Testing Teevox, an iPhone Remote for Netflix and Hulu

By Bobby Schweizer

The debate over whether smart phones can be good media remotes continues.

I recently downloaded Teevox, an iPhone Netflix and Hulu remote control app, to examine another smart phone remote app that might fulfill the prediction that the iPhone (and smartphones in general) will replace all our home remotes. Created by Jong-Moon Kim and Andrew Sugaya as a YCombinator funded project, Teevox allows users to remotely control Netflix and Hulu videos in their browser on a computer. It works by sending remote commands between a paired device and a server. Press pause on the remote and the Teevox web application controls the video player in the browser. No desktop clients, no Wi-Fi syncing.

The first time I opened the application, I decided to watch Disney's Up. Here's the trick: the Teevox app works by communicating with your browser window, so the Teevox "go" page (www.Teevox.com/go) has to be open for you pick and control shows. The Netflix player was loaded into a pop-up window from Teevox, and I instantly joined a young Carl Fredricksen watching a newsreel about Paradise Falls. The Netflix remote doesn't have the volume controls like the Hulu remote, so the iPhone interface shows a giant play/pause button and the title of the video being watched. 

his criticisms of smart phone remotes. If part of the process breaks down, the whole system comes to a halt. An hour later everything was in working order and I haven't had an issues since. With that speed bump out of the way, I got to dig into the core functionality of the remote.

It's worth noting some of the 'social' features of the service. Starting a video prompts the user with the option to share on Facebook or Twitter using an editable "I'm watching ____" message. This can be disabled in the application's preferences. One of the icons on the bottom of the app is for chat, which is divided into global and video-specific chatrooms. In the global chatroom, user avatars line the top of the screen (though tapping on them does nothing) and a list of in-progress videos can be pulled from the "Channels" button. Clicking on an in-progress video launches the movie in the browser and takes you to its chartroom on the phone.

The chartrooms were quiet first thing in the morning, but picked up when app creator Jong-Moon "jiggly" Kim joined the service and used the 'announce' feature to broadcast a link to the episode he was going to watch. I joined Red Dwarf, Series 1, Ep. 5. I asked Kim about a "join in progress" feature and he responded that they "plan to roll out a synced play feature." This, combined with video-specific chat, could make for an enjoyable experience—the text chat equivalent of party watching Netflix using Xbox Live.

As someone who has worked in interactive TV applications previously, I feel confident in my judgments. The lack of desktop client for Teevox makes the process seem magical and users will be impressed by the simplicity of the process‚—I know I was. But until the social features are fully implemented, it's hard to imagine using Teevox only as a remote.

With an HTPC in your entertainment center, you would still need a keyboard to control to open the browser and log in to the Teevox web service. Currently, only Hulu supports the volume controls, so a TV remote would be more versatile. You could make a case for the volume on a laptop or desktop, but only really when watching them from a distance. Despite the novelty of the client-free interaction between remote and browser, I felt silly using my iPhone six inches from my laptop.

Without even the most basic functionality of other Netflix device interfaces, browsing for videos to watch is downright cumbersome. Additionally, leaving the iPhone on for the whole 110 minutes of a movie would drain the battery rather quickly. Having to wake the phone (or relaunch the application) to pause takes considerably longer than reaching for a remote controller or mouse. After relaunching the application, the remote no longer knows which movie or episode is being watched, though it can still pause and play the video.
With a few tweaks, Teevox shows promise. If it wants to integrate with social features, it needs to embrace them wholeheartedly and use them to enhance the viewing experience. Synced watching with chat needs to define the service. It also needs better video browsing and integration with personal Netflix queues. As just a remote, it's functional. But as a whole watching experience, Teevox could become a useful service.