to advocate consumption, but buying a television today is nothing short of amazing. Walk into a store, US$400 in your pocket, and walk out with an enormous, bright, colorful, high-definition (at least at couch-length distances) screen. The result has been a revolution; for all the talk of iPhones and iPads and computers, the view from your couch is probably the best in your home. (And it is awfully, awfully comfy, too.) Some of the larger screens threaten to destroy the planet, of course, thanks to voracious appetites for electricity. But with a reasonable amount of time watching a more modestly-sized set (less than 40″, with EnergySaver features as we call them in the US), power drain is hardly noticeable.
What kind of art might grace these screens? On the Internet, the answer has been clear for years. From laser-calculated, mesmerizing Radiohead videos to the kind of art seen at MOMA’s Design and the Elastic Mind show, ingenious independent artists coding away in tools from the 90s demoscene to the Processing and OpenFrameworks exhibitions of today have pointed the way.
The TV, meanwhile, has been left out, a fortress protected by Big Content. The screen is big, but it’s also nowhere as free as the Internet browser or even an iPhone. Cable and satellites are out: the content is non-interactive and, save the last vestiges of public access broadcasting, the exclusive domain of the Viacoms and News Corporations of the world. Game systems should have been in, but only Microsoft’s Xbox 360 is friendly to independent developers, and oddly, their XNA framework is closed to the Internet. You should be able to use the Xbox’s always-on network pipe to, say, create pretty screen savers out of Twitter friend activity, but you can’t.
All of that appears to be about to change. It’s impossible to say what Apple’s plans are – Jobs was recently dismissive of consumer wariness to add another box. “Ask TiVo, ask ReplayTV, ask Roku, ask Vudu, ask us… ask Google in a few months,” Jobs said recently at AllThingsDigital (via eWeek). Knowing Jobs’ penchant for misdirection, I wouldn’t take that comment as ruling out an iOS/iPhone version of the Apple TV box, of course. “Who us? Doing a new TV? Nooooo…. nothing to see here.”
But let’s focus on what we do know: Linux is about to invade, in the form of Android-based Google TV and Intel-backed, more-standard Linux-based MeeGo. And given the drool-worthy functionality of Google TV, and the fact that TVs may simply start to ship with these features built-in rather than as an add-on, Jobs may actually be proven wrong.
What these systems offer artists is stunning. They could be a conduit to people on a couch to experience interactive visuals in a new way, just as the iPhone introduced mass audiences to previously academic-only interactive handheld audiovisual toys. Unlike those smaller screens, too, the experience can be dramatic and immersive.
Remember Thom Yorke’s disembodied head? (Google TV: now with the disembodied head of Thom Yorke! And yet I didn’t go into marketing… go figure.) On YouTube, we had relatively low-resolution, Internet-compressed visuals. On a Google TV, you could download an interactive version, then control it from your remote. You could plug in a driver-free USB webcam, and dance around the room to turn yourself into a music video. You could purchase an electronic album from the Amazon MP3 store, have it automatically loaded on your mobile, but have Google TV display an interactive artwork. Remember, people still think it’s cool to put on The Wizard of Oz and listen to Dark Side of the Moon. This is a device in your home that’s been waiting for actual access to expressive art for far, far too long.
I Want My Android TV
Speaking as someone who’s spent time developing for Android on the phone, part of what’s promising about this is that, unlike the limited phone handset capabilities, Google appears to be adding additional functionality as they move to the set-top box.
Input: Android phones will work as remotes. I think there should be nothing stopping app and browser solutions for other handsets (cough, iPhone), too. But more importantly, USB host mode is likely to be standard, in order to support standard QWERTY keyboard options. (QWERTY gets a definite shout out on Engadget.) Some Android phones have USB Host Mode – my Droid is one example – but you need it to be standard in order to develop for it. Incidentally, this also opens the possibility of buying a (hopefully cheap) Android TV box and throwing it into an art installation, with custom USB HID hardware as inputs from sensors, custom controllers, and the like.
Output: HDMI will be standard. VJing with a couple of Android TVs and HDMI? Sure, why not. But most importantly for the consumer audience, you’ll have a box that’s either connected to or built into their high-quality TV. A lot of us more advanced users get annoyed having to plug our computer into our TV, balancing the laptop on the edge of our furniture. Average consumers definitely don’t
A rich media stack. In order to support all this TV goodness, video and media APIs are likely to get some love and attention.
Developer support, Market. Google has promised an SDK for TV apps by early 2011. And consider the difference between the Android SDK and Microsoft’s XNA for Xbox. Microsoft’s XNA doesn’t allow Internet connectivity, and requires that you program in C# on Windows. Once you’re done, you have an audience of gamers; experimental entries have fared relatively poorly. With Android, your audience is anyone with a TV, and development is fully open source, in Java, on any OS. (Processing should work with Google TV, too, thanks to an excellent port of Processing to Android.)
