An awful lot has changed about TV since TiVo ushered in the age of the DVR in 1999. Back then, watching television was something you did on a television, and you got your programming via cable, satellite or bunny ears. If you wondered what other people were watching, you asked them. (Probably in person.) And the only practical way to share a favorite show was to dub it onto a VHS tape.
Fast forward to 2012. That’s when TiVo’s founders Mike Ramsay and Jim Barton began working on a new idea together, one designed for the modern era of TV watching. It’s called Qplay, and they’re announcing it today. Ramsay recently gave me a sneak peek.
Like their previous collaboration, Qplay involves a box that plugs into a TV — a tiny $49 box this time, looking a bit like a skinny USB hard drive — and a service that helps you find stuff to watch. But instead of tapping broadcast TV, Qplay sifts through free videos available on the Internet, using social cues to find specific videos. And rather than giving you anything akin to TiVo’s iconic, peanut-shaped remote control, it lets you control your experience using an iPad app. You can watch videos on either the TV or the tablet.
Qplay aims to provide you with videos of interest without ever forcing you to hunt down a specific video. It organizes them into something it calls a Q — a continuous stream of items on a particular theme, which it strings together no matter where it found them. As Flipboard does with text content, Qplay gets some of these feeds by scanning Twitter accounts: For instance, there’s a Q made up of all the videos The Verge has tweeted, presumably making for good watching for tech enthusiasts. As you watch videos and tap the Like icon, the app uses that feedback to help it refine what it shows you.
If you want to get more involved with a Q rather than just sitting back, you can jump around from video to video. You can also curate your own Qs with videos of your choosing, then publish them so that your friends or random strangers can watch what you watch. This too reminded me of Flipboard and its magazine-creation feature. “Think of it as creating your own TV network,” Ramsay says.
Like Google‘s Chromecast, the Qplay TV adapter runs Android and sports a built-in Wi-Fi connection. Once you’ve selected a Q or a specific clip on the iPad, the adapter can grab video directly off the Internet. That sidesteps any performance issues that would arise if the iPad served as middleman, and lets you use other apps on the tablet without interfering with the video stream.
Among the video repositories Qplay can access are YouTube, Vimeo, Vine and Instagram, which brings up an obvious question: How about the major sources of paid, professional shows such as Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go and the major TV networks? Ramsay told me that premium content will arrive “soon,” and that when it does, it’ll be done in a way that will let it show up in a Q, interspersed with items culled from elsewhere. When that happens, it might make for a strikingly different experience; today, Netflix and Hulu and Amazon and other providers are islands unto themselves, not part of one gumbo of content.
Since the Qplay adapter uses Android, it can run the smartphone apps created by video providers, opening up the possibility of the company offering premium services whether or not it strikes deals with the video providers in question. That makes it a different proposition than a box such as a Roku, which only features a channel with the blessings of its owner. “At the end of the day, we’re hopefully promoting the use of these services,” Ramsay told me. “We’re helping people sign up and watch videos. How bad can that be?”
Though Qplay has plenty of potential, it’s being released as a rough draft — a little as if the original version of TiVo had only been able to record UHF stations. Without flagship services such as Netflix, it’s dependent on the appeal of the video it can scrape from the web for free, and can’t really replace a Roku or Chromecast. Even some people who might like it could be turned off by the prospect of buying and connecting yet another TV gizmo.
Ramsay told me that the Qplay technology might eventually be built into HDTVs. Versions of the app for devices other than the iPad are also on the company’s to-do list.
“Part of why we want to get this thing out is to learn,” he says. For now, I don’t see anything in Qplay that’s poised to change TV anywhere near as radically as TiVo and its arch-rival ReplayTV once did. But it’ll still be fun to see where the idea goes.