My video cassette recorder finally stopped working last week. Even if I wanted to replace it, I’d have trouble doing so as Panasonic, one of the last remaining manufacturers, stopped VCR production earlier this year.
Few consumers will mourn the passing of the VCR. Apart from their infuriating habit of chewing tapes, VCRs were notoriously difficult to program. The common sight of the VCR clock display flashing “12:00” became a symbol for just how little thought the consumer electronics industry gave to usability.
Time-shift recording, originally promoted as the VCR’s “killer application”, was practiced by a small minority of tech-savvy users – those who had the time and patience to read the manual and keep the clock in sync.
For the rest of us, VCRs were used mainly to play rental tapes or to record a different channel while watching TV — uses which did not require any programming skills.
Fast forward to the present day, and the consumer electronics industry faces similar usability challenges with the latest generation of all-singing, all-dancing internet TVs, such as Samsung’s Smart TV, which arrived in Europe last month.
Modern TVs are already a lot “smarter” than their predecessors from the VCR era and offer a much greater range of functions and options.
But if you think navigating the menus on current-generation TVs is a frustrating task, then you are unlikely to take the time to explore the much broader possibilities offered by the new generation of internet TVs.
Samsung is clearly worried about this usability issue and so its new generation of Smart TVs has three additional user interfaces to supplement the push-button controls on the remote control.
First up, there’s a touch-sensitive tracker pad on the remote control, which let’s you move the onscreen cursor and select icons, just like using the track pad on a laptop.
Next, there’s camera-driven gesture control that lets you control the TV by making gestures with your arms — an interface popularized by the Microsoft Kinect. It can also recognize faces.
But the user interface that interests us most is the voice control. This is not the first time that TV manufacturers have sought to let consumers control their TV by speaking at it, but earlier attempts where little more than gimmicks.
Samsung’s voice control system, powered by Nuance’s ASR (automatic speech recognition) technology, seems to have been designed with the real world in mind and, according to the first reviews, works surprisingly well.
Consumers can use natural voice commands to change channels, search for content on the Web, access Samsung’s Smart Hub, and connect with friends and family via Skype. They can even turn on the TV by simply saying “Hi TV, power on.”
Wisely, Samsung has recognized that consumers are more likely to take to voice control if it can control devices apart from their Samsung Smart TV. For example, the universal remote control functionality, when set up along with the remote extender that comes with the TV, lets you change channels on a pay TV receiver box just by speaking the channel number.
According to this review, the Samsung Smart TV has no trouble with accents, handling male, female, child and even fairly heavy dialects with surprisingly little difficulty. Of course, the limited vocabulary of a TV means that the speech recognition engine is unlikely to have too many problems switching channels or accessing other commands.
But what is missing from the first generation of speech-enabled TVs is the context and intelligence that will allow TV users to communicate with their TV in a truly natural and unforced fashion.
Add true NLI (natural language interaction) capabilities to the existing voice control and we are presented with a much wider range of possibilities to use your voice to access websites and search engines while slumped on the sofa.
So when asked “what matches are on tonight?”, the TV of tomorrow will not only know that you mean football matches but will also know to list all the available sources to which you have access — pay TV, free-to-air TV and streaming internet services. Truly a couch potato’s dream!