State-Of-The-Art TV

This was once a state-of-the-art TV set. Though the tech of the tube itself, and the electronics behind it have improved, the TV itself hasn't really evolved: It's still a screen with controls you fiddle with to watch shows someone else chooses for you. [Image: Flickr user sun dazed]

The Sad Set-Top Box

We kind of agree with this cat. Though they're an advance of sorts, the average set-top box is much better for keeping you warm than delivering a 21st century TV experience. [Image: Flickr user andrewcurrie]

The Smarter TV

Smart TV efforts are pushing TV into the Internet age, and changing how we view TV from a strict time-managed resource (with someone else setting the clock) to a more buffet experience, under our control. It's early days for the user interface, though. [Image: Flickr user paz.ca]

Smart TV, Dumb Remotes

Early generation Smart TVs are the first stab at the future of TV, but they're far from perfect. And no amount of "smart" remote control design can help get around this--in fact, it highlights how awkward smart television currently is. [Image: Flickr user khelvan]

Design Simplicity

Apple's tried to take us back to the early days of easy-to-use remotes, even as its TV set-top box is among the smartest there is. But perhaps a truly smart TV wouldn't even need a simple slab of aluminum to command it...After all, the iPhone's Siri just needs to hear your voice. [Image: Flickr user Robert S. Donovan]

An Appier TV

Sometimes it feels like Apple's teasing us... this fresh UI for the Apple TV looks similar to the array of apps on an iPhone, but it's not. Yet iOS apps on a TV could completely change television, the way the iPhone changed cellphones. [Image: Flickr user deerkoski]

How TV Could Be Transformed In 2013

Diving inside Tim Cook's "area of intense interest," it's clear Apple, Google, and rivals have big plans for television. The boob tube is about to get a whole lot smarter.

Tim Cook's interview frenzy last week stirred up a whole bundle of fun for future TV watchers. There was particularly intense interest in Cook saying that TV remains an "area of intense interest" for Apple.

Some took this news as further evidence that 2013 will be the year Apple really leaps into the TV fray. Even the Wall Street Journal, considered to be Apple's de facto "leaky" channel, is in on the speculation--noting several prototype designs exist in Cupertino labs, with parts on order from China. Others cautioned against too much enthusiasm.

Inevitably in this time of bloodthirsty technology battles, it looks like several other big players also have ideas for bringing TV truly into the 21st century. New data from Morgan Stanley suggests that 18% of American's already own a "smart TV" that's connected to the web in some way, but only 13% know that they have this capability. Which means there may be a market for a TV that's actually smart, and as easy to use as your average Apple product.

Innovating The Interface

Today's TV is amusingly 20th century: Turn it on and watch. Then sit back, let the content wash over you, and be a passive consumer--a position that's in stark contrast to how we choose to listen to music on Spotify, say, or read our newspapers online or download and play with smartphone apps.

That's the first problem. The second is that where TV providers like cable companies have innovated and give you a free set-top box with built-in TiVo power and smart scheduling, the set top box itself is almost universally terrible. It often has a user-hostile interface, or it may be restricted in irritating ways by the cable provider...or perhaps both at once.

That's why Steve Jobs once said there was room to "go back to square one and tear up the set-top box and redesign it from scratch with a consistent UI."

Apple could do this with an evolution of its existing Apple TV product--which is already being updated with Bluetooth keyboard support. Slap Siri in the box too and you could command your TV without a fiddly remote. Siri could even make you care less about channels or paid-for-content: "Find me Star Trek," you'd say, and Siri would dial to the right channel, or offer you the chance to pay for a show right there. If a putative Apple television also ran iOS apps then TV could change beyond all measure, becoming your chat, IM, video calling interface that also manages the family calendar and plays games.

Google TV has already made progress in this direction, and its recently revamped interface brings Google's legendary search skills to the scene along with a powerful voice search using natural language. A connected Google TV can also show you Netflix content alongside YouTube clips and uses Knowledge Graph to intelligently shape how it presents potential program choices to the viewer. Never mind that Google may be trying to sell the set-top box division of its new acquisition Motorola Mobility...the firm is committed to TV innovation, and has even recently launched the service in the U.K. If Google applies even more brain power to TV in 2013, perhaps bringing some of the "psychic" user-pattern prediction powers of Google Now into play, TV could really change.

Then there's Samsung. It's already been innovating the TV with its Smart interface that brings Net connectivity along with some level of app experience to the screen. Later-gen Smart TVs even have voice control, and a built in camera for gesture control--a neat way around the problem of complex remote controls. Samsung Ventures just invested $5 million in a company, Delivery Agent, that's all about TV-based e-commerce. DA is good at matching products shown in films and TV shows and then allowing viewers to buy them via a Smart TV interface, smartphone, or web. That could be a way for Samsung to monetize its next-gen TV interface idea.

