YouTube today launched a service called Leanback, which lets you do what it suggests: By automatically playing a stream of high-def videos catered to your account settings, you can just lean back and watch, without all that arduous searching, mousing and clicking.
It's already live, so you can see for yourself at youtube.com/leanback. If you don't have a Google or YouTube account, you'll have to create one. In my case, logging in means seeing a lot of "Sesame Street" and other kid clips — since in my house, YouTube's main purpose is for quickly providing "Elmo Had Four Ducks" and the least obnoxious rendition of "The Wheels on the Bus" that can be found in the shortest amount of time.
You can now link your YouTube account to your Facebook account; once you do, any videos in your friends' streams would be fair game for Leanback. (I didn't try it, and I'm not sure if I want to.) If you have discovered YouTube's rental feature, those movies will be accessible as well.
Though in many ways this is just another way to reach full-window viewing, there's a whole new interface that comes with it. You don't use your mouse, but instead use keystrokes meant to emulate a remote control — directional arrows and the enter key, plus the space bar for starting and stopping. It may sound a little confusing, but I imagine you'd get the hang of it.
That new interface isn't a coincidence, but is meant to jibe with the larger Google TV initiative: In May, Google announced plans to take over the living room with video-on-demand from TVs and set-top boxes, and the Leanback promo video mentions that it will be part of the Google TV lineup. (Google TV introductory video here.)
It's a classy execution, but there are still kinks. I can't find the fullscreen command, for instance, and the utter refusal to accept mouse commands in lieu of keystrokes seems a little defensive.
Besides, it's still hard to be impressed with YouTube videos, no matter how many are strung together. Only the ones encoded in HD look good in HD — the rest look blurry, better enjoyed in a small window. One day (probably soon), everything on YouTube is gonna be pretty, or at least high-def. But for now, I don't know how much leaning back I am capable of.