Smart TVs impress at CES

It will take some time, but smart TV apps will make for a more immersive experience.

Television manufacturers had two immersive themes at CES this week. One theme was new, bigger and more brilliant televisions. Some boasted pixel resolution as rich as 4096×2160, so rich it can’t be conveyed with words or pictures, one must just see it to understand how immersive the experience is. The others included apps that enhance and improve viewing content and create a more digitally immersive experience.

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Many TV manufacturers demonstrated apps, app stores and SDKs at CES that are intended to enhance the user’s viewing experience. However, they all fell short of converting smart TV technology to a consumer purchase criteria. Smart TV sparks the imagination with the potential for an app-enhanced user living room experience. It is evolving, though, as the app model is adapted from the lean-forward mobile app experience to the lean-back television watching experience.

Google TV, Samsung Smart TV and the Smart TV Alliance all do one thing really well: integrate brilliant new HD television displays with streamed internet content and broadcast cable or satellite TV content. Apps that deliver content over the internet, like Netflix, Hulu Plus and HBO Go, are served to the viewer as seamless viewing experiences with traditional broadcast television despite the tangle of cables on the back of the television and without using multiple remotes to navigate between content providers. Content search, discovery and selection have been simplified with remote controls that include QWERTY keyboards and voice recognition and greatly reduce but not quite eliminate the need for multiple remote controls.

There are short lists of "WOW" apps that make the viewer appreciate what’s possible: Skype, Pandora Radio, Facebook and simply direct internet access with a browser.

Demonstrations of Skype with the LG and Samsung televisions with integrated HD cameras and microphones were very impressive. But the “WOW, I want to use this” quickly transcends to the “HOW will I use this” because broadcast content that is the most frequent viewing choice doesn’t really have a “hold” button without using the DVR capability not yet integrated into the smart TV user interface (UI). And since large-screen TV viewers most frequently watch television with family and friends, reaching consensus to take or make a Skype call might be a challenge even if putting the broadcast on hold were possible.

Pandora just makes sense because, in most households, the large screen TV is located in a media center with a quality home theatre sound system.

Samsung’s integration of Facebook is a great example of the value of smart TV apps and why app development enhances the viewing experience. There isn’t a good way to include Facebook status updates and newsfeeds in the communal hearth of the television viewing environment. Samsung’s Smart Hub pairs down excess Facebook distractions and just includes shared video, and TV recommendation by friends and trending "likes."

It has become more and more difficult to avoid commercials since set-top box and DVR manufacturers are beholden to the cable and satellite broadcasters that are the primary channel through which they deliver time-shifted television viewing to subscribers. Google TV’s internet browsing capability is the next best thing to skipping commercials. At the first frame of the commercial, the viewer can mute it, shrink it to a picture-in-picture (PIP) frame and check mail, messengers and social media while monitoring the PIP frame for the commercial’s end and switching back to full-screen program viewing when the commercial ends.

But the broader developer interest in smart TV apps enjoyed by smartphones and tablets has not materialized because the number of smart TVs is still small and the manufacturers are divided over software development standards.

It is much harder to deliver new content than new hardware. It will be a few years before the ultra HD 4096×2160 televisions will have equally rich content that the networks can deliver. Like with dual- and four-core ARM processors, the televisions are capable of running interesting apps, but it will take time to standardize development and discover new and adapted monetization methods to smart TVs.

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