When Boxee first launched, the notion of a Web-video content hub for your TV was still new. Now it’s commonplace. And today Boxee gets off the bench, as its hotly anticipated set-top box finally starts shipping to customers.
The Boxee Box’s design, unveiled at CES in 2010, was a showstopper — with its in-your-face, asymmetric whimsy, you either loved it or hated it. Created by ASTRO Studios, it also has a serious pedigree: that firm is the brains behind the design of the Xbox 360 and the Microsoft Zune.
Here, we talk to ASTRO founder Brett Lovelady and lead designer Michel Alvarez about why the Boxee Box looks as crazy as it does:
Co.Design: How did you get involved with Boxee, and what did they want from you — just hardware design?
Brett Lovelady: We got involved right at the beginning, when Boxee was just two guys from Israel with a big idea: ‘Internet TV for the rest of us.’ We believed in what they were trying to do, so we took an equity position in the company in lieu of a fee. A lot of design studios will do that: come up with some concepts and give them the tools to go out and raise capital around their idea.
We were brought on to design the hardware and also the product experience. Boxee is heavily software- and user interaction-driven, but there’s also a remote control and a display on the device itself. They wanted a super-memorable design, a real statement.
Why was there was a big ‘style’ push right from the beginning? Isn’t a box just a box, and isn’t what it does the important thing?
BL: Well, a classic thing that these Silicon Valley startups want when launching their first product is something we call a ‘reference design on steroids.’ It’s their first hardware play, which they know might also be their last. Boxee knew that even if the hardware did take root, they wanted to rise above the level of the pizza-box format that every other set-top box has.
From our perspective as industrial designers, we often laugh about being boxologists, and here comes this client called Boxee, which wants to make a box! To their credit, they wanted us to be irreverent about that. And one of our wilder ideas was this idea of a box emerging up out of your tabletop. Something very three-dimensional, as opposed to a lot of other home entertainment products, where all you experience is this cheap, flat front face.
Michel Alvarez: We wanted to own that visual idea, that Boxee doesn’t live with all your other boxes. It sits on top and it has its own place.
But so-called boring set top boxes have practical reasons for looking that way. What would you say to someone who says the Boxee Box is just style over substance?
BL: The point is to love it or hate it — either way, you have a clear emotional response and point of view. We know it looks sort of impractical. But at the same time, the bold design statement actually addresses some very practical concerns.
For example, if you don’t give a product like this enough size and shape, the sheer weight of the cables going into it can pull it right off the tabletop. The bottom of the Boxee box has a bright green skid pad made of sticky rubber that keeps it from sliding around if you accidentally bump or pull a cable.
And the shape of the box itself addresses the fact that this mess of cables is an unavoidable part of the product experience. It doesn’t look so great to have all your cables and connectors fountaining out of the back of the product. But by putting that cable interface on a slope or angle as we did, it lets gravity take over to at least funnel them all in one direction. It’s subtle, but it could almost be aesthetically pleasing and easier to deal with.
MA: We struck a fine balance between that whimsical Boxee style and the need for it to look respectable as a high-end piece of home electronics in your living room. We used a lot of strong plastics and finely textured surfaces that make it feel very smart and powerful, but also a little mysterious. You don’t necessarily even see the Boxee logo until you turn the device on. The overall feel is very geometric and pure, and I think that highlights the simplicity of the software.
The two-sided remote also seems impractical, at first glance. Won’t a user constantly be pressing buttons on both sides of the remote by mistake?
MA: The remote went through many iterations to address that concern. Early on we tried using accelerometers to make it smart enough to know when you had the QWERTY keyboard facing up. But in the end we found a simple physical design that does all that work.
One side is very simplified and pure with play and pause buttons and a four-way navigation pad. We placed those controls in the center of the remote, which keeps your hands away from those buttons when you’re using the QWERTY side, which you hold like a phone when you’re text-messaging. It took a couple mockups to dial in the right proportions, but it’s actually quite comfortable — the physical design itself is what keeps your hands away from the areas you don’t want to use.
Does bold product design like this ever turn into a liability for the client down the road, when they need to refresh or broaden their product line?
BL: In a perfect world, you’d figure out your whole road map ahead of time. We’re actually advocates of that: If you’re going to make a bold statement, you want to know if it’s going to work later — or if it needs to. This design came out of that classic startup scenario of, ‘This is what we have enough money for, let’s go with it.’ But we haven’t designed these guys into a box. No pun intended.