How YouTube built a better way to connect your TV and phone

TV remotes are worthless and YouTube is tired of dealing with them. “It’s really hard to type on TV with a remote,” said Brynn Evans, YouTube’s chief design officer on TV. “Like, the remote is clunky, every remote is different, there are a million different buttons. They’re all bad.” Every app and service has tried to find ways around this, from those “activate on the web” screens that keep you from typing your password to a strong emphasis on voice search. Your Apple TV will almost begging you to type on your phone instead of your remote, but even that’s not enough for YouTube.

That’s why YouTube is introducing a new feature that connects your phone more closely to your TV. (It works on Android and iOS devices, so tablets should work too.) If you sit down and open the app on your streaming device, then open the YouTube app on your phone, you should get a popup saying asking if you’re watching YouTube on your TV. Once you click “Connect”, your phone becomes a synced companion for your TV. You can leave comments on the video, queue up, like and subscribe the next video, all the things that are way too tedious to do from your remote. YouTube promised a feature like this in February blog post with details on its plans for 2022, and now it’s launching.

An easy way to think about the Connect feature is like Google Cast in reverse. Instead of using your phone as a remote control for your TV, you can start the viewing process on your big screen and use your phone as a companion. And for YouTube, that means you don’t have to worry about whether your TV supports Cast or whether your Wi-Fi is configured correctly. “The beauty of this feature is that there are no protocols,” said Kurt Wilms, director of product management for YouTube on TV. “Your TV doesn’t have to be on the Wi-Fi network. Your phone doesn’t have to be on the Wi-Fi network!” It’s not even your devices syncing, really; it’s your YouTube account across devices.

YouTube’s new Connect feature should work on most TVs, without installation or software.
Image: YouTube

Figuring out what to do with TV viewers is important to YouTube. YouTube has been saying for years that TV screens are the platform’s fastest growing surface – users now watch 700 million hours of videos on their TVs every day, and 135 million people tune in to their big screens every day in the US alone – but the company never felt like those viewers were getting the full YouTube experience. “A lot of our content is created by creators,” Evans says, “and they create this content so that their community and their fans can really interact with them… there’s so much richness in the way our community is set up. None of that everything is on TV today.”

In a way, all that TV viewership actually poses a threat to YouTube. Now that the company has cemented its position as the best place for creators to build a business and make money, it has developed a range of ways for creators to interact with and monetize their audiences. Interactive live streams are a big part of YouTube’s future, as are Super Chat and shopping. Do you know how to start a channel membership from your Roku? Have you ever tapped a comment in a live stream on your Samsung TV? I bet not. On TVs, YouTube is really just a video player. And it must be more than that.

There is a world where YouTube addresses this problem by building a TV or a dedicated streaming device. Instead, the team focused on a statistic: 88% of people watching TV with their phone in their hands. Internal research by YouTube found something similar, with a large number of users watching YouTube on their TV while also Watch YouTube on their phone. Some users load the same video in both places so they can read and add comments; others are constantly scrolling through recommendations looking for the next thing to watch. But everyone is on their phone. So YouTube decided the trick to fixing the big screen was to make more of the small screen.

Connecting TVs and phones was the first step. Next up, Evans says, is to figure out how to display the comments you leave on the screen so you don’t have to look down again to confirm it’s actually been posted. Or to show you really popular comments on the screen so you can quickly tap to reply. By prioritizing your phone as an interaction system, YouTube runs the risk of accidentally ending the TV experience and teaching users that the only “correct” way to use YouTube is on your phone. So the company is trying to find ways to make things feel connected and natural, rather than seeing everything as an extension of your phone.

In the long run, the real potential here comes from your YouTube account becoming self-aware. YouTube’s systems have never cared what you’re watching and where before; you just have an account, that account looks at one thing at a time, the end. But going forward, Wilms says, YouTube will reach a kind of state consciousness: you could have one video playing on your TV, another on your laptop, and a third on your Nest Hub, and interact with them all in your YouTube app. Or you can play the same video in sync on any screen you own. “We’re working on that vision of a truly connected living room,” Wilms says, “that allows you to seamlessly move and interact with videos. Not just in your living room, but frankly throughout your home.”

YouTube is also trying to solve the multi-user problem inherent in the living room. If two people are sitting on a couch, can they both connect to YouTube on the TV? Whose account wins? How can you avoid having your recommendations completely ruined by your roommate’s terrible music taste? “The way to do that is you have to sign up the people in your household,” Evans says. YouTube is working to make multi-account homes work better overall, but Evans says this is a much longer-term project.

YouTube used to be a video player. Now it is a social network, a shopping platform, a short form entertainment system, a music service, a podcast player and so many other things. Across the company, teams are trying to figure out how to be all those things at once, across all the devices you own. Some of those devices have very large screens, others have no screens at all. But they all have to have YouTube. And if you can’t comment and like and shop and Super Chat, it’s just not YouTube.

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