Even Verizon is getting in on this game--patenting a future set-top box tech that snoops on TV watchers to detect their sounds, foods, and even ethnicity and use the data to drive TV content or even advert choices to suit your exact mood at that moment. And gaming firm Valve's boss is certain we'll see living-room-friendly PCs connected to TVs in 2013.

TV Tech Transformed

But what of the TV set itself? After Tim Cook's recent statement, there's renewed speculation Apple will turn its "hobby" set-top box into a full-fledged TV set. Much has been written about this idea, and a wholly new product from Apple in Spring 2013 does make sense.

The firm may even have been funding Sharp, pushing the development of IGZO screen tech--a next-gen display system that will make your LED TV look terrible. Apple has all that expertise in super-skinny devices and smart integrated sensors, too...to say nothing of its stunning retina displays. And here's the kicker: 46% of those surveyed by Morgan Stanley said they'd be willing to pay over $1,000 for an Apple television, much more than the average $884 they'd pay for their current TV tech.

Google is, it would seem, less likely to tackle the matter of full-on TV tech (though it does seem to be enjoying slapping its own-brand Nexus logo over tablets and smartphones). If Google does play for next-gen TV tech in 2013 it'll be in partnership with a firm like Sony or Samsung, which already has design expertise and production lines rolling. It's even possible Google may try to revolutionize the set-top box, perhaps taking lessons from its Android tablets and relevant design successes like the Roku box or the Apple TV puck.

One thing is abundantly clear: It's time for TVs to get sexy in terms of design, and for set-top boxes to ditch that awful 1980s hi-fi box vogue.

Socially Sassy On The Second Screen

Current TV revolutions are happening quietly away from the big screen in your living room and instead on the small tablet screen in your lap. We're all doing it, and second screen attention is quite definitely beginning to drag full attention away from the TV--but in a good way, with folks searching for content based on the show, chatting about it on social media, and possibly even buying stuff based on adverts.

Apple and Google are well placed to make the most of advances made by companies like GetGlue here, with their control over second screen tech on smartphones and tablets.

If either of these big firms really does make a play for next-gen TV tech in 2013, then we may even see some of this second-screen action move up onto the main screen of the TV--that way it's integrated into the viewing experience, and it's possible the explosion of second screen browsing is largely due to the antiquated state of current TV tech.

2013 is the year your TV stops simply talking at you, and you start using it to communicate with other viewers.

Chat about this news with Kit Eaton on Twitter and Fast Company too.

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5 Comments

  • Jc CyberPine

    I'm waiting for a 70 inch Samsung Smart LED wth integrated Google TV.  But I'm only going to pull the trigger if I can voice command search all my internet and DNLA media while watching TV with no interruption or haivng to navigate in an out of applications.  I currently have a 42 inch LCD and a Samsung Smart Hub Blu Ray.  While I can watch Netflix, Youtube, Hulu and stream media on my network there is a lot to be desired. 

    For one, I have to stop what I'm watching and (painfully) navigate to the DVD and about 3 levels into the specific Application.  I want to be able to say Giants and get a list of every media with the word Giant in the title or description and toggle into it and back.. and ideally split screen without leaving what I'm watching. 

    The second big issue I currently have is that Youtube and Vevo are F***ing around too much and won't play many videos on the Smart Hub and other internet TV devices.  How does it make sense to let me play a video on my Samsung Android Smart Phone, but I can't play it on DVD Smart hub?

    And finally, what's the deal with the exclusive relationships between TV Channels and   Cable and Dish providers?  Why can't I buy access ala cart without paying for the delivery too? Maybe we are not there yet, but this will be a real game changer. Just give me 50mbs and I'll buy my media from whoever I want and find a smart device to let me manage and search it.

  • luckyl1184

    This line gave me a full-on Internet double-take, "Slap Siri in the box..." Come again?

  • Tyler

    Strangely, almost by accident, I've found that the Xbox Kinect might be where the smart TV is heading.  Simply using voice and gestures you can search, activate and play movies, music and even search the web.  I simply used it to play a few games but found these advancements quite refreshing and fun.  It's still pretty raw, but the idea and technology are certainly there. 

  • cmacattack

     At CES back in January of this year all of the TV manufacturers were displaying TV sets with hand gesture controls. Not sure yet on why they are waiting to bring them to market but they are already there and developed.

  • kevin

    I hope tech companies don't go over the top with this, adding andriod and iOS apps to a television doesn't make it a more intelligent it just makes it a TV with apps. I don't need to feel like I'm playing angry birds on a jumbo-tron. Television needs to be totally rethought from the ground up it doesn't need more complicated add-ons. Consumers don't need a 70 inch iPad in their living room, that plays cable. A fully integrated "tech" TV would need hardware and software from the same company, Samsung would design the TV plus the service ran on it. There is no point spending so much time on user experience for a smart TV when your customers cable provider is going to send out a poorly put together service anyway.  On the other hand cable companies could drop their menu standards the same way cell phone service companies like Verizon, remember the standardized menu before smart phones, did a few years ago, which would allow companies more control over TV experiences without completely ditching cable companies.  Either way would work and No motion control please!