MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. -- The Google TV sitting in this user experience lab can access years worth of programming. In addition to everything on cable, it connects to the libraries of Netflix, YouTube, and 100,000 movies and television shows available on Google Play.
"Great -- you have all this content," says Rishi Chandra, director of product management for Google TV. "Now, how do you find a way to watch it?"
Usability has been the primary question about Google TV since it launched in 2010. Early reviewers found Google's first take on connected TV to be frustrating, and an update last year met with. Confusing dialogue boxes, cryptic error messages, controllers with dozens of buttons -- there was plenty there to criticize.
Mario Queiroz, who runs Google TV, often tells employees that in the television business, you have to have a thick skin. The original device was so simple to use -- just press the power button and start watching -- that any connected television was bound to seem complicated by comparison.
And so, in characteristic Google fashion, engineers have continued to iterate on a platform they view as essential to the company's strategy of maintaining a strong presence on every connected screen in a person's life. While employees say they still see plenty of room for improvement, they also say Google TV is making rapid progress.
Today the company is rolling out an updated version of Google TV designed to make the product more useful in three ways: powerful voice search, a redesigned on-screen guide, and improved sharing from mobile devices to the big screen. The features will come first to LG televisions, and to other second-generation Google TV products "in the coming months," Google said. First-generation Google TV products will get the redesigned guide and easier YouTube sharing only.
We profiled the improved sharing feature, which enables one-tap streaming from smartphones and tablets to Google TV,. After getting briefed on that subject, we turned our attention to Google TV's new efforts at search and discovery.
"We're moving from a world of limited choice to unlimited choice," says Chandra, who joined Google in 2006 as a product manager for Google Apps. "What we've tried to think through is, how do you bridge that? How do you enable, in a really easy way, the ability to access all this great content that's out there?"
Speaking of change
Google started with perhaps its greatest advantage in the connected-TV game: search. The company that made searching the Internet manageable now brings its same search technology to Google TV, using the powerful voice recognition and natural language processing found in its mobile and desktop apps. Using a microphone concealed inside the LG television remote, Chandra used his voice to easily navigate a wide world of programming. Say "ESPN" and the TV changes channel (no more remembering a list of three-digit channel numbers). Say "30 Rock" and you see a menu of ways to watch: upcoming episodes on cable TV, old episodes on Netflix, episodes available for purchase through Amazon -- they're all there, neatly organized, just a click or two away.
But that isn't the stuff that gets the team excited. The more interesting search features in the new Google TV come when you pair natural language processing with Google's Knowledge Graph -- its database of the connections between hundreds of millions of people, places, and things -- and use it to deliver better results.
Recently, Chandra was trying to think of the Christopher Nolan movie that starred Christian Bale before the duo worked together on "The Dark Knight" trilogy. He activated the microphone and said "Movie with Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale." Google TV pulled up the "The Dark Knight" movies, along with the film Chandra was looking for -- "The Prestige."
Similarly, voice search can group items together in useful ways. Chandra ran a voice search for "Pixar movies" and Google TV pulled them all up, from "Toy Story" to "Brave."
"In this case, 'Pixar movies' is not just a text search -- we're actually understanding the these movies are made by Pixar," Chandra said.
It's a powerful, differentiating feature for Google TV, and one likely to improve as Google builds out its Knowledge Graph.
Ready for PrimeTime
But voice search only takes Google so far. The company also wanted to improve its onscreen guide. Starting today, it has renamed it PrimeTime, and designed it to learn users' preferences over time and show them a dynamic, updated list of suggested programming whenever they pull up the guide. Favorite channels, TV shows you recently watched, and shows enjoyed by other people who share your preferences will all pop up in the redesigned guide.
The team also re-thought the way people experience movies on television.
"The problem with movies on TV is you're always in the middle of them," Chandra says.
He pulls up "The Wrestler" playing on a cable channel, already a ways into the movie. Then he brings up PrimeTime, and it shows him a list of places where he can see the movie on demand, either on a service like Netflix or as a rental from Google Play or Amazon. Or if you've already seen "The Wrestler," it will show you movies that other people who like that movie tend to enjoy.
It's a key difference between Google TV and, say, Apple TV, which provides access to online content but has yet to connect to live programming.
"We're trying to make not just a separate experience from live TV -- we're trying to build an experience on top of live TV," Chandra says. "We can bring Google smartness even to your traditional TV watching experience."
But will it resonate?
Individually, none of the new features seem likely to attract new Google TV users by the millions. But taken together, they show a company determined to get television right. These are hardly early days in connected TV -- WebTV dates to the mid-'90s -- but we may be in the early days of widespread consumer adoption. Between Apple, Google, Microsoft, Sony, Nintendo, and Roku, there have never been more large electronics companies pouring resources into a strategy for living-room domination.
Google's latest moves show a willingness to listen to consumers' frustration and work to build a better TV. Now it just has to hope that consumers reward its effort by starting to pick its version over its competitors.