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Ins and Outs: Does YouTube fit on the boob tube?

Ins and Outs: Does YouTube fit on the boob tube?
Jeremy Toeman
Jeremy Toeman|July 18, 2007 4:08 PM
Jeremy Toeman contributes Ins and Outs, an opinion column on entertainment technology:

With an estimated 100 million YouTube videos watched per day (not to mention the dozens of other similar sites like Revver, Brightcove, Blip.tv, etc.), the debate about internet video as a viable means of delivering content is effectively over. In fact, even as YouTube was still in a major growth phase, companies like Verizon were quickly forming deals to get the content onto mobile phones, while software companies like Orb and TVersity created means for bringing it to the TV set (via an Xbox or other intermediaries). While there is an ever-increasing list of methods to get YouTube off of, well, YouTube, one thing that more companies and consumers are beginning to ask is how YouTube content can be delivered to these other new platforms.

Back in the late 1990s, there was a common understanding of the concept of "lean-forward" and "lean-back" activities. At the desk / PC, one leans forward, uses the mouse and keyboard, and has a very interactive session. Whereas at the TV, one leans back (presumably on one's couch), uses their remote control, and has an extremely passive experience. You may also have heard the terms "2-foot" and "10-foot" user experiences, also reflecting the at-PC versus at-TV interaction models. For years I've been preaching the virtues of lean-forward / lean-backward product design theory to consumer electronics and gadget-makers. Guess what? It looks like the theory's a little flawed.

Let's look at it again. The lean-forward part basically states that people won't want to use their PCs as video playback devices. Right. Add up your YouTube users plus DVD watchers on airplanes plus all the personal video people are creating plus webcam use, and it's pretty safe to say that we're all watching a heck of a lot of video on our PCs. Now, if we're talking about watching Lord of the Rings in high-definition on a 50-inch Pioneer Elite plasma versus watching it on my 14-inch Vaio laptop, there's no debate about which one's a "better" experience. But the bottom line is the PC has proven itself as a perfectly acceptable entertainment device, shocker of shockers.

Regarding the lean-back or "10-foot" interface, the implication is that consumers, for the most part, seek a very passive entertainment experience in the living room. But as we well know, tens of millions of DVRs, 10+ million Xbox 360s, and countless legions of interactive set-top boxes deployed in homes today seem to imply that the average couch potato is probably comfortable with a few more features than some might think. And getting a YouTube video onto the big screen is an increasingly simple and straight-forward affair. Here are just a few methods:
  • "The Brute Force" - Hook up a laptop or a media center PC directly to your TV set, use a wireless mouse or remote control.
  • "The Gamer Hack" – Download TVersity (http://www.tversity.com/home), stream it to your Xbox 360.
  • "The l33t Gam3r Hax()r" – XBMC. You know it or you don't.
  • "The Magic Wand" – Using the Opera browser on a Wii allows you to navigate straight to YouTube.
  • "The Gadgetnerd Geekophile" – The Digital Entertainer from Netgear includes built-in YouTube streaming (among other things).
  • "The Big Apple" - Buy an Apple TV. (iPhones will cut the mustard if you're out and about, too.)
Excepting the Apple TV, not one of these solutions is what you might call elegant -- but they all work, and they all run into the same problem. Simply put, in terms of getting the entertainment experience you want, watching YouTube on a widescreen plasma TV is about as enjoyable as listening to a digitally remastered Mozart performance in a Honda Civic going about 85mph.

Let's get it out of the way first: the picture quality is beyond terrible. You don't need to be some purist to find the video extremely blurry, pixilated, and practically unwatchable. But forget that for a moment, let's just assume that with increasing bandwidth and expanding storage, the video quality of the internet video service of your choosing will improve in the short term. The real problem with "lean-back YouTube" isn't just the overwhelming amount of content. It's one thing to browse a list of shows you decided to TiVo and choose something every 22 or 44 minutes (or 30 / 60 minutes if you actually watch the commercials), but it's just not very fun to find and select new videos from an infinitely large heap of content once every 3 - 10 minutes. In some ways it's almost Sisyphean.

When you're at the PC you hardly notice, probably because you are used to clicking a lot. What's more, when you're not getting bombarded with links your friends want to show you, it's still much more fun to rapidly search or browse through all the content. If "skateboarded falling down stairs" doesn't amuse you then "high-speed car wreck on ice" certainly will. And it's limitless. But on the couch, this browsing around gets tedious quickly. Some may argue it's the content itself, but we can look as far back as the 90s and recall "4-year-old hitting daddy in the crotch" or "groom accidentally ripping bride's wedding dress" on America's Funniest Home Videos. We like to watch short, user generated content; you might even call it the true birth of reality TV. But we like it pre-programmed.

Which is why it only makes sense that the best method for making short form / long tail / user generated content acceptably enjoyable on a non-novelty level (and by a wide audience) is through programmed services. It might be something as easy as setting "TV subscriptions" to view a river of videos based on tags, categories, channels, or users, or using pre-programmed offerings, such as TiVoCasts's short-form content, VH1's clips, and Verizon's walled-garden YouTube integration. But even then the problem is that very few people share the same interests. Just because I got a laugh out of "box in a box" doesn't mean you will too. It's a little ironic that one of the next frontiers of information and access challenges is the TV, a device that's comfortably sat in our living rooms for half a century.

Still, technology is creating new entertainment options for us all the time, and while some quickly find a space in our home, not all make a lot of sense. It's been almost a decade since the second wave of interactive TV services launched, all of which subsequently failed. The early 2000s saw a rush of content providers either building boxes (á la Moviebeam) or creating new services (á la Movielink), with little or no success. Now we have some things we didn't then: extremely fast pipes, powerful set-top boxes and connected devices, high penetration of home networking, and very efficient video decoding technologies. The landscape for delivering interactive and customized content experience is set, it's up to the next generation of content and technology companies to deliver. Maybe then I will finally get to see "kid falling off bike into pond" in the brilliant, high definition, on-demand, customizable, interactive experience I've always wanted. In the meantime, I'll leave my YouTube in my laptop's browser where it belongs.
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