TV makers get smart to recapture centre stage

TVs, once facing a future as dumb monitors, have become too smart for their own good, prompting dramatic moves at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas to make life simpler for viewers.

Samsung and a slew of other big brands have announced voice and motion controls to help consumers navigate the features, content and apps that TV makers have been pouring into their sets in recent years.

Their internet-connected “smart TVs” have staved off a challenge from set-top box manufacturers and computer makers to control content and services but they have added complex interfaces in the process, as well as remotes with dozens of buttons and even built-in keyboards.

Samsung announced it would pass the 20m mark this month for downloads of smart TV apps, but it also unveiled an integrated camera and microphones for its sets, allowing it to introduce voice and motion recognition to control them.

There is more than a nod here to the gaming world, where Nintendo’s Wii and Microsoft’s Kinect have popularised gesture and voice-based control for non-hard-core gamers. Rumours of a TV from Apple controlled by voice commands may also have spurred the established players.

David Steel, head of strategy for Samsung Electronics in the US, says the industry has always been good at building more functions into products but a gap had opened with the consumer’s ability to master them.

“Now, with some of the processing power inside these devices, we can start to tackle that with things like motion control and voice recognition,” he says.

Samsung’s new TVs will have dual-core processors, while its Korean rival LG has developed its own dual-core processors with quad-core graphics chips.

This state-of-the-art processing performance inside TVs could literally tip the balance of power in favour of TV manufacturers and away from set-top box and tech companies such as Intel, Microsoft and Google.

It allows their devices to carry out complex analysis of the audio and video they transmit. In the developing area of automatic content recognition (ACR), TVs can listen to and recognise what is being broadcast and provide services around this.

“TV manufacturers who want a direct channel to the user have had a hard time because the set-top box for cable or satellite sits in front of them and they don’t really have a way to understand what’s playing on the TV,” says Stephen White, president of Gracenote, which introduced an ACR product called Entourage at CES on Tuesday.

“ACR gives them the capability to know what the consumer’s watching and they can start to deliver additional experiences on the TV itself to that consumer.”

The TV makers are also extending their influence on to the couch, where consumers have been increasingly using smartphones and tablets as second screens to check things such as sports scores or film information related to what they are watching.

Harry Wang, director of mobile research at Parks Associates, says consumers began doing this spontaneously but consumer electronics companies have now seized on this behaviour as an opportunity to strengthen ties with the TV, with manufacturers “purposely pushing content to these second screens”.

Toshiba showed off its latest tablet at CES controlling its new smart TV through a TV programme guide app. ACR tablet apps such as Yahoo’s IntoNow listen to what is playing on TV and show related information.

The TV makers are also integrating wireless technologies that allow video, photos and music to be transferred and displayed or played on the different devices more easily. LG said it would use Intel’s Wi-Di technology that can beam video from laptops to TVs in its sets.

All of the moves represent the television makers putting their sets at the centre of home entertainment – aided and abetted by their smartphones and tablets – rather than becoming peripheral devices, as technology companies trying to break into the digital home have preferred to view them.

“It really represents the coming together of the family experience, so we think the TV is the hub we can build on terms of access to all content,” says Mr Steel.

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