Panasonic lets up to four family members pick their favorite TV shows and Internet-connected applications, be it YouTube videos, Pandora radio or Facebook. A built-in camera uses facial recognition technology to determine who's sitting on the couch to serve up the most relevant programming.
Samsung's sets monitor the shows you've watched so that when you turn on the TV its "smart hub" presents a curated list of programs — much the way Amazon.com suggests books, movies and other merchandise to buy, based on past purchases. While live TV is playing in one corner of the screen, the Samsung set will present a handful of shows you might like and five or six upcoming programs airing within the next two hours.
Basically, the goal is to allow consumers to spend more time watching TV and less time searching," said Dave Das, Samsung's vice president of home entertainment.
Recommendations, though, are an evolving science. And even the best algorithms can sometimes miscalculate, as one journalist humorously recounted in an article headlined: "If TiVo Thinks You Are Gay, Here's How to Set it Straight." Viewers who are repelled by the notion of their TV playing the role of Big Brother in their living rooms can disable recommendations — or simply program the set to display popular content.
Naturally there are enticing commercial applications beyond just helping the hapless viewer. Yes, dear consumer: The commercials will be targeted as well.
Gracenote is working with several television manufacturers and broadcasters to test a new technology for delivering customized ads into the home. The software incorporates information available through public databases, including credit information, home ownership and car registration data, to help brands deliver targeted messages during commercial breaks.
An automaker such as Ford could air multiple commercials during a single commercial break: with ads for its sporty compact Fusion appearing to the apartment of a single young male, the Flex cross-over vehicle touted to a suburban couples with children, or a Lincoln MKX displayed in affluent households. Such practices are already commonplace online.
Broadcasters and advertisers hope that when the technology is introduced in 2014 it will deliver more relevant advertising so that consumers will be less prone to skip commercials.
"Targeted advertising is a win-win-win," said Jeffrey Cole, director of the University of Southern California's Center for the Digital Future. "It's a win for the media owner, because they can charge [a premium] because of targeting. It's a win for the media buyer, because they're only paying for people who have a demonstrated interest in their product. And it's a double-whammy for the consumer, first because they get advertising that's more relevant and engaging, and second, it subsidizes the content."
At the same time, the privacy implications loom large.
"One of the immediate reactions we get around this is, 'Wow, this is pretty creepy,'' acknowledged White. "The consumer has the ability to say, 'I want this targeting ... or I don't."
"Advertising companies need to be much more open about their profiling practices," said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, D.C. "And consumers should have the right to know how information about them is used."
One familiar accessory (when it isn't misplaced) seems destined to go the way of rabbit ears and cathode-ray tubes: the remote control.
Manufacturers like Panasonic already offer applications that convert your tablet computer or smartphone into a TV remote, allowing you to change channels or search the Internet to find that particularly funny "Cat Jump Fail" video and transfer it to the TV screen for the amusement of the entire family.
Increasingly though, TV makers are introducing other ways to interact with the living room screen. Samsung and others offer TVs that respond to gestures and spoken commands. Such advances in search and navigation become increasingly important, as Internet-connected TVs pour a fire-hose of video into the home.
At the moment smart TVs' search capabilities are limited. They fail to reflect the movies and TV shows available through Internet video services such as Netflix, Amazon.com and Hulu. Such over-the-top services, which bypass cable and satellite TV providers, remain locked in programming silos.
That's where Intel comes in. The as-yet-unnamed Intel TV service would deliver a comprehensive video experience that collects all the entertainment options into a single interface. It joins a number of Internet-connected boxes that stream video to the TV screen — including dedicated devices from Roku, Apple and Boxee, video game consoles and Blu-ray players.
Some industry-watchers had hoped that Intel's service would bring about an a la carte alternative to cable or satellite TV, in which subscribers could pick and choose which networks they'll pay for. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has introduced a bill that would allow consumers to do just that — to pick the channels they want instead of buying a big package of networks; it faces strong industry opposition. Intel may not be what cord-cutters have been dreaming of, but its executives say they would provide smaller, more "interest-based" packages than the established pay TV rivals.
In various ways — predictable and unintended — these devices, together with the rapid adoption of smart TVs, will surely alter the television experience and industry. But probably not as quickly as the TV-tech utopians imagine.
"It's more death by a thousand cuts than 'off with their heads!'" said Mike Vorhaus, who oversees the digital practice of Frank N. Magid Associates media consultants in Los Angeles. "It's going to be creeping. It's going to maybe go back and forth a little bit.... People just don't change their behaviors all that fast."