I wrote back in May about YouTube's announced Leanback interface—designed to help you seamlessly shift to watching YouTube content on your television. It was a relatively detail-free announcement, as I recall, but on the heels of the Google TV notice, it was definitely intriguing.
Well, today the intrigue ends. YouTube has officially launched Leanback, and in a completely unsurprising move, they've also released a YouTube video about it:
The idea is to create a customized YouTube experience for every user to be able to enjoy full-screen video content. And while the long term goal may be to get users watching content on their Internet-ready televisions, this initial launch is all about the web version. In fact, there's not a single mention in YouTube's blog announcement of the word "television" (though they do say that using YouTube "becomes like watching TV").
You can check out Leanback by going to youtube.com/leanback in your browser of choice. You'll have to sign into your YouTube account first, but then the application starts up immediately. The horizontal options at the bottom represent videos you've seen, and similar videos (from the "recommended for you" feature), and the first video on the list starts playing automatically.
At first, it's a little confusing. There aren't really any visible buttons or options, as the video takes up the whole screen, and it's so free of clutter that it's almost paralyzing.
I kept hovering my mouse over the screen looking for options, when a helpful transparent tip popped up suggesting I try using the arrow keys jump forward or backward in the stream to a specific video. The hint appears whenever you try to click on anything, and looks like this:
Of course, you're welcome to just "lean back" and enjoy the show. The left and right arrows will take you to the next video in the stream. The up arrow will bring up a search bar and the down arrow reveals the video player controls. They look like this:
Hitting the down arrow again (after you've pulled up the player controls) will bring up the various streams you can choose from: Your Stream, Autos & Vehicles, Comedy, etc.
The basic idea is to be able to use YouTube in most of the ways you're used to, but without a mouse. Because televisions don't have mice, but most remote controls do have arrow keys.
But there's also a huge part of this that is all about customized content. And frankly, as I've said before, the "recommended for you" section of YouTube is one of my least favorite features. It assumes that I enjoy every video I see, so that even a video I hated shows up in my Leanback stream, along with videos similar to it. Your personal stream also includes videos being shared by your Facebook friends—if your YouTube account has been linked to your Facebook account—which is disappointing. I'm not sure YouTube is aware of how few of my Facebook friends share my taste in video. It would be nice to have a control that easily allows me to remove a particular video from my stream, but maybe that's one of the features they'll add later.
It's still in beta, and there are some kinks to work out. For instance, a lot of videos look like garbage on my full-screen view. I do have a 22-inch monitor, but so do a ton of other people. And most TV's are larger than 22-inches these days. It would almost be better to filter out lower-quality videos from Leanback, because it's a huge turn-off to see someone's giant pixelated head after watching an HD clip.
Regardless, this is definitely a bold new step. And I expect Leanback to improve rapidly and add features as it grows and moves out of beta. For now, the web version isn't likely to reinvent the way I personally experience YouTube. But there's little argument from me that this is, indeed, a far superior way to experience YouTube on a television… which is kind of the whole point.
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