How to drag rewind and fast-forward into the 21st century
Published by marco on
The most difficult technical problems to solve are the ones that you don’t notice. The workflow and tools to which you’ve become accustomed are terrible, but they’re so ingrained that you might actually find yourself unthinkingly defending them because that’s just how it has to be.
Why is your DVR’s fast-forwarding feature stuck in the past?
Fast-forwarding and rewinding digital movies is one of those things.
Many people have DVRs now—provided, often enough, by the cable company itself—but they often function as if customers were still juggling tapes instead of switching between files on a hard drive. While there is no technical hurdle to making this process better, I acknowledge that there are probably very important albeit tediously prosaic advertising reasons for keeping fast-forwarding not just primitive, but almost deliberately broken.
Despite the strong likelihood that this feature will not be improved for the reasons stated above (i.e. that the exorbitant monthly fee that you pay for your content will continue to be supplemented by advertising revenue generated by your captive eyeballs), it would still be fun to imagine how we could make this feature better.
The most obvious use case for fast-forwarding is to skip commercials in recorded content: that’s just reality. Though the cable companies and networks would dearly love for everyone to take their medicine and watch all of their advertisements, users would dearly love to just watch their content without the ads. That is often the reason that they recorded the content in the first place.
Another use case is to scrub forward in longer sports events, like cycling or the Olympics. The user generally doesn’t want to watch six hours; instead, the user would like to skip forward 2.5 hours, watch 15 minutes, skip another hour, watch 30 minutes, skip another hour and watch the rest, all the while skipping commercials in between. Often the user doesn’t even know how far they want to skip; they need to see the content at various intervals in order to see where to stop. This is currently achieved by just scrubbing through all the content sequentially.
This is all not only a tedious amount of work but also takes much longer than necessary: even at the top speed, the fast-forward feature takes long minutes to skip two hours of content. This is ridiculous, especially when most of us have seen it work at least marginally better on a computer, where one can skip large chunks of content and reliably jump to a specific position in the recording. The system described below could improve the experience for computer-based media players as well.
What’s the problem?
Fast-forwarding is a pain because, while you’d like to jump forward as quickly as possible, you have to be fast enough to stop it before it’s gone too far. This is old-school technology from the days of the VCR when there was only one read-head per device. Now there’s a digital file that the machine can easily read and render thumbnails from anywhere in the data stream.
My media box from UPC Cablecom offers the standard controls for scrubbing: play, pause, fast-forward, rewind. When you press rewind or fast-forward, it moves between five speeds, skipping forward or backward faster with each level. When you’ve got it on 5 of 5, you skip commercials or content very quickly, but you’re also extremely likely to skip over content you wanted to watch.
The standard pattern is to fly forward, slam on the brakes, then backtrack slowly, overshoot again—but not by as much—and then finally position the read-head about where you want it, watching the final 20 seconds of commercials or station identification that you couldn’t avoid until you finally get to the content you were looking for.
There has to be a better way of doing this.
Making it better
The idea of five speeds is fine, but we should be able to take the twitch-gamer component out of the experience. And this is coming from someone who used to be a pretty dedicated gamer; I can’t imagine what this system feels like to someone unaccustomed to technology. They probably just put it on the slow speed—or don’t bother fast-forwarding at all.
What about a solution that works like this: instead of changing speed immediately, pressing rewind or fast-forward pauses the stream and switches to a scrubbing mode. The scrubbing mode is displayed as a screen of tiles—say 5x5—each tile representing a screenshot/thumbnail from the stream that you’re watching.
The thumbnails are chosen in the following manner. If you pressed fast-forward, the thumbnail for your current position is shown in the upper left-hand corner. Subsequent tiles are chosen at 5-second intervals going forward in the stream. Pressing the fast-forward again increases the level—as before—but, instead of speeding through the stream, it simply chooses new thumbnails, this time at 10-second intervals. Press again to switch to 30-second, then 1-minute, then 5-minute intervals. At the top “speed” the bottom right-hand corner shows a thumbnail 24 × 5 minutes forward in the stream.
Rewind has the same behavior, except that the current position is shown in the bottom right-hand corner and thumbnails proceed from right-to-left, bottom-to-top to show the user data in the stream before that position.
Once the user is on this screen, he or she can use the cursor to select the desired thumbnail and refocus the screen on that one by clicking OK. In this way, the user can quickly and reliably use the fast-forward or rewind buttons to switch the granularity to “home in” in on a particular scene. All without any stress, missteps or a lot of senseless back-and-forth scrubbing. And all without having to watch hardly anything—a few seconds at most—that the user doesn’t want to watch.
When the right scene is selected (to within 5 seconds), the user presses play or pause to continue watching from the newly selected position.
Players like Roku have a “jump back ten seconds” feature that’s quite useful, but the system described above makes that sound utterly primitive and limiting.
Going beyond five intervals
It is no longer necessary to have only 5 fixed intervals either. Perhaps the default interval (user-configurable) is 2 seconds, but that’s only the center of a scale with 10 steps, so the user can drop down to 1-second or ½-second increments as well.
Positioning the current scene in scrubber mode
The system described above moves the default location of the current scene, depending on whether the user pressed rewind (bottom-right corner) or fast forward (top-left corner). Another approach would be to ignore which button was pressed and to always show the current scene in the center of the grid, with thumbnails showing history as well as future in the recording. Further presses of rewind and fast forward increase or decrease the amount of time represented by each thumbnail.
If the software takes time to render the thumbnails, it can do it asynchronously, rendering thumbnails to screen as they become available. Showing the time under the thumbnail would be massively helpful even without a thumbnail. The user could easily jump ahead 4 minutes without any adrenalin at all.
This should be a huge problem, though. Whenever the user opens a recording, the software can proactively cache thumbnails based on expected usage or default settings.