Cordcutters who use streaming media devices have turned binge watching into a high art, and with good reason. There are now so many a la carte TV and movie apps that the danger of losing yourself in a sea of prestige television and on demand films offered across a range of networks and services is almost overwhelming.
Bobbing in the middle of the streaming chaos like a life raft is a relatively new tool promising to save those drowning in video content: voice search. But is it a mirage, merely adding yet another bit of noise to the maelstrom of logos, menus, and logins, or is it really what we’ve been waiting for? After testing the powers of some of the latest in voice search on streaming media devices, I think I have a few answers.
Voice search on streaming media may not be common to all viewers, but it’s hardly new. Amazon’s Fire TV has had it for several years, and competing devices like the Roku Ultra and Apple TV offer their own takes on voice search (you can also use Google Home to engage voice search on the Chromecast).
This time last year, comScore listed Roku as the market leader (49 percent) with the other three aforementioned devices divvying up the other half of the market. Roku says it has 15 million active monthly users across its platform, and Apple wouldn’t disclose its Apple TV user numbers. And neither company would offer data on how many users use voice search on their streaming media devices and associated apps. Nevertheless, these two big players, with some of widest availability online and at brick and mortar retail outlets, offer a decent snapshot of what consumers have access to in the realm of voice search on streaming media devices for your TV.
So rather than conduct an exhaustive test of the various voice search options, I decided to focus my testing on the Roku Ultra, and the most famous voice assistant, Siri, via the Apple TV (4th generation) with the Siri Remote.
While most of us are used to the quirks associated with smartphone voice commands (sometimes it works flawlessly, sometimes it’s just quicker to type it out), talking to our televisions is a new habit we’re still getting used to. What I found when testing my film geek knowledge against the abilities of the Roku Ultra and the Apple TV is that it’s never been easier to literally command nearly any movie or TV show to appear on your screen, using just your remote and your speaking voice.
But since the worlds of film and TV house such varied titles, actor and director names from many different backgrounds, voice search on these devices isn’t as vanilla and straightforward as telling your smart home to turn the lights off or on. There’s a lot of nuance in filmed content, and that’s where voice search, for me, didn’t always live up to the promise.
Here are just a few examples of names of films and actors that are in the databases of these devices when you type them in, but didn’t show up no matter how I twisted my mouth with different pronunciations and accents:
The Babadook (Australia’s indie horror hit)
Ong-Bak (the modern martial arts classic)
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (only shows up if you add “never sorry”)
Yul Brynner (The Magnificent Seven, Westworld, The Ten Commandments)
Marvin Hamlisch (Oscar-winning composer for The Way We Were, A Chorus Line, and The Spy Who Loved Me)
Lupita Nyong’o (Star Wars: The Force Awakens, 12 Years A Slave)
To be clear, all these talented artists and amazing films show up — but only if you input the search text manually, not via voice. The problem isn’t representation, or some sort of omission, it’s just that voice search stumbles when it comes to some of these very popular and very well known people and titles.
What all that adds up to is a somewhat disjointed experience for the heaviest users of these devices: film and television fans.
And it wasn’t difficult to get voice search to stumble, as all the names and titles I’ve listed were names I knew off the top of my head.
On the other hand, my voice searches did successful return results for films including Krampus, Paris Je T’aime, Sicario, Wolfen, and Evangeline, as well as actor Chiwetel Ejiofor (a name I’ve heard mispronounced often). So there’s not much consistency to the hit and miss nature of voice search on these devices.
What all that adds up to is a somewhat disjointed experience for the heaviest users of these devices: millions and millions of happily obsessed film and television fans. Easy to use interfaces, voice or tactile, lead to habits, which leads to more engagement and higher usage. Higher usage is definitely what streaming media device makers are looking for from consumers. That’s part of the point of voice search.
But until voice search can handle the widest range of tastes that cover any number of weird names and titles (that, I repeat, are actually available in these databases via text search), voice search will be more clever add-on than heavily used anchor that drives up streaming media device usage.
Voice search for streaming media devices, while wonderful most of the time, just isn’t fully baked yet. But it’s getting there.
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