Smart TVs: The next tech war is in the living room

January 11, 2012

Hawking their wares at the Consumer Electronics Show this week, the world’s top television manufacturers are bent on making a splash: They’re trying to sell a whole new approach to television.

In a world where the latest gadgets are automatically expected to be hooked up to technology “ecosystems” — apps, Internet connectivity and access to social networks -- television makers are banking on the fact that couch potatoes will want to see their friendly living-room TV get in on the act.

We’ve heard this all before. The idea of a “smart” television has been around for a few years, and Google introduced its Google TV platform in May 2010, promising to put all the convenience of the Web onto the largest screen in your home. But a little over a year later, the idea has yet to take off, hampered by low adoption and a lack of hardware partners.

All that’s changing this year for Samsung, LG, Sony and Lenovo, to name a few. Microsoft has proven with the Kinect — which chief executive Steve Ballmer announced had sold 16 million units to date — that there’s a market for quality apps on your television. Even Google has the chance at a second wind, having partnered with several of the major television manufacturers, each offering its own take on putting the TV back to the center of home entertainment.

Samsung is working on integrating voice and motion control into its new sets, enabling users to speak commands to their TVs or change channels and other settings with just a wave. Vizio is the first to join with the cloud-service company OnLive to put streaming games on its Google televisions. All Google TV partners have added the OnLive Viewer app, which lets users manage their accounts and watch others play games, to their app ecosystems with the promise that gameplay will be close behind. Sharp is augmenting its huge television lineup with access to apps from Netflix, Hulu and Facebook.

To compete, the companies will have to offer carefully curated, high-quality applications and be open to supporting mobile devices such as tablets. Other media companies have already started: Comcast, for example, announced that it’s going to allow OnDemand streaming not only to Samsung Smart TV’s but also to the iPad.

The TV makers are hoping that the multitude of additional features will be enough to trigger turnover like the industry saw after the introduction of flat-panel screens, Bloomberg noted. It’s a big market, if the television makers can figure out how to crack it. A consumer media report from Nielsen released Friday showed that 114.7 million American households have at least one television and that almost one-third of of those households have four or more sets.

But the big manufacturers have to fight the historically long television buying cycle: Consumers are more hesitant to upgrade to newer televisions than to trade in their smartphones, computers and other devices for the latest model.

Related stories:

At CES, competition heats up for smart TVs with voice commands, motion sensors

CES 2012: LG’s Google TV, 55-inch OLED, smart appliances, Spectrum smartphone

Comcast’s AnyPlay essentially turns iPad into secondary cable box

Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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