From the very first moment I saw Captain Jean-Luc Picard say, “Computa!” then bark a command and have it executed, I wanted to live in the world of Star Trek. So much of the tech on that show, from Kirk’s iconic communicator to Bones’ tricorder, was just the paragon of cool. And now, what a time we live in! We have our communicators, and we’re oh-so close to having holodecks, but did you know you could control your TV, movies, and media with your voice? Or your mind? Technology is evolving at a pace more rapid than any time in history, and mundane appliances like the remote control are going the way of the dinosaur. Sure, you may still be using yours, but not for long.
I remember when the universal remote was the big thing. It promised singular control of multiple devices in your entertainment center, a “one ring to rule them all.” The downside, though, was that you could misplace a universal remote. A remote can be — and if you have children, will be — lost, and in order to use it, you need to have physical access to it. That is why voice is the present and near future of the interface. It’s the most natural way to interact with almost any device. But let’s get even more imaginative: what if I told you that your TV could know what you were thinking?
Mind control is exactly what happened when a group of coders on the Netflix product development team went all Professor X on your favorite streaming video interface at Netflix’s Winter 2017 Hack Day. This group of intrepid binge watchers (and employees) took to their laptops and development environments to hack a piece of hardware called the Muse. The Muse is a head-worn device meant to help train its users to achieve greater levels of focused concentration and mindfulness. It’s a product I’ve demo’d at CES and some other trade shows and conferences I’ve attended, and it’s actually pretty darn cool.
The headband works in conjunction with an app on your mobile device and forces you to focus in order to trigger various events on the app. Muse translates your brain signals into a real-time audio experience on your mobile device: a calm mind will hear the sounds of a tranquil environment, like a rainforest with birds chirping, while an active mind will hear the weather soundscape change and bring on storm-like conditions. It sounds silly, but I can attest to the fact that it does indeed work, specifically by reading the electrical impulses from your brain via sensors positioned around the headband. Who knew it could be hacked to replace your remote, though? Mindflix is what came out of that group of hackers. The video below shows you how it works.
While it may be some time before you can go Johnny Mnemonic on your Netflix account, you can strike up a conversation with it today. As a matter of fact, I haven’t used my own remote quite as often since I installed Logitech’s Harmony Hub and connected it to the Amazon Echo Dot in my bedroom. I’m all Picard when it comes to controlling the media that I watch in my boudoir, as the Harmony Hub is a skill that can be added to Amazon Alexa once you have everything configured just the way you like it in Logitech’s own Harmony software. With Logitech’s software, you essentially create macros of events you want to trigger with your home entertainment equipment. Heck, the hub can even control lights like Philips’ Hue so that you can set the scene for some serious cinephile shenanigans with the touch of one button on their Elite remote. But, why do that when you can simply speak and it’s done?
For example, I have a macro which turns on my Sharp Roku TV, cable box, and Sonos PLAYBAR, and automatically turns to HBO as the default channel. I named that macro “cable.” I have another that turns on the TV, the Sonos, and launches the Netflix “channel” on Roku. That macro is called “Netflix.” I have several others, but you get the idea. Once you create your own macros, go into the “skills” menu for your Amazon Echo, Dot, or Tap, and add Logitech’s Harmony as a skill, then tell it to search for “devices.” Alexa “sees” each macro and each favorited channel as a “device.” Back to my own macros: all I have to do is say, “Alexa. Turn on Cable,” or “Alexa. Turn on Netflix,” and the corresponding macro is launched. Now, there is a bit of a learning curve to get those macros just right, and to get Alexa to see the right macros and favorites as devices, but once you have it set up properly, you can control channel changes, TV volume, and more, all via voice and Alexa. You can even change Alexa’s name/wake word to “computer” if you really want to go full Trekkie in your home.
But what if you live in the Google ecosystem and opted for their voice assistant, Google Home, rather than Alexa? Though not as connected as the latter, Home can interact with your TV via voice as well, with one caveat: it only works with Chromecast. That’s right, as long as you have a Chromecast connected to it, or your smart TV has Chromecast built in, you can control Netflix and some media in Google’s ecosystem. Once you’ve connected Netflix to Home in Google’s Home app, you can speak to your TV and just pull up and play movies without having to touch a thing. If you’re a YouTube junkie, you can control your content via voice as well. With YouTube’s announcement of their new live TV service, that may mean that you can control your full TV viewing experience via voice, but since it’s so new, the extent to which Assistant can interact with the UI remains to be seen. For now, you can tell Home to pull up YouTube videos by a general artist or title name, like “Play John Oliver videos [on TV].” You can also do it by category; ask Home to pull up cat videos, or if you’re in the mood for a sweaty workout, cue up some yoga videos. For the full hands-free experience, and to use Chromecast to power on your TV and control other functions, you’ll have to have a TV which supports HDMI CEC. Which TVs support this standard? Each manufacturer may call HDMI CEC something different, so you’ll want to check this list here.
You can also use voice to control your own home media if you’re using KODI or a Plex server. There are impeccably notated tutorials on the web (like this one) that show you how to use an app called Yatse for KODI, and Plex’s own support pages (found here) unwrap the mysteries of voice control in a manner which should be easy enough for the majority of users. Yatse isn’t as hands-off as using an Echo (though you can actually use one to control KODI as well), but if you don’t want to buy an Echo just for that purpose, Yatse is just a simple install away on your Android device, and it can use Google Now/Assistant for all of your voice-activated needs. For Plex, you will need an Amazon Echo, but once you have that set up, it’s pretty smooth sailing, minus a few glitches here and there depending on the device you’re accessing Plex through.
Now, maybe you’ve never fancied yourself the captain of a spacegoing vessel, but you still want to live your life with one foot planted in the future. I have some good news for you: voice isn’t the only unique interface out there. Many of these services also have VR versions of their apps available for users. Netflix and Hulu both have apps which allow you to consume content through one of those VR goggles, like Google’s Daydream View, Samsung’s Gear VR, or the Oculus Rift. Even Sony has come to market with their own, the Playstation VR. And for those of you looking to stream your favorite sports ball event, NextVR is running with the big dogs as the official VR team to bring you live NBA, ICC Soccer, and NFL programming right through your goggles. Using your NBA League Pass subscription, you can actually watch live games in VR. Some VR experiences are more refined than others, so you’ll have to boldly go where few people have gone before and find the one that works best for you.
While the futuristic experiences available to consumers are limited to voice and VR today, technology is changing rapidly. Who knows what will be announced a few months from now? I think augmented reality will play a very large part in media consumption as advertisers can create more dynamic experiences for consumers by inserting objects into things we’re already looking at in ways which are creative and potentially unobtrusive. Outside of Pokemon Go, we haven’t really seen what AR will do at scale, but the tech is still very young. That said, whether it’s AR or VR, Mindflix, or a Daydream, it’s a brave new world where what once was confined to the pages of science fiction novels or created by special effects gurus is now the stuff sitting in your living room, ready and waiting for your next binge. I’m working on Iron Fist right now. How about you?
Follow Tshaka on Twitter: @tshakaarmstrong