Friday, January 25, 2008

Hulu review: Hands free TV

I'd like to talk about my impressions of the Hulu online TV/movie viewer. Some of you may recall that I signed up for an invitation to Hulu last month and received a reply within a week to ten days. I've been using it for several weeks now.

My overall impression is that Hulu gets an A in many areas. They rate high on customer satisfaction (even though it's currently in beta and free.) Even during the short time I've used it, they keep making changes to content and viewing options that are improvements. There's a place to rate the content and to report any viewing issues on each video and feedback is encouraged. The only negative I see here is that providing feedback could be improved by giving more options in their choices, but you can email them directly.

It also gets an A in overall ease of use. You can view the content in several ways: by browsing clips or full episodes of TV shows/movies or by TV station or film studio. It's possible to see lists of the most popular clips or full episodes and you can create a playlist as you browse. There's also a welcome screen that features new shows, making it easy to keep up with new content.

Moreover, the viewing screen is easy on the eyes. You even have a backlit feature which you can click to "dim the lights". It really takes care of the problem of having so much text on a white page with a viewing screen since it "grays out" all of that and you're left with the very impressive sharp picture Hulu provides in a nice frame. Many viewers comment that this feature is particularly appreciated by seniors, but I think it is at its best in animated features.

Speaking of content, there's a wide range from action/adventures, to drama, to reality shows, to cartoons. And if you can't find anything there you'd like, there are full length movies featured. The content changes over time as episodes are removed or added and more shows are added. There's a mix of retro TV shows like St. Elsewhere and Doogie Howser, to shows that were recently on the air or are still airing. Although some of these are available free on network sites, having Hulu is a convenient way to "one stop shop:" for content.

Now let's get down to the nitty gritty for users with disabilities. I'm using an electronic tracker for cursor control so I can speak to the size of the controls and the ease of use. Not to say I don't have good aim - but let's face it, it's a bit more challenging than using a regular mouse. The screen is surrounded by eight boxes - four on each side- for ratings, dimming the lights, having the screen pop up, and other features. I can access all of these with the assistive equipment. What is a bit more challenging are the controls (pause, stop, etc.) at the bottom of the screen. They work although it sometimes feels like I'm playing a video game as they pop up and then disappear. The good news is that the one feature which was really hard to work ( rating the content with stars) was recently changed and now appears enlarged when you select it. I'd like to see more work done on all of these "boxes" to make them a bit larger for folks with disabilities so our aim doesn't have to be quite as good - but in general, even as it is, one can manage.

On the negative side, there are no captioning features nor do they provide video descriptions of the shows, features that would really make Hulu appealing to the disability community.

One area where Hulu shines is its excellent delivery of content via streaming. I've viewed a few dozen shows and only once experienced any stuttering or interruptions. I reported it but later that evening it happened at a second site so that led me to believe it was caused by my connection, not theirs.

So I give Hulu a good grade overall except for the lack of captioning - and their missed opportunity to provide video descriptions. That would truly make them pioneers of the future!

If you're interested, click here and ask for an invitation.