How Vizio and Google radically reinvented the TV
By Nilay Patel | Photography by Paul Barshon
Matt McRae is fired up about remote controls. Or, more specifically, about getting rid of them.
McRae is the chief technology officer of Vizio, a company that sells more TVs — and with them, remotes — than any other company in America. And he thinks remote controls are very, very stupid.
"I can’t believe we have rubber buttons and a plastic housing with double-A batteries," he says. "We’re navigating from remotes that were invented in the 1950s. That needs to be dynamited."
And McRae has dynamite in hand. Vizio’s new P-Series TVs are a radical departure from the rest of the industry. Unlike the smart TVs that dominate the market, the P-Series completely lacks an on-screen interface — there are no apps or menus or controls or even picture settings on the TV itself. There’s nothing.
Instead, Vizio has partnered with Google to redesign the entire TV experience around the Google Cast streaming protocol, the same technology used in the wildly popular Chromecast streaming stick. The P-Series comes with a six-inch Android tablet, and everything is controlled by the new Vizio SmartCast app. There’s also an iOS version of the app, and any other app or service that supports Cast can send content to the TV.
It's a simple idea with enormous implications: what if all the TVs in your home were just extensions of your phone?
"The era of having a couple of buttons on a physical remote that sits there and does nothing else is going to end," says McRae, his voice rising. "We’re the ones who are going to end it."
People have been trying to smash computers and televisions together since the ‘80s, a concept generally called "smart TV." Hang out with people building smart TV interfaces long enough, and you’ll notice an entire language has evolved around it. They talk about "leaning back versus leaning forward" and solving "10-foot interface issues" and "replacing input one" and a host of other terms that all revolve around a single problem no one has ever managed to really solve:
Navigating TV interfaces sucks.
It’s particularly awful if you have to hunt and peck with cursor keys on a regular remote, but no other solution is that much better. It doesn’t matter if you ship a full-size keyboard with a trackpad, like Sony and Logitech have done in the past. It doesn’t matter if you stick a bunch of QWERTY keys on a regular remote to make typing easier, like TiVo and Vizio have each tried. It doesn’t matter if you build the world’s sleekest touch remote and ask people to use apps on the screen, like the new Apple TV. It doesn’t matter if you go all-in on voice search and let people just ask for what they want, like Roku and Amazon and a host of others are doing. None of these ideas have ever cracked the fundamental problem: TVs are for watching things, not doing them.
"A better remote control is not the answer," says McRae. "That’s the wrong way to think about it. We’ve done touchpad remotes. We’ve done keyboards. We’ve prototyped motion sensing. We’ve gone down all those paths and we think they’re all cul-de-sacs. The answer is to get rid of the remote control as a device category. Any screen should be a remote control."
Vizio is a quiet company — most people don’t even realize that it’s based in America, headquartered in Irvine, California. It’s also a tiny company, with just about 450 employees. Yet by designing products in the States and leveraging tight relationships with manufacturing partners like AmTran and Hon Hai to undercut competitors’ pricing, Vizio has come to dominate the US TV market in recent years. Vizio TVs routinely sit atop the charts at review sites like CNET and The Wirecutter, and the company currently leads in both smart TV and overall TV unit shares over rivals like Samsung and Sony. The company doesn’t spend a ton on marketing, instead focusing on what it calls the "reco rate," or how likely Vizio owners are to recommend the products to their family and friends. McRae proudly says it’s the highest in the industry.
But over time, Vizio’s Yahoo-based VIA Apps smart TV platform had become dated; the company needed a new platform. The company could have picked any number of other smart TV solutions — including Google’s own Android TV — but McRae wanted to do something more radical: try and reset the entire model of how people interact with the screens in their lives.
"The mental and strategic leap is breaking up navigation and consumption," he says. "A handheld device has proven to be an extraordinarily adept navigation device, and it has become an extraordinarily personalized experience. That is not something a television hanging on a wall ten feet away from you will ever be. A TV should be focused on rendering video in the most perfect way possible."
The company’s solution is the Vizio Tablet Remote, which isn’t a remote at all: it’s a six-inch tablet running stock Android Lollipop on an eight-core Snapdragon processor with a very nice 1080p screen, a soft-touch back, dual speakers, and a wireless charging cradle. It lacks any dedicated buttons to control the TV — it only turns into a "remote" when you open Vizio’s new SmartCast app or kick off a streaming session from another app that supports Cast, like Hulu or Netflix.
