Internet all the things: Hacking Android TV

May 27, 2015

Read time 3 min

The Internet of Things is coming, or so they tell me. We will soon be surrounded by “smart” devices that bend the world to our slightest whims. And it’s true my home lamp dims on and off at the swipe of a phone screen. It would be more impressive if I owned more than a single lamp, but you know, a lamp is a Thing. It’s on the Internet.

But when I look around otherwise the Internet of Things seems quite distant. Even the smarter Things around me are, well, less than impressive. TVs, for instance, seem to work about like they did in 1950. Or at least development for them feels that way.

Maybe this is changing. Google recently introduced Android TV, their latest attempt to pull the Android platform into the living room. I had the chance to try it out at an Android TV hackathon at the Google offices in Stockholm.

hackathon_hangout_roomThe hackathon was a laid-back affair. The office is heavily Google-themed, with artsy plasters of brightly-colored computer parts flowing across the ceiling, a Google telephone booth, and a large cafeteria done up like a sidewalk cafe. We were given a brief intro, pointed toward developer kits and coffee and food and told to hack away.

So we hacked away. I’ve never touched Android TV development in any of its incarnations, so I was excited to throw my Internet app on a Thing. Getting the app to run on an Android TV was trivial. Navigation only sort of worked, initially. As opposed to the more complicated schemes of earlier Android on TV models, Android TV apps are navigated using simple D-pad navigation. By default it tries to set up navigation automatically based on element positions. In my case the default settings only partially handled the app navigation, but it didn’t take much tweaking to make it work.

Overall Android TV development felt… unremarkable. It was just normal Android development. This itself is actually kind of remarkable, because TV development otherwise seems quite painful. The largest challenges I ran into were from a user interface perspective. It turns out hacking a phone app into a TV looks like, well, a phone app hacked into a TV. And I guess this is part of the point of Google’s latest Android on TV attempt. Fewer phone apps with fancy features hacked into TVs, more simple TV apps.

The hackathon ended with volunteer demos, dinner, and a prize giveaway. A few demos had variations on the theme of “play videos from a proprietary API using the provided BrowseFragment component”. One demo grabbed TV subtitles, pushed them through natural language processing and Wikipedia and displayed cards on your phone related to what you’re watching. Another waved a phone around on a robotic arm. In retrospect I’m not actually sure how it related to Android TV, but it was impressive.

Was developing for Android TV mindblowing? No, not really. But it was nice enough, and nice enough feels like a big step forward. One more Thing got just a little bit smarter.

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