Apple’s multi-platform entertainment system

Apple’s multi-platform entertainment system

Products like Apple TV, Google TV and Boxee are bringing multi-platform user experiences – where several digital touchpoints cmbine to form a single service – into the home. The role of mobile devices and wireless networks in these scenarios, and the implications for user experience designers, is a key focus for MEX, featuring extensively in our December 2009 and May 2010 Manifestos. It is also at the heart of several MEX Pathways at the next MEX event in London on 30 Nov – 01 Dec.

I’ve been looking at Apple TV recently and wanted to share a few very early thoughts on the experience, with particular emphasis on how the touchpoints of mobile, TV and PC combine:

Apple TV iPhone library discovery

  • The ‘Remote’ application, available for free on the iOS App Store for iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch sits at the intersection of the PC and TV. Alongside the supplied standalone remote, it is likely to be the customers’ main control mechanism for Apple TV. It installs through the App Store as normal and then uses Wifi to automatically ‘find’ and establish a connection to the Apple TV device over the network.
  • The application has 2 distinct usage modes. They are best described as ‘discovery’ and ‘control’.
    • Apple TV iPad ‘Discovery’ mode
      ‘Discovery’ provides an interface similar to iTunes on the PC, allowing users to navigate the playlists and search for specific content in their iTunes libraries. It is an immersive interface and requires significant visual attention. Users’ eyes focus on the screen of the mobile device, not the TV screen.
    • Apple TV iPad ‘Control’ mode
      The ‘Control’ interface is different. It turns the screen of the iOS mobile device into a touchpad and encourages the user to navigate with gestures while focusing their attention on the TV screen. It incorporates some haptic feedback, vibrating iPhone devices to confirm some actions – this is the first time I have seen Apple using haptics in this way on a mobile device.
  • The iPad, with is larger screen size, was more effective than the iPhone in both the ‘Discovery’ and ‘Control’ scenarios. The increased display area allows more information to be shown when exploring content on the mobile device, providing an experience comparable to iTunes on a PC; when used in control mode, the larger size of the virtual touchpad is more forgiving of mistakes.
  • One of the most significant multi-platform advantages is the ability to abstract text input to the on-screen keyboard of the iOS mobile device. Without this, the only way to search for content on Apple TV is to use the simple standalone controller, with its 5 way d-pad, to control a virtual keyboard display on the TV. Those with large iTunes libraries will find it especially helpful to be able to use the convenient on-screen QWERTY of their iOS mobile device for these functions.
  • Response times over a mixture of wired ethernet and Wifi were instant. There was no difference between controlling the Apple TV from the Remote app on an iOS mobile device or the standalone infrared controller. The lack of latency was important in making it feel natural.
  • The shared design language and shared technical underpinnings of iOS make it feel like an integrated system rather than a set of loosely connected modules. The speed also helps with this.
  • Apple has missed a natural opportunity to allow the initial configuration of the Apple TV box to be conducted from a linked PC or mobile device. Instead, set-up is performed using the Apple remote and on-screen keyboard. Entering Wi-Fi passwords and Apple IDs through on-screen QWERTY and a remote control with nothing but a 5-way D-Pad is not fun. This could be improved by allowing Apple TV to be pre-configured from a PC or iOS mobile device.
  • The remote is also compatible with Apple computers. While the concept of a universal remote is logical, it does lead to some unexpected results. As I was configuring Apple TV, with my Macbook open next to me, the remote was sending instructions to both, so that every time I used the remote to interact with the TV, my Macbook did something too. It took me a few minutes to understand what was going on and then I ended up having to search through Apple’s support forums to understand how to de-activate remote sensing on my Macbook. It was a reminder that universal compatibility within multi-platform systems can be both a positive and a negative.

I hope to share more thoughts as I spend more time with the Apple system and similar products. My overall feeling is that it represents a positive customer experience at this stage, but there have been also been a few errors and inconsistencies which I plan to investigate further.

Multi-platform experiences will also feature strongly at MEX in London on 30 Nov – 01 Dec, where Pathway #2 is entitled: ‘Research the implications of supporting more than one screen from a single device‘. If you’re working in this area, I’d encourage you to participate at the MEX event and get involved in the process.

I’d love to hear from MEX readers about their own experiences with Apple TV or similar multi-platform entertainment products. Feel free to post comments to the blog, email or Twitter.

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