But you don’t have to cast anything to the TV at all — after all, it’s just an Android tablet. You can go ahead and watch Netflix on the Smart Remote if you want. You can download apps from the Play Store. You can cast Netflix to the TV and use the tablet to check Twitter. You can let a kid play games on the tablet and control the entire TV with the SmartCast app on your iPhone. The tablet is basically another small TV.
This seemingly simple approach represents a complete reversal of the industry-standard idea that mobile devices are "second screens" in the living room — the phone in your hand showing your Twitter while you watch Game of Thrones on TV, for example.
"Vizio understood the power of bringing the interaction model to the second screen," says Mario Queiroz, the Google VP in charge of Cast. "They understood the ability they would have to build a lot of experiences you couldn’t build on the first screen."
With the new P-Series, the Vizio tablet remote is the first screen, and the 4K HDR television is the second.
It’s hard not to contrast Vizio’s kill-the-remote strategy against Apple’s new Apple TV, which is entirely built around the new touch-based Siri Remote. Apple is extending iOS into the traditional first screen TV interface; Vizio wants to erase that interface entirely. "Companies that are newer to the living room space have yet to go all the way down to the end of the cul-de-sac, but they will," says McRae when I ask him about Apple. "They’ll get there and they’ll realize that they’re stuck, and no matter what you do with a tiny little remote control in your hand, you’re not going to be able to provide the advanced navigation consumers demand from apps and services."
Work on the P-Series started two years ago, after Google first introduced the popular Chromecast streaming stick. Vizio had already built an Android TV streaming box called the Co-Star, and quickly reached out to Google’s Cast team. "It was kind of a meeting in the lobby, just very quickly, because we’d been working with that team," says McRae.
Vizio wanted to use Cast as the platform to power its next generation of televisions, but there was a lot of work to be done: Cast didn’t support actually running a TV. It also didn’t support two major innovations Vizio was keen on introducing: 4K streaming and the new Dolby Vision high dynamic range standard, both of which represent major upgrades over standard TVs. "It’s not like a physical dongle just slapped in the back," says McRae. "It was actually a very deep integration. You want to be able to cast right on top of HDMI 1 and have it seamlessly switch."
"The Cast software is interacting directly with the TV firmware," says Queiroz. "Our experience with Chromecast significantly helped with building the Vizio TV experience, and what we’re learning with working with a partner like Vizio will definitely help us with the Chromecast lineup."
Vizio and Google worked closely to extend the capabilities of Cast, eventually building an entirely new framework for Cast that let it hook into the P-Series while allowing Vizio’s code to control things like technical picture settings. Both sides were wary of creating another variant of Cast, confusing or fragmenting one of the largest streaming platforms on the market.
The work eventually led to a unique system design: Google actually controls the Cast software on the P-Series, which is kept separate from the rest of Vizio’s software. "It will stay completely up to date with all the Chromecast dongles in the field," says McRae. "Google has the ability to update the Cast library at will."
"All of the innovation we’re putting into Google Cast will be fed into the Vizio TVs, just as it is with the Chromecast. Their product will get better and better over time," says Queiroz. "We’re constantly updating the platform." The updates won’t all happen simultaneously, but Queiroz says one of Google’s goals is to keep the entire Cast ecosystem "pure" and in sync with feature updates.
"We’re building a great Cast experience, and they’re building a great TV," says Queiroz. Google is open to other TV makers using Cast in the same way, but the company started with Vizio because they "really wanted to get it right."
"We’re at the very start of this, but we think there’s a lot more we can do," Queiroz says. "There’s a really huge ecosystem we can build here."
And building a huge ecosystem around a platform is the entire game in television right now.
Vizio filed to go public last year, and the company’s S-1 filing suggest that it was platform concerns that prompted McRae and his team to run away from a traditional smart TV platform strategy. "We do not currently have arrangements with all of the popular content providers, including some content providers that are available on competitive devices, such as ESPN and HBO GO," the filing states in its risks section. "Furthermore, our arrangements with our current content providers typically involve no significant long-term commitments… if we are unable to provide a competitive entertainment offering through our smart TV discovery and engagement software, our ability to attract and retain consumers would be harmed."
