In the early eighties Apple introduced the ‘Lisa’, a personal computer that, as well as a graphical user interface, incorporated a mouse. Mouse technology (of the computer variety) can actually trace its roots back to 1963 but the Lisa was the first widely available implementation. The mouse revolutionised personal computer use, opened the door to a range of functionality that is impossible to replicate on a keyboard and has been an incredibly long lasting interface technology. It is little changed from the initial concept and still highly effective.
The first practical television equivalent of the mouse, the remote control, appeared in the fifties. Like the mouse, it revolutionised the interface, opened to door to new functionality, has changed little and it has been even longer lasting. Unfortunately that’s where the parallels end, and they end because television just doesn’t look like television used to.
The primary original requirement for the remote control was to navigate through maybe five channels and the interaction requirements didn’t need to extend much beyond switching the set on or off and adjusting the volume. Today we need the remote control to navigate through perhaps a 100 or more broadcast channels and 1000 VoD titles, and to operate ‘catch up’ and WebTV platforms, a digital record and playback subsystem and perhaps some basic games. It doesn’t manage any of it very well, no matter how many function specific buttons are provided – let’s face it, none of us knows what half of them do anyway! What’s worse is that the limitations of the traditional remote control are now holding back development of truly innovative TV based applications
We need a new approach and a little lateral thinking. The TV is now almost as complex as the PC and it needs its own ‘mouse’ but the TV isn’t a PC, it’s a lean back environment rather than lean forward – mice and the trackball derivatives don’t work. The fundamental principles of advanced user interface control do still apply though: the mouse puts users directly in touch with their computers and that’s what is required for the TV.
Look at the impact of Apple’s iPad. It uses direct touch very successfully to give users a highly intuitive interface to what is a powerful new information and entertainment device (does that sound like a TV).
A six foot long index finger and a touch screen television would solve the problem but without a rogue gene that isn’t going to happen any time soon. The alternative is to incorporate ‘remote touch’ interface technologies, a virtual finger stretch so that users can fully interact and even manipulate what is on screen without leaving the comfort of their sofas.
I will confess an interest. As general manager of uWand I’m closely involved in this rapidly evolving sector of the market. Our uWand technology is now being incorporated into a range of consumer devices to free users from the restrictions of a sixty year old technology.