For decades we've been watching TV. Now a new generation of televisions is beginning to watch us.
Technological advances are giving the old clunky "boob tube" an I.Q. injection. Some of the new breed of smart TVs comes equipped with facial recognition technology of the kind used by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, to "see" the images flickering on the screen and suggest new shows based on what you've been watching.
Building on advances pioneered by the video game industry, some of the new TVs change channels with the sweep of the hand. Others allow viewers to ask, "What movies are on tonight?" and get an answer.
Instead of turning on the TV in the morning and finding it tuned to the "Today" show because last night you watched NBC's "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno," you'll see a tile of images presenting options that include shows that you've recorded, shows currently airing and a list of options offered through on-demand services such as Netflix or Amazon Instant Video.
The TV's heightened awareness of your viewing habits might send an Orwellian chill up the spine of some viewers. But manufacturers say they're solving a serious problem for couch potatoes who are inundated with hundreds of programming choices. Some in the consumer electronics industry note the recommendation feature is hardly radical: devices and software have been making suggestions since 1999, when the TiVo digital video recorder started recording shows it assumed its owner might like.
Still, you might say a revolution is brewing in the living room — and this one will be televised. It portends not only a change in the TV viewing experience but also poses a threat to cable and satellite TV distributors. Even network executives' notions about scheduling — how positioning a new show adjacent to a popular program in the evening lineup to drive ratings — look anachronistic at a time when Nielsen estimates that 47% of all American households have DVRs and can watch recorded shows whenever they choose, and 55% of broadband homes have at least one TV connected to the Internet, according to market researcher the Diffusion Group.
Indeed, the television industry is grappling with seismic change. Video consumption is on the rise, but the audience is fragmented as never before. Some 5 million American households now get their entertainment via Internet-connected devices and, notes Nielsen, the majority of these mostly young viewers don't pay a monthly cable or satellite bill. Concerns about how to reach this group known as the "never connecteds" and count their viewing in a show's ratings adds to a list of headaches that include slumping prime-time broadcast TV ratings and the flight of advertisers to cable.
These supercharged TVs may not be for everybody, especially those suffering from gadget fatigue. What's more, these smart TVs may look dated compared with what Silicon Valley giant Intel has in store for later this year, not to mention whatever Apple Inc. is planning with its mysterious but hotly anticipated flat-screen TV.
"We're in a golden era of television. Never in the history of the media has so much money been spent producing high-quality content," said Eric Huggers, general manager of Intel Media, expressing a broad consensus. "If you look at the technology that is used to deliver that, it feels stuck in the past. We think we need to put the technology on a par with the quality of the editorial."
The chip-maker is testing an Internet-connected box that you could buy at the store, connect to the TV and home network and start watching shows within 10 minutes — without the hassle of waiting for a cable or satellite installer to furnish the hardware and programming hook-up. It will come with its own subscription service that will offer local and national programs as well as cable shows, catch-up viewing and access to online movie and TV services. Pricing has not been disclosed.
"This is going to be the first true cable TV replacement service delivered over broadband," said Michael Greeson, president of the Texas-based media research firm the Diffusion Group. "It's going to tell us so much about the television industry and what relationships have been bent or broken in terms of [Intel] being able to bring first-run content ... as opposed to delayed, on-demand."
A greater guide
The television guide — the spreadsheet like grid that lists TV shows according to time and channel — hasn't changed much in format since TV Guide published its first issue in 1953 with Lucille Ball and her son, Desi Arnaz Jr., on its cover. But that's hardly true of the number of choices confronting viewers, who every year are faced with exponentially more entertainment options.
This video overload set the stage for a wave of innovation aimed at improving how people search for and discover shows to watch. The Internet-connected smart TVs that began arriving in stores this spring take a radically different approach. The latest sets from Samsung, Panasonic and others offer a "home screen" customized to reflect individual tastes.
"What we're talking about here is an evolution in terms of guidance," said Stephen White, president of Gracenote, a Bay Area company whose voice and video recognition technology powers many of the new services. "We live in a world where there are so many content choices, we want the content we care about, the actresses we love, the shows we want to see. We're evolving the guide to reflect that."
For now, the devices have an early-adopter patina. The Wall Street Journal's influential personal technology columnist, Walter Mossberg, pronounced the latest crop of sets on display at the Consumer Electronics Show this year "clumsy," adding that their smart TV functions "haven't taken off with consumers yet," but "This may be the year they do."
There's no question that smart TVs are moving from a novelty to the mainstream, with shipments expected to grow 25% worldwide this year, according to NPD DisplaySearch. Some 76 million of these devices are expected to ship globally this year. Prices range from about $525 for a 40-inch Samsung TV to as much as $7,000 for a 65-inch smart TV from Sony that boasts ultra-high resolution.