One infamous encapsulation of slow technology progress is the aphorism, “we wanted flying cars but instead we got 140 characters”.

The idea being that instead of creating the world of the Jetsons, Silicon Valley’s technological wizardry has been devoted to sending short text bulletins and pretty pictures out to large, algorithmically-selected audiences.

And while progress in social/mobile software gets a bad rap—people like connecting with people—one huge part of everyday folks’ lives has remained largely untouched by technology for the last 75 years.

That’s right: TV.

The average American watches 4 hours per day of television, and yet our televisions and what we watch on them would not look unfamiliar to a time traveler from 1950.

The screens are bigger, the hardware is thinner, the colors are more colorful, and the shows are (occasionally) time-shifted, but otherwise TV is kind of the same! Scripted drama, sitcoms, adventure shows, etc. The biggest innovations in content have been reality, 24/7 news, and ESPN.

The lessons of the internet are completely lost on TV—content isn’t personalized, user-generated, interactive, skimmable, social, or intertwined with commerce.

On the Internet we have YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, Twitch, Snap, TikTok, and Clubhouse. Novel content formats seem to materialize each year. And yet TV has reaped very few of the gains of the Internet era.

In particularly, my belief is that the most important feature that television lacks today is interactivity, i.e. the ability for it to shift from a one-way broadcast medium into a two-way entertainment medium.

While TV today has limited interactivity via the remote control, still largely constrained to up-down-left-right, a new era is dawning on the horizon.

This era will be defined by a more flexible and intuitive interface than the remote: the human voice.

(2022: Voice → Revolutionary TV operating systems)

Voice is everything a remote control is not: always-available, flexible, natural, and emotional.

There’s no need to dig it out of the couch cushions or t-a-p-i-n-o-n-e-l-e-t-t-e-r-a-t-a-t-i-m-e.

Two year olds can use it, alongside 92 year olds. And there are few things more enjoyable than shouting out commands to an imaginary butler (see: JARVIS from Iron Man).

Practically every form of TV show in existence could be replicated and expanded upon with robust forms of voice interactivity. Imagine:

  • Interactive stories a la Netflix’s Bandersnatch where the audience controls the characters
  • Game shows turned into MMO variations of HQ Trivia
  • Talk shows taking live questions from the audience
  • New sports where fans influence players
  • Judge Judy with the viewers voting on the outcome

These ideas only scratch the surface. Every TikTok format and YouTube channel genre should and would have its own interactive variation on a voice controlled TV—dance competitions, memes, vlogs, unboxings, tech reviews, and gaming content would all have a place on a voice-controlled TV with infinite channels. The "long tail" of internet video, souped-up with interactive features like chat, polls, quizzes, and shopping, would begin to disrupt the hegemony of fixed linear television content formats.

Beyond video broadcasts, televisions with voice-controlled operating systems will revolutionize the gaming industry. Casual experiences that have struggled to succeed with console gamers, like bingo, Boggle, and blackjack, will be accessible to players who have historically struggled with the complexity and fast-twitch motor requirements of AAA games today (myself included!)

Perhaps most interesting is which new content formats will succeed on smaller voice-controlled devices with video screens—the “Echo Show” form factor, for lack of a better term.

(Where do these go that TVs don't?)

I mentioned in an earlier essay that “big screens are immersive, but small screens can go everywhere”. The kitchen and the bathroom seem like the obvious rooms where there are fewer TVs, but more Echo Shows. Will we see a surge in interactive cooking shows? Shower sing-a-longs? Live bedtime story readings? More illicit content? I have no idea, but the opportunities seem boundless.

These smaller devices also incorporate a key feature that TVs mostly lack—a camera. A camera is the hardware primitive necessary for a robust user-generated content ecosystem, as well as social networking. Once a majority of voice-controlled screened devices have cameras, the world will see a Cambrian explosion of user-generated content targeted to the home.

This new generation of home content will also be more “multiplayer”, in that it will be meant for more than one person to enjoy at once. While TikTok and YouTube can achieve insane levels of personalization based on a single viewer’s habits, interactive TV will need to appeal to multiple viewers at once (including parents and kids simultaneously). I expect we will see a resurgence of the more generic “family-friendly” content genres that play on network TV today.

So how far are we from this future becoming a reality? I suspect closer than many might think, maybe 1-3 years. Amazon’s Fire Cube and Echo Show devices already have most of the hardware necessary to make this a reality, and Google isn’t too far behind with its Chromecast and Nest Hub. Apple is certainly lagging, but it recently announced that HomePod can now control Apple TV, and I expect more news along these lines in the next 18 months.

The software isn’t quite as good as it needs to be, but it is verrrrrry close, and if we’ve learned anything over the last five decades, it’s that software platforms go from “not quite good enough” to “billions of users” much faster than one might think.[1]

“Interactive TV”, like most good internet ideas, went through a brief hype cycle in the 1990s and then fizzled out. But to paraphrase Marc Andreessen, there are no bad ideas in tech, just ideas that are too early.

Voice control is the skeleton key that will unlock ubiquitous interactive television. One-third of the average human attention span is going to be reallocated to new forms of entertainment over the next decade or two, and the ramifications will be dramatic.

Much of the heavy lifting to realize this future will be done by developers and creators like those at our company, Volley. We are excited for the challenge, and please let us know if you'd like to join :)