Head on this page.
This application, which allowed TV to surpass conventional boundaries and bring its users an entirely new dimension of enjoyment, was the proud result of a highly talented group of programmers who had the fortitude to work through an extremely demanding development schedule.
Our efforts to meet the new challenges posed by the smartphone, which is fast becoming a mainstream personal device, began in the spring of 2010. Actually, though, I wasn't part of that initial project. I remember the first prototype appearing around summertime. At that point, it was simply an interface that displayed remote control buttons on a touch screen.
The actual buttons that protrude from a remote control are what make it so easy to operate by simply feeling around with the fingers. In spite of this, the button icons were lined up along a perfectly flat touch screen, which meant that the user had to look at the screen each time a button was pressed. It was kind of questionable.
There didn't seem to be any sense in spending the time and effort to develop something that was harder to use than a conventional remote control. As a result, the project was put on hold for a while, thinking that it wasn't feasible. At about the same time, though, the iPad debut hit with a boom and another company came out with a remote control that used a touch screen for an AV device. So management told us to look into the prospects of the original project a little more. As it turned out, the engineer who was originally in charge was then busy on another project, so the ball came into my court.
By the time I heard about this from Maeda, it was around the end of November. When I heard that they planned to announce it a month later at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), I could hardly believe it. On the other hand, I was a solid iPhone user, so I was already interested in the possibilities of the touch screen interface. I thought it'd be fun if I just kind of looked at it as an "extra job."
My main work is developing the software that's built into VIERA. The end result gets sent out to the world in the form of a TV. VIERA remote App isn't a product itself; it's a software utility that comes free of charge. That difference changes the perspective a bit.
I started working in the head research and development laboratories, and from 1998, which was the dawn of the digital TV, I was also totally focused on developing TV software. As Matsunaga described it, VIERA remote App is kind of unique for a development team like ours. Matsunaga called it an "extra job," though and I'd just like to mention that if it weren't for him we wouldn't have been able to achieve the release of Version 1.0 in that incredibly short time.
The program on the TV side that receives and executes the VIERA remote App commands basically applies the know-how of the DLNA standard. I've been involved in developing network technology ever since I joined the company. When I moved into the Television Business Unit, I was again working with networks and I specialized in developing functions that used DLNA. I think that's why I was able to create this app in a shorter time than usual.
It only took him 3 weeks to build a demo app for management.
It usually takes about 3 weeks just to get a rough idea of the interface.
Somehow, we were able to do everything from the basic design to the programming for the TV in one week, and for the smartphone in two weeks.
This was truly a phenomenal feat that wouldn't have been possible if Matsunaga hadn't been in charge. He had everything he needed to write the program right in his head. He knew how to write the command to change channels, and to raise or lower the sound volume. He had it all memorized right from the beginning.
That's right. To tell the truth, I'm proud to say that other companies wouldn't be able to do this with such a small team and in such a short time. I asked for a transfer from the head research and development laboratories to this section because it has a reputation throughout the Panasonic Group for top-class development skills. The job was a hard one, but the team had tremendous strength.
The world of programming is one where a small group of people with inherently superior skills can make remarkable progress. When the number of developers grows, you get large differences in skill levels and your working speed actually slows down. A common pattern is to have a team member write the specifications, and then send them outside the company to create the final form. In contrast, we didn't even need to write documentation. We just sat down at the keyboard and started coding. That's how we were able to come up with something so good even with an unbelievably short schedule. And Matsunaga is truly phenomenal. As long as he's able to do what he wants, he doesn't mind having to struggle a bit.
As you can imagine, since this wasn't my standard line of work, I was free to try out different things. That made it more fun.
Yes but, of course, there was no button interface in the beginning. Basic operations were done by sliding your finger up, down, left or right across the screen, and commands were executed by pressing anywhere on the screen. We made sure to provide the kind of basics that the quickly growing number of touch device users would naturally appreciate.
I think it was important for VIERA remote App to resolve one of the problems of the conventional remote control, which was the difficulty of inputting text when searching for something. This is essential for a smart TV. But even so, I still had this personal feeling that we hadn't moved far enough out of the bounds of conventional remote control functions.
As we approached Version 2.0, I realized that Matsunaga was still dreaming up new things.
Other companies will almost surely catch up to the level of Version 1.0, in which the functions basically replace the remote control. Because of this, it became clear that the next thing we should aim for is content linking functions.