Meaning: Vizio’s current smart TV platform doesn’t have some of the most popular services, and there’s no guarantee any services will be available in the future. And the problem is getting worse: it’s hard to imagine any video service having the time, resources, or desire to create apps for every platform in the massively fragmented smart TV landscape.
Samsung TVs run Tizen; LG TVs run webOS. Sony uses Android TV; Amazon’s popular Fire TV devices run their own version of Android with a separate store and support. Roku has its own platform; the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 each demand custom apps. And Apple commands overwhelming developer interest and attention and has repurposed iOS into tvOS for the new Apple TV.
This is an all-out smart TV platform war, and a lot of people are going to suffer through a lot of badly-ported and hastily designed apps before it’s all over.
But by dropping any desire to put apps on the TV itself, Vizio completely sidesteps the platform war entirely. Every app in the Android and the iOS app stores that supports Google Cast is a P-Series app. And iOS and Android apps are the apps developers care about most, so they’re often the best apps from a given service.
That means when Netflix and Hulu update their Android and iOS apps, they’re also updating the P-Series experience. Vizio doesn’t need to beg HBO and ESPN to support its TVs anymore, because they already support Google Cast — and thus the P-Series. There’s no NFL Sunday Ticket app for the Apple TV, but the iOS and Android apps support Cast, so P-Series owners can pay to stream football.
And if a new app comes out that doesn’t support Cast, Vizio has Google and millions of Chromecast owners to help make its case. "Our goal is that every app is available on every Google Cast device," says Queiroz.
"From an actual engineering perspective, this TV is actually as complex and smart, if not more so, than any TV we’ve ever made," says McRae. "We’ve just made it seem extraordinarily simple."
Vizio isn’t totally crazy. The P-series will still accept the same IR remote commands as any other Vizio TV for power, input selection, and volume, and it even comes with a small standard remote in the box to control those settings. If you already have a Vizio TV and generally use a cable box or universal remote, you can swap a new P-series TV into your setup and perhaps never know the difference, apart from the upgraded picture quality.
But McRae says testing reveals that most people only use the standard remote out of habit for a few days — then they switch to the tablet entirely. "The pace of people moving to the tablet was faster than I would have told you before we got hundreds of these things in the field," he says. "It was quicker than I think any of us had expected."
If all remotes have one thing in common, it’s that they inevitably get lost. But Vizio’s designers didn’t want the tablet wandering around the house like any other device. "We fumbled around with a few different ways of creating a home for the tablet," says Vizio design chief Scott McManigal. "It really needed to have a connection to the TV." The work centered around rethinking what Vizio calls the "ceremonies" of using a television. "This is something that should have a ceremonial home in the living room," says McRae. "All those little ceremonies became really important."
Ultimately, the company had what McRae calls an "aha" moment in the P-Series design process: a wireless charging dock that uses magnets to pull the tablet down into alignment with a satisfying tug. The dock also holds the tablet upright so it can display notifications from across the room. If you have the SmartCast app open when you put it on the dock, it’ll automatically return to the main control screen when you pull it off.
In testing, the team found that although the tablet has enough battery capacity for 14 days of standby, the dock led people to grab the tablet when they wanted to start using the TV and replace it when they were done — a new ceremony.
The team also decided to omit a TV power button from the tablet, a subtle, but calculated decision. With a standard TV, you walk into the room, grab the remote, and hit power to begin browsing for something to watch. But the Vizio team wanted to keep navigation focused on the tablet.
"If we had a hardware power button for the TV, we would have done something relatively stupid, because we were actually forcing an old ceremony on a new use case," says McRae. "We went through hundreds of these things."
"We don’t have a separate team building our tablets, and then a separate team building our TVs," he adds, in obvious reference to Samsung. "The tablet and TV were designed in a single room, by a single team. That’s the only way you could do it."
"They have to go together," says McManigal. "They’re very paired to be a premium experience."
Early prototypes of the tablet also featured more customization of Android, but McManigal and his team decided against it. "Our initial assumption was that you’d want to have all the remote control buttons on the home screen," he says. "But it just became very cluttered and very difficult to determine exactly which buttons you’d need."
