When TiVo co-founders Jim Barton and Mike Ramsay reunited a couple of years ago to come up with a new venture (Barton left TiVo in 2012, while Ramsay left almost seven years ago), they knew internet video was the next big frontier they wanted to conquer. To their dismay, they found it to be a mess. "There are all these different sources of video, and its search is just a mess," says Ramsay in an interview with us. They also discovered that the social aspect of recommendation and sharing doesn't seem to be as prevalent for videos as it is with music services like Spotify and Rdio.
After some trial and error, the two finally came up with the idea of QPlay, a streaming-video service that launches today. According to Ramsay, the driving force behind QPlay is entirely focused on making sure there's always content you want to watch. At the core of QPlay are "Qs," which is the company's term for personalized video streams. Think of them as playlists, but ones that you curate and share with friends. You can create these fancified queues with videos from a variety of sources such as Vimeo, YouTube, Vine, Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. It's not just limited to adding individual videos either; for example with YouTube, you can create a Q of just your channel subscriptions, and that Q will update automatically each time there's new content. Right now, you can add videos to your Q via a browser bookmarklet, though there might be additional ways to do so in the future.
QPlay TV adapter hands-on
QPlay press shots
But that's only one piece of the puzzle. QPlay itself is composed of three parts: the cloud service that hosts the Qs, an iPad app and an optional TV adapter. As QPlay does not have a web interface at launch, the app is absolutely integral to the service. Aside from watching your own curated Qs on the app, it also offers a set of Qs that are curated by the service itself. These Q categories include News, Sports, Comedy, Photography, Popular (what's trending on the service) and What's New, which should be self-explanatory. These particular collections are completely automated and cobbled together from sources such as CNN, MSNBC, Al-Jazeera and CBS. As these categories are automated, the Qs are theoretically infinite -- they're constantly updated with the latest videos.
The real value of the iPad app, however, is the other key idea behind QPlay: social. With the app, not only can you share your curated Qs (either with the public or just your friends), but you can also discover the handpicked selections of others. You can either select one from your friends, or choose one from the public at large. Simply enter a keyword like "Winter Olympics" or "Stand-up comedy" to find appropriate Qs that others have curated. If you like them, you can drag and drop those Qs right into your own feed so you'll always know when they're updated. If only one video in a lineup strikes your fancy, just drag that single clip into a Q of your own.
"These Qs are more sophisticated than a playlist," says Ramsay. "They can be curated for a specific need, and can be overlaid on anything. The videos can come from anywhere, be assembled by a person or a machine ... We're essentially letting you assemble your own TV network on the fly."
The third and final component is the tiny TV adapter teased late last year. No larger than a deck of cards, the adapter lets you stream whatever it is on the iPad app over to your television. Simply plug it into a power source, hook it up to your TV via an HDMI cable, set it up over WiFi to recognize your iPad and away you go. In TV mode, the slate acts solely as a second-screen remote. As the Qs and video content are stored in the cloud, you can even shut down your iPad and the stream will continue to be played on your television, so there's no fear of draining your tablet's battery.
And that's not all. At a private meeting in San Francisco, Ramsay gave us a sneak peek at a Netflix application that they're beta-testing. Yes, you read that right: Netflix. He did a keyword search for "The Hunt for Red October" on the app, and, lo and behold, a result came up with a Netflix logo beside it. He tapped it, and after a few seconds of buffering, the movie came up on the TV. This is what Ramsay calls a premium service, and it's one of many that are in the works -- he name-dropped Hulu and HBO Go as other possibilities. Theoretically, you could incorporate these subscription videos into your Q as well. Video resolution is capped at 1080p for the time being, while the bitrate varies by the source.
Further, the company says it doesn't need any special relationships with these providers since its architecture uses the same access to metadata as other apps in the wild. "We have the ability to scale this as far as we need to go," he says. With both the Qs and the premium providers, the goal is that the end user no longer needs to find the source of what they want to watch. Just as with TiVo, they can just search for it in QPlay, and it'll be there.
The road to QPlay's launch has been a long one. On the software side, the team had to figure out how to automatically curate queues. Going out to different sources, placing the newest videos in front of the queue and finding just which social sources to trust has been challenging. The hardware side was even more of an issue. Ramsay didn't want to get into hardware initially, but after fact-finding missions at Google and other set-top providers, they couldn't find anything that did what they wanted.
"We concluded we needed something that would work particularly with our Qs," Ramsay says. "You see, the TV adapter is aware of the Q; the tablet is aware of the Q; and they're kept in sync with our cloud service -- there's no other device out there that works with queues like we do ... We also wanted the videos to play across multiple applications. It was a thing that nobody else did, that we had to invent on our own." The end result is a TV adapter whose WiFi design and antenna placement is tailored specifically to the company's needs. For example, it's made so that the device needs to be placed in front of the TV for the best possible reception.
All that said, it's still early days yet for QPlay. In addition to the premium services mentioned earlier, it wants to let you upload home videos eventually. Even live events are on the feature wish list, which would certainly make QPlay stand out among the competition. Until then, though, the outfit needs to see if it can muster enough support to grow.
That's why, as part of its launch, QPlay is offering the iPad app and the TV adapter in an introductory bundle that costs $49, which is being sold immediately on the company's website on a limited, first-come, first-served basis. The app by itself is free. If you feel like being an early adopter and want to take a chance on a young startup like QPlay, go ahead and hit the source link, or take a quick tour of it with the video demo below. Who knows, this might be a viable alternative to those who think the Chromecast is just a touch too simple.