I can’t tell you how many times I have sat and stared at the Netflix library and thought to myself, “I wish I could just put on a random episode selector and veg out.”
Several weeks ago, I brought up this exact same thing on the GeekWire Podcast, that all I want is some centralized location where I can aimlessly watch all the content available across the streaming services that I pay for.
A few months ago on the Reddit community /r/cordcutters, Rory Stolzenberg shared his idea OttoPlay, suggesting it allows users of the extension to “surf channels” similar to that of a TV guide channel. Just the other day, Mr. Stolzenberg updated the Reddit community that OttoPlay now worked with Hulu as well as Netflix and YouTube, a major step toward giving us a centralized location to aimlessly surf content on a whim. Somewhat similar to Pluto TV, which we reviewed this week as well after their Hulu integration, OttoPlay has the advantage of offering a direct connection to a user’s Netflix account.
I have been playing around with OttoPlay for the past few days and am absolutely in love with the potential in this app. Without having to stare at a wall of options, I have simply been firing up the Chrome extension and relaxing as any genre I choose serves random episodes of my favorite shows. As you’ll see in the interview below, the app’s creator makes a great point that there is a big difference between watching an episode of Breaking Bad, which requires some level of focus, or just wanting to zone out watching a handful of Seinfeld, Archer and Scrubs episodes as background noise.
My only critiques are nothing surprising for such a new app. The design could certainly use some work and the stability with an influx of new users is causing temporary performance issues. But I don’t personally hold any of this against OttoPlay, as it has mostly been a fun side project for Mr. Stolzenberg, while he has been busy working on Foodio full time.
Download the OttoPlay Chrome extension here
I reached out to Rory to chat OttoPlay, and hear about his overall plan for what has, up until this point, been just a side project. Read what he has to say below.
Where did the idea for OttoPlay come from?
Living with three roommates while founding a startup with two of them, we wanted to cut the cord. Before going cold turkey on TV we tried to switch ourselves over – first we hooked up an HDMI cord to the TV so we could plug in, then we got a Chromecast, then a Roku.
But we’d sit on the couch and spend 10 minutes before we could come up with something to watch, or worse, we’d switch back to the cable box so we didn’t have to bother with decisions. It seemed to me there could be a middle ground – continuous channel style programming, without having to pay Comcast.
Do you think there is still something about “channel surfing” that people still enjoy?
Absolutely. When I want to relax, I sit back on the couch and flip on the TV. I don’t have to decide, I’m not too heavily invested in what I’m watching, and if what’s on is really so bad that I want something else, all I need to do is click a button or two to get something new.
The rise of internet streaming has given us the excellent phenomenon of binge-watching – and don’t get me wrong, I love a good binge. But it’s a mistake to treat binging as a substitute for casual watching. Watching 45 hours of Breaking Bad is much closer to reading a novel or even seeing a movie – it’s immersive, focused, and most of all intense.
By the end, you’re incredibly invested in the universe, but you’re probably feeling a little drained. That’s great sometimes, and for some shows. But it’s not even close to the same as channel surfing for an hour or two after you get home from work.
Are you working directly with the streaming services themselves on OttoPlay?
No, we depend on the subscriptions that users already have. I see OttoPlay as more like a web browser for video than a competitor to streaming services – instead of navigating around through search fields and catalogs with vanilla Chrome or Firefox, it enforces a sequential and continuous experience. But it’s still just a browser, and ultimately all it does is navigate you to URLs you’re allowed to access.
Any fear the streaming services might try and lock you out of their services?
I don’t think the streaming services will lock me out – fundamentally I don’t think it’s any different from a viewer using another web browser, and if anything OttoPlay adds value to subscriptions. I can definitely see people adding a provider to fill out their OttoPlay channels, so there might be an opportunity to have a referral relationship with services.
Is it hard to get the individual streaming services integrated into the channel guide?
It’s not too bad! On the front-end, most sites are pretty similar – depending on the service, it’s either a page that already has a fullscreen video or the extension fullscreens the video element. The app just needs to know when the show’s ended – pretty easy with HTML5 video, slightly more complex otherwise, but usually not too bad.
Then it’s just a matter of gathering together all the shows and their links and assign them into channels. That part’s been pretty much manual database entry so far, but I’m working on some admin tools so I’ll be able to just click an extra button in my browser when I’m on a video I want to add.
What sort of things are you hoping to develop on top of this app in the near future?
I’ll be adding some channel customization, starting with deleting specific shows from your channels (so long, Scrubs on Comedy). Definitely more service providers – there’s tons of great content on Amazon Prime, HBO Go, Twitch, all the TV Everywhere providers. Soon I’ll code auto-detection of providers, so the app can automatically adjust to being logged into Netflix or out of Hulu and serve you the right content (currently it’s a manually toggled setting). Right now it’s all taking a backseat to scaling the app for all these new users!
Any insight to the long term plan here?
I can easily see it moving beyond the Chrome extension platform, since it’s such a distinct browsing experience. A standalone downloadable version is pretty likely in the not-too-distant future, if only so I can play with node-webkit. I could even see a hardware component, to save the bother of having to hook your computer up to your TV. Sticks seem to be all the rage nowadays, and they’re wonderfully cheap, but every product so far has been proprietary and locked-down. The Chromebit or Intel Compute Stick might be a solution, but I wouldn’t rule out a dedicated OttoBox.
I think the big open question right now is the composition of channels. Right now they’re just lists of shows that seem to me like they fit in a genre. Should you be able to create your own? It can definitely make for the best stuff to watch, but it’s fairly time-consuming and annoying (trust me). Maybe there should be a crowdsourced/voting system where people can collectively decide what makes the cut for each channel. Or maybe users should be able to share channels they curate. They all ultimately boil down to a pretty similar OttoPlay, but it’s the difference between taking the Pandora model, the traditional channel model, or something completely new.
Beyond that, I think OttoPlay has quite a bit of potential. The vast majority of TV hours watched are still on the linear side of the ledger, and a lot of people are still mistakenly conflating cable vs. streaming with linear vs. on-demand. I think it’s inevitable that internet-based linear television will become popular, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it grew even larger than on-demand.