In a post-Google TV era, Hisense takes a first stab at defining Android on TV

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If you’re interested in smart TVs, then CES 2014 had two surprises for you: The first one was LG with its webOS-based smart TVs, and the second one was Hisense. I ventured to the Hisense booth last week because I wanted to check out the company’s new Roku TV, but I quickly learned that at least for Hisense, Roku isn’t the big story: Vidaa is.

Vidaa is the company’s new smart TV platform, which has been developed by Jamdeo, a design and engineering company located in Ontario, Canada that’s co-owned by Hisense and Flextronics. I interviewed Jamdeo’s Principal Designer Mo Selim (see the video below) and after spending a bit of time chatting with his team about their thoughts on the smart TV space and their design philosophy, I came away impressed.

There are a couple things that intrigue me about the Vidaa smart TV:

It’s the future of Google TV. Hisense used to be one of the companies in the Google TV camp, producing the Hisense Pulse companion box. But Google TV was plagued with a long list of problems, one of them being the strict requirements Google put in place for its hardware partners. For example, the first generation of Google TV needed to include a full traditional QWERTY keyboard, leading to unwieldy and confusing remote controls.

Google eventually realized that Google TV was going nowhere, loosened up, got rid of the brand and started to allow manufacturers to build Android-based TVs, with the option to add Google services like Chrome and Primetime (Google’s TV programming guide) on top. The new Hisense Vidaa TVs are a first example of types of Android-based TVs in a post-Google TV era, and they show that the new freedom allows manufacturers to actually innovate and combine some of the better Google and Android apps with their own take on how smart TVs should look like and function. These first results are encouraging.

It’s using design to compete. TV is a tough market. Worldwide, close to 20 percent of all new TVs shipped come from Samsung. In the U.S., that number is closer to 30 percent. Chinese manufacturers have in the past primarily tried to compete through price, and apps were more of an add-on experience, which is why many hoped that Google TV would deliver them a complete product that didn’t require too much customization.

Hisense is still using this strategy with its Roku TV, but it also decided to spend some actual money on designing its own smart TV experience. The Jamdeo team told me that the first Vidaa TV premiered in China last year with an experience similar to the one now deployed in the U.S., but without Google services — and it turned into a hit, moving the needle for the company and significantly increasing its local market share. That’s why Hisense decided to bring Vidaa to the U.S., where it now wants to compete with brands like Samsung and LG and their take on smart TVs.

It actually gets things right. After seeing a demo of the Vidaa TV and talking to the folks who designed it, I’m actually impressed with this take on smart TVs. Take a look at many of the other smart TV platforms out there, and you’re often greeted by a convoluted desktop-like UI that bundles all kinds of stuff. That quickly results in information overload.

Jamdeo’s designers instead decided to do away with the home screen, and bundle apps and services around different activities, which is pretty smart. The ability to jump back and forth between these activities without having to back out of an app and launch another one is also neat, and the recognition that home media sharing is key to smart TVs, and possibly one day just as important as Netflix or any other video service, is right on the money.

Sure, there are still things to improve and some redundant features — but this is a big first step.

Check out Hisense’s official Vidaa promo reel for another look at the platform below:

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