Instead, the tablet remote features stock Android, which means Vizio can update it faster. It also means that the SmartCast app can work in mostly the same way on every other Android device — it doesn’t rely on any custom features to show notifications or place playback controls in the notification shade.
The tablet also lacks an IR blaster — it’s not a universal remote, and can’t control anything else in your home theater rack just yet. But Vizio also happens to be the leading vendor of soundbars in America, and it’s already showing off Cast-enabled soundbars and speakers. They’ll come out later in the year, completing the ecosystem. "Audio products with tiny little IR remotes are just horrible," says McRae. "Exporting the navigation element out to a screen that you’re familiar with changes how you interact. We’re really excited about opening a new wave of interaction with the devices in your house."
TVs have historically been very, very dumb, and they’re still among the dumbest gadgets in the home — for many people, they’re just displays for smarter devices. Making them smart brings with it the same tradeoff as in the other smart devices in our lives: data collection can dramatically improve consumer experiences, but at the expense of privacy.
Vizio has stumbled into a couple privacy-related controversies in the past year: a class action lawsuit alleges that the company is collecting personal information on its customers. Meanwhile, the company’s IPO filing revealed plans for a ratings service designed to compete with Nielsen by anonymously collecting over 100 billion data points a day from internet-connected Vizio televisions. McRae says the lawsuit is "based on speculation" and that Vizio will "vigorously defend itself," but the ratings plans continue, and the technology is built into the P-Series.
"We collect data on an anonymous and aggregate level — there’s no personal information collected at all. It’s ratings," says McRae. "We’re using it to make the product better, and we’re using it to improve user experiences. We believe that next-generation user experiences will benefit greatly from recommendations — knowing that people who like football also like to watch Seinfeld. If a consumer feels uncomfortable with that, we want them to opt-out, and we’re happy if they opt-out."
But new P-Series further blurs the lines between television and mobile devices. Mobile devices are built on tracking: both Apple and Google collect anonymous usage and diagnostic data from their phones unless you opt-out, and virtually every major mobile app contains analytics tracking code as well. Bringing television this far into the mobile era raises a new set of questions about what we’re comfortable having tracked.
McRae doesn’t seem worried. "[SmartCast] makes it a lot easier to actually communicate with end users and ask whether they want to opt-in or out. Moving navigation to a tablet is actually good at that. We want to make sure consumers are always comfortable interacting with the Vizio brand. We’re trying to be as privacy-compliant and transparent as possible."
TVs are unwieldy things that tend to get hung on a wall and stay there for a while — they don’t get upgraded nearly as often as cellphones, tablets, and laptops. The displays might still look fine after a few years, but the processors quickly fall behind the curve and things get even slower and more irritating to use. Samsung has offered modular processor upgrades to combat this problem; Apple has stayed out of the TV hardware market in part because of it.
But the new P-Series doesn’t have any high-end processing in it — it just needs enough horsepower to decode and play a 4K HDR video stream over Google Cast. "Look, the octo-core processor shouldn’t be in the TV, it should be in the tablet you’re holding," says McRae. "You may buy a new phone a year from now that has even more horsepower. Guess what? You’ll be able to play a new class of games and streaming that up to our television without having to buy a new TV."
Considering the bleeding-edge 4K HDR display in the P-Series, that seems like it could make the upgrade cycle even longer. I ask McRae if Vizio has just invented its last TV.
"We don’t worry about device life cycle," he says, very seriously. "Our job is to build the best product we can build and have it last and be relevant to you for as long as possible."
The P-Series represents a simple-seeming but incredibly bold bet on what consumers find relevant in a television — a bet that the only thing worth displaying on a TV screen is content, not navigation. It’s a bet that people, especially younger people who’ve never had cable, will want to buy a TV that’s actually just a second screen for their phones. And it’s a bet that Vizio can keep coming up with new ways to convince you to upgrade your TV.
"Every time we build the TV that will end all TVs, especially when it comes to picture quality, there are new boundaries we can push," says McRae. "We’ve got at least another three to five years of continuing to push the envelope on color and dynamic range. We feel very confident that we will be able to come up with more reasons for you to buy a television."
Design by James Bareham
Edited by Michael Zelenko