Comcast would like its customers to try something new: The cable operator added a new Labs section to its X1 cable boxes over the last couple of days, allowing TV subscribers to test-drive new features before they’re officially integrated into the product. “Gmail has always had the Gmail Labs features,” said Piers Lingle, Comcast’s VP of product development and planning during an interview last week, adding that his company wanted to bring the same approach to cable TV.
The new Comcast Labs section, which can be found on X1 devices within the settings, currently offers four different opt-in features, including a post-play experience that lets binge watchers quickly jump to the next episode, a shuffle feature that automatically plays episodes from a certain selection — think your kid’s favorite TV show — and a way to lock the TV remote with a code that Lingle compared to the lock screen of your cell phone.
Lingle said that a couple of these features were built in response to feedback from customers, but the childproof TV remote was actually the idea of a Comcast engineer whose son often sat on the remote control, changing channels at random. Lingle added that these features will be tested for some time to get feedback and data, after which his team will decide whether to officially add them to the X1 set-top box.
Additional experimental features will be added to the Labs section in the coming months, including what Lingle called a “virtual video channel” — basically a personalized playlist of shows and movies compiled from a variety of sources that will appear in the regular programming grid, right next to traditional broadcast and cable TV networks.
On their own, these features may not sound incredibly groundbreaking, but the fact that Comcast can try to evaluate them on its cable boxes speaks to the changing nature of these platforms. Cable customers used to get a set-top box from their operator when signing up for service, and then they were stuck with the same set of features and user interface for years. But increasingly, these devices are based on HTML5, making it a lot easier to push out new features without sticking to lengthy upgrade cycles.
Comcast first introduced its X1 platform in 2012, and is now making it available in all of its markets. Lingle didn’t want to tell me how many of Comcast’s customers already use the X1 hardware, but said that the company currently clocking 20,000 new X1 installs a day.