We are living in a golden age of television. From Mad Men to Louie,, cable programming is better than ever. Netflix and Amazon, even YouTube, are teeming with content. And sometimes the broadcast networks even put on a good show.
But who can keep track of it all—let alone figure out how to watch it in one place? Plus, the “jungle of remote controls,” as Gilles BianRosa, calls it, is of little help. Which is why the BitTorrent vet has teamed up with designer Yves Béhar to create Fan TV.
Their just announced set-top box and remote control will be available later this year. They aim to bring everything on TV (more on the challenge of that below) together in one place: the palm of your hand. It’s all meant as a replacement for your current DVR, set-top box, and streaming devices. In fact, a recent demonstration of Fan TV for Co.Create revealed an Apple-like simplicity of design that, frankly, outshines the current iteration of Apple TV (though we have to imagine Apple has its own version of this in the works). The remote is button-free and the on-screen interface has neither apps nor grids. As BianRosa says, “Once you’ve gotten past 30 channels, a grid is no longer useful.” True that.
Want to channel surf? Swipe your finger across the small remote to flip through a virtual wheel of channel icons. A station takes a moment to load since the DVR is cloud-based rather than in a hard drive. Want to find a particular movie? Scroll quickly through the alphabet to key in a title.
At our demo, BianRosa came upon the 2005 movie The Interpreter, starting Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn, and used it to show what Fan TV can do. There was a list of actors in it; you can click through to see all their credits and then find those movies. There were photos, trailers—all part of Fan TVs own database, built in the last two years.
And then BianRosa clicked to find the movie’s soundtrack. “The Interpreter,” an album by indie rocker Rhett Miller came up. Oops. So there are limitations and glitches. Not only that, BianRosa and his team have yet to announce which companies they have partnered with. The whole service is predicated on ongoing deals with Netflix, Hulu, Spotify (for that soundtrack), and many others. And then there are the cable and satellite companies. If they don’t sign deals with Time Warner Cable, Comcast, and DirecTV, they’re dead in the water.
But let’s assume all that will happen by the time Fan TV debuts. The Watch List you have been building on Fanhattan will be your home base on Fan TV, in much the way your Queue is on Netflix. You can input a movie even as it comes out in theaters and as soon it’s available via VOD or Amazon Prime, whatever, Fan TV will alert you.
Naturally, there’s a social element. You can connect to friends’ Watch Lists and share tastes. You can also have public and private lists, in case you don’t want people to know that you can’t resist vampire movies.
“It’s immersive and passive at the same time,” explains BianRosa as he leans back in a lounge chair. But he is hardly resting. This set-top box was the goal when the French-born Silicon Valley exec started the company more than two years ago. Along the way, Apple introduced the iPad, and BianRosa realized the tablet was the perfect playground for an app where users can search for any movie or TV show wherever it is: streaming, download, in theaters. But Fanhattan was missing one key element: actually watching it. Fan TV attempts to resolve that.
In a certain way, Fan TV is analogous to what Netflix was when it began 16 years ago—a place to aggregate all your favorite content in one place. But the notion that Netflix had all of your content wasn’t quite true; the service had licensing limitations so, ultimately, it had to get into the content-creation business. BianRosa claims that Fan TV has no designs on creating content. He suggests that Kayak (for airline reservations) and Mint (for personal finance) are more appropriate parallels. And he argues that Netflix and others will want to make deals with Fan TV to assure their content remains accessible.
Still, whatever Fan TV achieves, it likely won’t make a dent in resolving the greatest ongoing conflict to afflict TV viewers: Who controls the remote?