Earlier today YouTube debuted a new mobile experience, using HTML5 to offer a mobile site that sports better video quality and (soon) more content than the native YouTube iPhone application (and it works on other smart phones as well). But they’re not done. Tonight, the video portal is also launching YouTube Leanback, a version of YouTube that’s optimized for watching content on your TV set, or when you’re sitting a few feet away from your desktop computer. In short, this is YouTube TV.
Leanback was first shown off as a preview at Google I/O, and will be integrated into Google TV when it launches this fall. The product evolved from YouTube XL, which launched in June 2009. The XL interface was cleaner than the standard YouTube site and was easier to use from a distance, but it didn’t deliver an experience that felt natural to couch surfers. LeanBack changes that.
Head to Youtube.com/leanback, and the site will immediately start playing videos from a feed of suggestions, based on other videos you’ve liked (if you’re not logged in it will start playing the videos that are currently most popular on the site). To skip to the next video in the playlist, you hit the right arrow on your keyboard. Want to navigate to a different genre of clips? Hit the down arrow, and you can scroll through other channels of content. Hitting the Up arrow will bring up a search option.
In other words, the interface is really straightforward. Hand the keyboard to someone sitting on a couch and they’ll probably be able to figure out the basics in a few seconds. And once they’ve landed on a channel they want, they’ll be able to watch an endless stream of content — Leanback will keep playing recommended videos indefinitely, just as a cable channel would.
This is all part of YouTube’s goal to boost engagement — the site obviously sees a huge volume of uploads and traffic, but it gets around 15 minutes of viewing time a day per user. That contrasts with the five hours of television that people watch on average each day.
Of course, there’s the matter of whether people are going to start actually using Leanback — after all, most people aren’t using home theatre PC’s just yet, and Google TV is still a few months off. YouTube’s Julian Frumar, who led design for Leanback, says that the team wants to track how people are using the product so that it can tests its assumptions before the Google TV launch. The team also notes that Leanback isn’t just for TV viewing — the site works perfectly well from your desktop or laptop, and offers a great experience for those times when you just want to watch YouTube clips without making many choices.
Rentals aren’t live for Leanback yet, but the YouTube team says that this is due to a technical issue, not a licensing one, and that it hopes to offer rentals in the next few weeks. And yes, ads will eventually make their way into Leanback as well.