Why it won’t fail: Two words – word one, Google; word two, partners. Google isn’t typically thought of as a content player, but they do have this little thing called YouTube. Brand recognition proved a huge boost to Android, even though Google’s brand was barely mentioned. On the TV, it could woo consumers in a way that Apple (more associated in the general public with cool gadgets) didn’t with Apple TV. The presence of some heavy-hitting TV partners means that Google TV will be in a lot of hardware, just as with the Android phone.
If Google were the only player, that’d be bad. But they’re not. MeeGo, the merged successor to Nokia’s Maemo and Intel’s Moblin, looks tasty, as well. In the long term, it might be easier to approach for developers, because it doesn’t stray as far as Android does from standard Linux. (Not a fan of Linux? Take the word “Linux,” and substitute “standard cross-platform tools,” because the multimedia goodness in Linux also exists on Windows and Mac – viva open source.)
MeeGo’s charter is broad, covering basically … well, everything. Cars? Phones? Sure! And it’s not clear yet that MeeGo will see much adoption beyond its primary strength at the moment, netbooks. But connected TVs are on the roadmap. One reason to be optimistic is that the underlying technologies should do very well on the TV — maybe more so than data-centric, not-always-media-savvy, often-non-standard Android.
The architecture is a fairly big graph, but look closer, and to developers it’ll look very, very familiar. MeeGo’s kernel is the Linux kernel, and atop that are a set of well-known, tried-and-true system services that work with standard hardware. In some ways, it says a lot about Linux itself that MeeGo has a lot in common with Android.
For multimedia, though, it’s especially nice to see some old friends:
- GStreamer for video, media, camera access
- PulseAudio as the audio API. (No, don’t groan, Linux folks. PulseAudio actually works well for these applications, and after a rough start, it’s now a mature, working, high-level API for sound.)
- OpenGL, OpenGL ES, Clutter (the lovely 3D, Python API)
Amusingly enough, the architecture of Palm’s WebOS is very similar, so you could have a very close experience – and perhaps easily port apps – if HP decided to jump in with their acquisition.
Now, I’m not a naive child or Linux fanboy. All of this is meaningless without devices. The question is whether someone picks up this architecture and builds a usable, successful product for your TV.
I think Google, paradoxically, might help with that. Much as everyone loves Google and loves the power of their brand, they’re also (rightfully) a little scared about Google’s power in the marketplace. So my prediction is this: watch for some TV and electronics makers to hedge their bets against Google by simultaneously investing in something else, with MeeGo an easy, cheap, workable alternative solution.
Furthermore, because Intel is focusing on making app stores for netbooks, developers could get a similar, one-click deployment solution for tablets and TVs, just as you will presumably get with the Google Market on Android phones, tablets, and TVs. People get it: consumers are more likely to buy or download apps if they don’t have to hunt for a place to find and install them.
Which brings us to…
Business, distribution models
In the case of both Android and MeeGo, you’re likely to have options – far more than on previous TV and game solutions, but even more than current mobiles.
You’ll likely be able to make both browser-based and cross-platform traditional apps. Google also announced that they’d add a store to their Chrome browser, meaning a single Web-based app could be purchased or downloaded free on a computer browser, a netbook, an Android or Chrome OS tablet, and Google TV. (Likely left out here is the phone browser, but those tend not to perform as well – yet, at least. But Google TV will get the full Chrome browser, unlike the handsets.)
Both MeeGo and Google TV will have their own stores, and they’re likely to be pretty open once they get rolling.
Artists may give away apps. They may go the open source route, using TVs as a new place to show off the results, while on the Web they share and modify code with friends. A student, for instance, could work up a brilliant class project, and then have it blow up on TVs worldwide. The “free” model is likely to be appealing even for those wanting to pay their rent, because it could become a fantastic way to court paid gigs with brands and advertisers.
Ad-supported apps are likely to be popular, too, especially given the possibilities of TV-style experiences. Absolut Visualist, anyone?
But with prices low, and TVs set up with your credit card, impulse buys for creative, experimental games and immersive experiences won’t be so unlikely, either. Show of hands: how many readers here would gladly spend a couple of bucks to chill out for a part of an evening with an immersive experience from your favorite artist?
The impact on music is promising, too. People have complained, rightfully so, that listeners don’t sit down and really listen to an album. But the couch is the place, architecturally, where we sit down and shut off our brains and Internet distractions to relax. I remember the first time I saw silly, 90s-style MP3 visualizations. My friends and I would just bliss out with the things and lose time. With smarter, less dated visualizations, it’s not hard to imagine people doing that with music. And since a lot of artists increasingly have visual ideas they want to express, that could be a healthy trend.
Of course, it is easy to be over-optimistic and get burned. Jobs I think is serious and honest when he talks about the toughness of this market. Apple TV clearly wasn’t the success Apple and Apple watchers thought it would be, and the same forces at work could kill these ideas, too. Nor is it clear that people other than, um, those who read this site really want this kind of software. But then, those kind of challenges are at least interesting challenges. And there is potential to watch.
We likely have some time, too, with the products ship dates months away and any real possibility of using the platform for distribution more in 2011 than 2010.
That’s okay. In the meantime, I can catch up on some TV.