March 1, 2022

The beginning of the end for the remote control? 24i expands it use of voice activated streaming with Google Assistant on Android TV STBs

In the latest of our Spotlight blogs focusing on the contributions of individuals within our 24i team, CEO Joachim Bergman talks to Senior Technical Lead Mads Vium Asbjørn about the Google Assistant functionality in our custom launchers for Android TV Operator Tier set top boxes.

Whether you’re telling Siri to send a text while you’re driving, asking Alexa for the weather forecast before you get dressed in the morning, or yelling “Okay Google unlock the door!” as you’re unloading groceries from the car, voice control of apps is becoming increasingly common. So it’s no surprise our streaming customers are increasingly interested in using voice assistants to create a better user experience for their consumers. 

Why hunt for the remote when you can talk to Google Assistant?

Mads Vium Asbjørn is one of the team in our Copenhagen office who implemented Google Assistant within our custom launchers for Android TV Operator Tier STBs. “It was a really fun project full of interesting little features to really get the user experience right for consumers,” says Mads. “A lot of people like the idea of voice search to avoid having to type in search terms via a remote control, and that’s a big part of what we’ve implemented. But with Google Assistant you can also also use your voice to carry out many of the other in-app functions we’d normally associate with a remote control - play, pause, change channel, open the TV guide etc. It won’t happen overnight, but I think it’s the beginning of the end for the traditional remote control.” 

Mads has been working for 24i for over eight years now, and is one of our leading experts on Android. While he does plenty of coding for mobile and tablet apps, it’s easy to see why this specific integration is targeting the big screen user experience, where text-based search is traditionally most cumbersome. Our deep integration of Google Assistant works on Android TV STBs that are running on at least version 8 (or higher) of the Android TV operating system. It’s part of our fokuson middleware and the TV as a Service solution that's based on it, FokusOnTV.

Voice search will become standard for streaming apps of the future

“Google Assistant has been around for a while and - depending on Google’s level of support for your native language - if you’ve got an Android-based device you might well have already used it for apps like Disney+,” says Mads. “From my perspective it’s an obvious next step for any streaming company that’s running an app on Android devices. But not all implementations of Google Assistant are the same, and we’ve worked hard to make sure our custom launcher provides the best possible experience for both the consumer and the operator.”

Mads walked me through how it works: “The user simply makes a simple request, like “Hey Google, show me episodes of Friends!” Google Assistant will find results for Friends from across ALL the apps on the box that have got Google Assistant enabled. That’s great for consumers because it saves them from hunting for their favourite content. To ensure it’s good for the operator too, we make sure that any search results returned from within the operator’s own catalog will always be surfaced first on screen. Results from third-party apps and Google-owned apps like YouTube are also displayed, but lower down the screen”. 

These images illustrate the user experience following a voice search for "Wonder Woman", with results from the operator's own catalogue shown first, followed by results from third-party services like YouTube and Spotify

Results from the operator's own catalogue shown
Results from third-party services like YouTube and Spotify

Focus on features that improve the voice control user experience

We’ve also implemented a feature of Google Assistant in Android TV Operator Tier that is called Media Sessions. “This means that the different apps using voice controls respect each other and don’t end up clashing,” explains Mads. “When you open the custom launcher, we’re telling all the other apps on the device that we are in the foreground now and they should not be acting on voice commands or issuing responses. Of course, we also know to comply when another app is in the foreground and it’s our turn to be quiet!”

Another small but important feature that has real implications for the quality of the user experience is known as “audio-ducking”. This automatically lowers the volume of the streamed content when you’re talking to the Assistant - to avoid any confusion with words being spoken by a character on your current TV show. With audio-ducking, the steamed content won’t interfere with your commands or be included in your search request! It also makes it easier to hear what the Voice Assistant is saying in response to your comments.

Who controls the data when using Google Assistant on Android TV devices?

So why aren’t ALL streaming apps on Android devices using voice search? “The simple answer - beyond the cost of integrating it - is that many operators are uncomfortable with the level of data they have to share with Google in return for using this fantastic search capability,” says Mads. “Depending on the way you implement Google Assistant, the operator may have to accept that Google knows exactly what’s in their catalog at any given time. They also know what kinds of searches are popular at different times of the day. Our integration is designed in a way that limits data sharing as much as possible, but for most operators it’s a trade off they are willing to make in order to get voice search capabilities without having to develop them in-house.” 

So is this the beginning of the end for remote controls? 

We know voice control is of great interest to our Pay TV customers. And a growing number of operators, for example Youfone and Waoo, have embraced Android TV as a quick and easy way to add third party content (so-called “super aggregation”) to their consumer offering. Of course that also gives them scope to add Google’s other services, including voice control. We have seen some other customers take a similar approach but utilizing Apple’s ecosystem, opting to resell Apple TV devices to their consumers with custom apps that can include the Siri voice assistant. 

However, I think there’s still a way to go before we throw away the remote completely - just ask anyone with a strong regional accent or an older device that doesn’t support it. Voice control is getting smarter and more widespread all the time and Statista estimates up to 8.4 billion digital assistants in use worldwide by 2024. But it’s not just operators who worry about the trade-off between usability and privacy. There are still many consumers who remain strongly resistant to devices that can “listen-in” to family life.

Adoption of voice assistants is growing in many countries but penetration is lower elsewhere due to the combination of language support and surveillance concerns. So, for 24i it’s about working on the use cases where it adds real value - like voice search for content - and where there is real consumer demand. Most importantly, we're focusing on making sure the streaming experience is top-notch for users, no matter how they choose to interact with their devices. 

To find out more about our solutions for Pay TV operators, why not book a meeting with one of our experts? 

By Joachim Bergman

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