ybox walkthrough

July 31st, 2007 by tarikh

With any luck, we’re hoping the above video is the most succint and understandable explanation of the ybox yet. It’s a project that started as a hack and finished as a workshop, and describing it along the way has been interesting. There’s a large element of whimsy in the project (it’s in a candy tin afterall), so communicating that sense of play along with the more serious technical points has been a good challenge for us.

The first incarnation of the project was last September, and now that a little time has passed, I think I know how to share what I beleive is the coolest part of the project: we made a remotely configurable networked device. (I’ll have to write another post about the fact that we did this relatively cheaply and quickly).

What’s so cool about a remotely configured device? We here at Uncommon think there’s an interesting future ahead for the devices and technologies we use every day and we like hacking around these ideas–call it Embedded Systems, Ubiquitous Computing or Physical Computing (props to DanO and Tom).

Whatever the term, the aspect that excites us is the confluence of Hardware, Software and Networking. From this perspective, the ybox has a certain novelty because we’ve pulled the interactivity off of the remote and placed it (even more remotely) in a browser window with data stored on a server. Why is this cool? Because, if you’ve ever tried to use the remote that comes with your ‘on demand’ cable service, you know what a crappy experience you can have while trying to interact with your TV. From a geeked-out technical perspective, it was also really exciting to finally combine our disparate interests in microcontroller work with web programming.

We’re not claiming, by a longshot, that we’re the first folks to think about iTV. We do have a sense of history, folks (think Minitel, YORB, WebTV and Tivo too). We just think that it’s time for the ‘i’ part of that TV experience to be designed. I love the idea that when I sit down in front of the boob tube, I can relax. For me, interaction at that juncture should be limited to changing channels. As web TV proved, TV’s resolution is too low and wireless keyboards too clunky to really catch on in a mass consumer sense. Think about it another way–imagine if you had to correctly type the artist and song name into your cell phone every time you wanted to listen to a song on your iPod. Yuck. To me, the thing that works about the iPod is that the interaction is simple and the results are immediate.

In the case of the yBox we wanted to store that session data remotely, sort of creating ‘channel playlists’. In this case you pull interactivity for the ybox to another device that is good for this high level of interactivity–your computer with its high res screen, keyboard and mouse. This frees up the remote and the ybox to do one thing, cleanly, clearly and well. Notice the weather or stock channels for example. We’ve tweaked the design of these channels to display clearly on a low-res, NTSC screen in such a way that they can be read from across the room. We tried to make them iconic enough that non-english speakers or children could still understand them.

The ultimate killer app that we imagined was a flickr channel you could configure for your parents or grandparents. In this case, they never have to open a browser to see current pictures of their loved ones, yet they get to use an interface (TV and remote) they already have years of experience using. What’s more, you could buy it for them, configure it and mail it to them ready to go.

Anyway, we wanted to make really simple channels–we thought of the device as a piece of hardware to turn your TV into a dashboard widget. Instead of focusing on high, res full motion video, we chose to expose some other aspects of networking your TV set that could bring some utility to the old beast. We intentionally left the hardware and software for the device open so that motivated developers out there could get their hands dirty with some of these technologies and expose some functionality we hadn’t thought of.

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