Inside CES

2012: The year smart TVs overran Las Vegas

Molly Wood Jan 9, 2012

I got some news. Maybe you should sit down to hear this. All the companies have talked it over and they’ve decided that your TV is really pretty stupid. I know, I know, it hurts to hear that. Everyone likes to think that their TV is some kind of precocious genius. According to the electronics company, your TV just doesn’t measure up. Don’t take it personally, they feel that way about a lot of TVs.

And of course they’ll give you a chance to remedy the situation by buying smart TVs! Smart TVs, which have apps and can go online, have been around a few years now but at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, they’re getting more buzz than ever.

Google wants in on that action. The company is relaunching Google TV, a system of bringing everything from the web into your set, using either a set top box or software in the TV.

“Think of all times in your living room, when you wanted to share something with someone else,” says Google TV Product Manager Rishi Chandra, “but you had to huddle around a laptop or a tablet. We want to solve that problem.”

Google TV first launched in 2010 but it was a mess. Hard to navigate, confusing. The remote control was enormous, too, a big ol’ qwerty keyboard. Yikes. Google has been working on that.

“You actually open up an application which will show you a whole bunch of different thumbnails of different movies that you can watch,” says Chandra, “and we want to bring to you the movie or TV show that’s interesting. Once you select it, then we’ll tell you all the different places that you can actually access that movie, whether it be on Netflix for free, or from Amazon via rental, or on live TV coming up in the next week or next couple of days.”

People are used to apps now, says Chandra, which will make it easier to use them on TV. “A lot of the applications that you see in your phone and tablet today really do make sense on your television as well,” he says, “so if you love Pandora on your phone, you can actually listen to Pandora on your TV.”

Now, you might be thinking, really? We need to learn how to work a TV? My mom has a remote and she can flip through the channels, why would she want to learn to run apps?

“Right now, there’s only a limited set of content that you can actually watch on your TV  and we want to unblock that,” Chandra says. “So, if your mom for example loves cooking or knitting or whatever it might be, we can find a set of content, a set of video that’s actually specific to who she is and what she cares about, rather than having to spend time to figure out what’s on what’s not on, or programming a DVR, all that is work that’s associated with TV today. We want to simplify that, so you not only get access to great content, but we’re actually helping recommend and bring content to you, so literally TV just  becomes that great experience of watching anything you want to watch that’s personalized just to you.”  

Not every smart TV at this year’s CES will be a big hit, of course. But rest assured that it won’t be long before you see commercials intended to let you know that your current TV is not quite smart enough. But what if you buy a smart TV only to find out it looks like an idiot compared to some TV down the road? You don’t want to get tricked into buying something that will be snazzy now but outdated down the line.

Kurt Scherf, an analyst for Parks Associates, says that might not necessarily be the case because the next generation of televisions may have capacity for growth even after you take it home. “We’re actually hearing this year that manufacturers are talking about the ability to upgrade the software on their sets,” he says, “and I think that’s a big step forward to know that the  TV set you buy today is going to have and be able to support the features that we don’t even know are coming two years from now. You really are buying a platform and I think that’s the story of CES this year is the hardware is taking a backseat to things like software, content and applications.”

Also in this program, some other devices that are smarter than one might wish. Debuting at this year’s CES are a toy helicopter and toy car that can be flown remotely via a phone app. But that’s not all: the vehicles are equipped with the ability to record video and sound, feed it to your phone, or upload it directly to YouTube or Facebook. A privacy threat, perhaps, but sure to be undone as soon as the helicopter meets a wall or the car tangles with a bit of string.

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