Thursday, December 30, 2010

Menu–>Extras->App Dashboard !! LUSFiber Gets Apps!

LUS Fiber has apps for your TV. (But they've yet to announce they've got 'em.) Right now you can get a look at three of them: Weather, Messages, and News and the stub of links to on-screen Caller ID and Email. Yup, eat your hearts out Cox, LUS customers got apps. Now they're not much when compared with some of your smartphone apps but they are a definite start and their provenance as iPhone-style apps is apparent. They'll get better and more interesting with time just like smartphone apps did. Whether the day will come when apps are as important on TV screens as they are on smartphone screens is an open question. But having them this early puts LUS Fiber and Lafayette out on the cutting edge. There's a mobile phone developers community in Lafayette; I wonder if they will get involved?
LUS Weather App (click to enlarge)

The weather app is an obvious example of a useful app. Wasn't "weather" on your first smartphone homescreen? It pops up as a vertical Iphone-like panel on left side of your screen. Simple...and you can go in and change the location if you really want to. (It's cold and rainy in Vancouver, for those who want to know.) The weather app appears over the ongoing show as a translucent overlay...the show underneath goes on.

This all works because the that little Motorola set top box from LUS is really a small computer. It can be programmed to do pretty much anything that a not-too-powerful media computer or smartphone can do. The real issue is having the software to make this potential real. In our case this is Microsoft's MediaRoom, the new UI/media manager that LUS brought onboard relatively recently. One of the big advantages of going with MediaRoom is that it brings along the entire MS ecosystem (one of its chief disadvantages too...). So apps developed by Microsoft, Alcatel-Lucent, or any third-party producer targeting AT&T or numerous national telecoms across the world that use MediaRoom will be easily deployed in Lafayette—we won't have to reinvent the wheel. (This also means that cool apps developed for LUS will have a world-wide market.) Similarly, the hooks for smartphone apps and computer-based interaction are also well-developed. I'm looking forward to scheduling online and using my smartphone as a universal remote.

There are those who question whether folks need or want apps on their TV. There were folks who felt the same about apps on a phone. (Wasn't that a truly weird and silly idea only 5 years ago? How quickly perceptions change.) The apps that have been successful on the smartphone were aimed at individual users. It will be very interesting to see what will be successful on the more social device that a TV screen is in many homes.

How To:
So how do you get to see these app and how are they used?

The Apps Dashboard
Well the first thing to do is to take a quick journey to your "Menu" function. If your set top box has updated recently you'll see something new: an "Extras" function on the bar across the top. (If you're missing it go to settings and restart your machine; that'll bring up the new software.) Select "Extras" and you'll see a new button appear: "App Dashboard." Click on that and up comes your new selection bar on the bottom of the screen over whatever you were watching. From there you can select and activate Weather, News, or Messages.

You might ask yourself why the "Extras" selection only shows an "Apps Dashboard" function; wouldn't it have been easier and more efficient to just access your apps by calling it that and make it a one click, easy-as-pie function? Why make everyone click twice? Well, almost certainly because they are thinking about other things to put below "Apps Dashboard" in the Extras section. And there is a clue hidden elsewhere in the system.

Wait,There's more!
The Main Interactive Menu...not yet rebranded
You can access the apps dashboard in another way. I discovered that if you hit the "interactive" button on your LUS Motorola remote you'll gain access to another screen that has an "Apps Dashboard" button. But it also has other, currently inaccessible, functions: A "PIN Application," " Caller ID," "Email," and the mysterious " Widi." The Apps Dashboard button works, and for those that are using the supplied remote it's probably an easier way to get there than traversing the menu system.

The "PIN Application" is ugly and it apparently only exists to allow you to enter your PIN and validate who you are. That's likely to be there for the next two slots; you'd likely need to validate yourself via your account identity to start up Caller ID and surely would need it to enter Email.

The Widi is more mysterious but I suspect that it stands in for a technology called WiDi for WiFi Direct, which is a standard promulgated by the wifi alliance. The technology allows you to "throw" your computer screen onto the TV, and the hardware is pretty widely available. (See an explanitory video.) So you could share YouTube videos, show your photos, or watch Netflix on the TV screen via your computer wirelessly. The full standard would let you you replicate your computer screen to the TV, use the TV as a second monitor displaying its own content, or simply extend the computer screen so that the active area spanned both screens. The advantage of having WiDi available on your set top box is that 1) you wouldn't need to put yet another $110+ dollar box in your stack, a wifi dongle would suffice and 2) conceivably the App could be made multi-functional...there are more than one set of wireless standards out there.

So there you have it. Apps on your TV here in Lafayette.


Tip o' the hat to Raymond Camden over at LafayetteTech who first noticed the new functions and posted it to the board...LafayetteTech is a great place to hang out; if you're at all techy check it out and join.

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