Don't know what to watch on Netflix? Let the OttoPlay Chrome extension decide

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We've all heard the joke about spending more time deciding what to watch on Netflix than actually watching Netflix. A new Chrome extension solves this problem by choosing shows on your behalf.

It's called OttoPlay, and it basically mimics the channel-surfing experience of traditional TV, only with Netflix videos and the occasional YouTube clip. You can download the extension for free from the Chrome Web Store.

Once installed, the OttoPlay button pops up near the top-right corner of the browser. Clicking it opens a full-screen window that starts playing a video automatically. Move your cursor to the bottom of the screen, and a TV guide pops up, giving you 14 “channels” around themes like comedy, drama, kids, and anime. If you don't like what's on, you can simply jump ahead to the next show or click the randomize button to alter the current channel's lineup.

There's nothing particularly magical about how OttoPlay pulls its content together. Rory Stolzenberg, OttoPlay's creator, told me that he manually gathers Netflix show lists and YouTube playlists, dumps the links into a database, and assigns them to channels as he sees fit. (Netflix makes this more of a hassle by not offering offer a public API, he said.) A basic algorithm then randomizes each channel's lineup.

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In theory, this means OttoPlay will only stay fresh for as long as Stolzenberg stays interested in the project (which he says is a labor of love right now), but that doesn't mean you'll run out of things to watch. The database is already well-stocked enough that you can randomize a channel's lineup a half-dozen times and not see a duplicate episode.

Stolzenberg also said adding new content sources is a top priority. He plans to start with Hulu, followed by Amazon Prime and HBO Go. “I want OttoPlay to be as watchable as TV even for extended periods, so filling it up with full-length episodes is crucial,” he said.

Beyond adding more content on his own, Stolzenberg is pondering a crowdsourced system for users to vote on what goes into a channel, or create and share their own channels. “Near term, my solution is to keep the channels broad and let you remove shows so you can whittle channels down to exactly what you want,” he said.

Personally, I'd prefer that he work on stability first. In my experience, hitting the randomize button on a channel sometimes causes the lineup to disappear completely. Navigating with the keyboard is also less reliable than the cursor, as the guide tends to automatically slide out of view while I'm scrolling around.

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Being able to run OttoPlay on smart TVs and set-top boxes would also be nice, but the extension is so dependent on recognizing URLs from the open web that this is unlikely to happen anytime soon. If you're using a Chromebox or home-theater PC, however, OttoPlay should work flawlessly.

Currently, Stolzenberg has no plans to make money from OttoPlay, though he's thought about letting users opt into advertisements if they want to support the project. What he really wants now is feedback on what sources to add, what personalization options to include, and whether he should add live events from sources like Twitch. The best way to provide that input is to e-mail him.

Using OttoPlay, it strikes me that this is exactly how TV should work in the age of cord cutting. It's not exactly appointment viewing because each show starts from the beginning when you flip to it, but the extension still maintains some of the serendipity and passiveness that comes from flipping through the channels. The more I think about it, the crazier it is that Netlfix doesn't offer this kind of feature on its own. While OttoPlay is far from perfect, it's the best tool we've got for all those moments of indecision.

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