As we moved in that direction, we added Toshihiro Takagi, a product planner, to the team and the three of us started pouring out concrete ideas for new functions.
The main Version 2.0 functions appeared pretty quickly, such as sharing photos, videos and web content between the TV and the smartphone, and free-point operation, which is handy for the browsing that supports these sharing abilities. Takagi also has an engineering background, so the three of us were a perfect match and our meetings were pretty spirited. Takagi came up with some very interesting ideas.
One of his ideas was a DJ-like function. The user would touch photos and other content on the smartphone and freely combine them, and then they'd be backed by music and shown on the TV. He once said that he thought it'd be a great way to propose to someone. As I was listening to him explain it, I was wondering just what kind of interface it'd be.
There were other ideas we wanted to use, but we had to give up on a lot of them. We must have examined more than 30 of them in all.
Yes, as soon as an idea was accepted, it had to pass through a number of strict steps — interface design, coding, and checking. We raced to get this done over the 5-month period from October 2011 to February 2012.
When you hear 5 months, you might think it'd be better than the 3 months for Version 1.0, but since there were so many new functions, when you convert them into the program's source code, we were dealing with 6 times as much data* as the previous one. This made it even more difficult than Version 1.0.
It especially took a long time to develop the VIERA Viewer** function that lets you enjoy on-air TV, recorded TV programs, and content that's been saved to an SD Memory Card in the TV's card slot on a smartphone. People in other sections of the company kept asking us if we were really going to meet the deadline.
We also had to give demos at various exhibitions and press events, and because of the importance placed on the interface, we were receiving some pretty demanding feedback from inside the company. We really had our hands full.
* For the iOS version.
** Available in Europe, Oceania and Japan. As of May 2012.
A lot of functions have been extremely well received, like Media Flick, which lets you swipe the thumbnail image of a photo or video on the smartphone toward the TV and see it instantly on the large TV screen, and Browser Linkage, which lets you search for web content with the smartphone and display it on the TV.
Naturally, this is because of their convenience as functions, but features like Media Flick are also popular because of the fun they bring to operation itself. We hear comments like, "It feels so futuristic." Staff members in Europe are promoting Media Flick with the catch phrase "Swipe and Share." I think this is because it relays the attraction of the interface design.
We mentioned earlier that we got some demanding feedback from inside the company during development, but in the end we really appreciated it. The extra work that we put in to satisfy this feedback is what gave the interface and its operational feeling such solid uniformity. After all, the most important thing is that functions like these don't confuse the user.
Basically, as the main person in charge, I have the freedom to do pretty much what I want, and Maeda effectively covers the peripheral things that I tend to overlook. For example, I'm personally a big fan of digital devices, so I sometimes think that there's no real need for a user's manual. People can figure out how to use the device by just playing around with it for a while. Maeda helps by convincing me that my thoughts in that area are sometimes a little off base.
Panasonic is clearly not a brand that's going to be used only by heavy digital device users. Some users definitely need a user's manual. We always have to make decisions based on the principle that the user is No. 1. On the other hand, once I've mentioned that we need to provide a user's manual simply because it's something that some people might need, Matsunaga will respond in his own typical way by, for example, immediately sitting down and writing up a user's manual all by himself.
Maeda does a perfect job of handling all of the things that I can't do by myself, like arranging schedules with other sections, gathering support staff, and preparing the licensing agreements for app use. VIERA remote App is typical, but Maeda constantly stays on top of all prior development cases even when it's uncertain whether they'll bear fruit or not. I eventually came to realize that he's able to bring concrete form to ideas like this because he has such a rich store of experience and know-how.
Sure, just imagine using your familiar smartphone to search for things on the Internet, and then swipe the results right onto VIERA's large screen to share with family and friends. For example, everyone can join in the excitement of planning your next vacation trip or searching for a great restaurant. You'll instantly see the value and innovation of a smart TV. And we're already working on a large number of ideas for the next version upgrade, so I'd like to encourage all VIERA users to look forward to more great things in the future.
VIERA is filled with the functions that we've worked to create, but we hope that VIERA remote App will make it a little easier for everyone to use them. Our aim is to achieve the kind of functions that make users say, "Wow!" when they first use them. With that in mind, I want to keep developing things that surprise even myself.
* The group name, job title and product information on this page were accurate at the time of the interview.
Return to Top