Evolving the Roku from Passive Hardware to Active Platform

Roku has sold more than 5 million devices since launching in 2008. The first connected TV peripheral device now boasts more movies than any other streaming player with over 1,000 channels and 31,000 titles. Its impressive line-up of OTT channels like Netflix, Hulu, and Vudu coupled with traditional MVPD carrier team-ups like Time Warner Cable to offer live streaming capabilities have contributed greatly to the popularity of the Roku device. Besides the content, Roku stand out from others devices with its small, easy to setup hardware and streamlined UI. All of this helps make the Roku one of the most popular peripheral connected TV viewing devices on the market where 25% of its players stream more than 35 hours a week.

Roku Mobile Controls

I am not a cord-cutter as I still have cable, but do own a Roku player and love it. It is one of two different connected TV peripheral devices regularly used in my home – the other being an Xbox. The physical remote offers a limited selection of buttons which are more than sufficient to navigate the on-screen menus, but the player does have both iPhone and Android mobile apps as well. The focus of the app interface today is purely around control functions for the device. While the app succeeds in this one linear task, it is an experience that a user could certainly live without by simply using the physical remote. In my usage of the device and testing of the app, I found myself asking the question: how could mobile and social elements be used to improve upon the Roku user experience from a passive device to an active platform? The following are a few ideas on how to improve the overall Roku player/app:

Roku Channel Grid

Search and Discovery:  Roku launched a revised search capability in October of last year which enabled users to search for actors, directors, and titles across multiple channels. While this is helpful for finding specific queries, it doesn’t do much in the way of enabling discovery of content for users. Expanding search into genres would be a logical next step in exploration of the multi-channel catalog. Once movies and shows are found, having the capability to save the titles to a single queue would be ideal. While some individual channels like Netflix have their own built in queues, not all of the channels offer this feature. Roku as the multi-channel aggregator device can provide a value added service for users by helping them navigate the vast waters of their channel library with a centralized personal repository. While there are mobile apps in the marketplace that are trying to help users with multi-channel search, Roku is in a unique position to take this service to a new level given their access to the channel inventories and, more importantly, the large user base on the devices. The mobile app could also serve as an extension of this for queue management when not directly in front of the device.

Recommendation and Social Integration: Once multi-channel queueing is established, the next logical progression would be to install recommendation engine algorithms to harness the viewing patterns of these 5 million players to further the content discovery process. Promoted recommendations could even be tested and explored as an alternate revenue source as well. By analyzing the viewer behavior, Roku can also be more proactive in notifying customers through the portal interface and email when new channels or content within those channels are added. This shift will help position Roku as a proactive guide for its users rather than a passive partner where all discovery is on the user to seek out.

While users have Roku accounts to hold their email and credit card info, once a personal queue list is created, those accounts can be modified into a much broader profile system which could then be linked to social accounts. While the direction from here might be similar to the Netflix Facebook sharing integration, I was envisioning this to be more recommendation driven based on your own social activity as opposed to simply “my friend watched this”. There are a variety of ways to do this with authentication of social accounts like GetGlue, Twitter, and Facebook in order to track conversation keywords and check-ins/likes. Users could potentially save items to their queues that are promoted by Roku or its channel partners on Twitter based around similar initiatives as Comcast “See It” or even via hashtag like this execution by Sky Brazil. With social accounts integrated into the new profile system, Roku users would then have the ability to recommend shows and films to others in their social networks. Those friends who also have Roku accounts could even have a separate notification queue feed for those recommendations which could be approved or denied for addition to their multi-channel queue. I could go on and on with this as the opportunities to harness the power of the social graph would provide almost limitless possibilities on concepts. The key would be to first establish the base profile platform with social account authentication in order to begin testing new features to provide users with multi-channel enhancements above and beyond what a single channel can do on its own.

Roku Player and Remote

Games: Today, Roku has a limited set of games available on the device including a few popular titles like Angry Birds, Galaga, and You Don’t Know Jack. Roku offers the flexibility of not only developing games specifically for the device using Brightscript, but they also have their own Native Development Kit (NDK) which can be used by game developers to port their existing games for use on the player. While the later generation physical remotes do offer limited two button plus D-pad controls (similar to the NES), the mobile app can be used as a control mechanism to offer game developers a wide variety of touch screen controls. Today, the mobile app is not flexible for individual games and only works for those games that use basic navigation – for example during my testing the app worked fine for You Don’t Know Jack but did not work for Angry Birds. The NDK is currently not public, but game developers can inquire with the company about getting access. With the independent video game market heating up as new home consoles like Ouya and GameStick hitting the market (along with rumors of Amazon), why more game developers aren’t experimenting with porting their games to the Roku player is a mystery to me. Roku has one thing that Ouya and Game Stick would love to have: 5 million devices sitting in consumer homes. Opening the NDK to the public, enabling app control customization, and aggressively courting studios could make the Roku a major player in the video game console market.

Roku Mobile Channel Guide

Second Screen Companion Viewing: One of the biggest areas where I see potential to improve the Roku experience is with the mobile app. Once a user navigates to the show or movie they plan to watch and initiate the play function, the app no longer serves any purpose unless they need to pause the program – which again someone could bypass the app and simply use the remote control. Creating and opening up a Roku mobile API would allow for their channels and other network syndications like WatchWith to create custom second screen companion viewing content within the Roku app while users are watching channel programming. This could be something as simple as additional static content about the show or film to synced interactive content. An open Roku platform would help distribute network channel content cards to a larger syndication footprint and allow for smaller channels within the Roku ecosystem to build experiences for their viewers. These smaller channels would get instant access to the larger Roku app download audience and could alleviate the need to build and market their own proprietary experiences.

The flip side to the creation of a Roku API would allow for channels to integrate Roku player control functionality into their own app experiences. For example, a Netflix app user could simply navigate directly to the remote area and begin controlling their device to initiate content playback without leaving the app – especially beneficial if the channel app built an engaging companion viewing experience within their proprietary app and did not syndicate it into the Roku app. Syncing the companion viewing experience to the Roku (or 3rd party channel) app through the servers is a much more efficient delivery mechanism than audio content recognition. Given the reach of the player, Roku has so much potential to expand the features and functionality of their app into a unique and powerful program.

All of these ideas around discovery through enhanced search and social integration, game expansion, and second screen companion content integration relate back to a single idea. That idea is the concept of expanding the Roku device to be more than just a physical aggregator of 1000+ channels into an efficient peripheral connected TV device. Their relationship with the viewer can shift from a passive into a more active relationship fueled by content discovery and engaging features. By leveraging their player popularity and partners, they could build an application layer framework to make them the connected TV and gaming console player to beat in a market that will only continue to get more and more crowded over time.

[Images were personally screen-grabbed from the iPhone app & from Roku.com]