Is this what the future of TV looks like?


Attendees look at the Google TV displayed on a LG Group Smart TV at the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S., on Thursday, Jan. 12, 2012. (David Paul Morris/BLOOMBERG)
March 8, 2013

Ideas@Innovations is currently attending SXSW 2013 Interactive. Read more about the conference on the blog.

There is likely to be quite a bit of talk about the future of television at SXSW this year. When talking about the future of television, prognosticators usually start with tech giant Apple. Under the Apple umbrella, there’s the camp of folks who believe the future of TV is already here in the form of Apple TV, and that it only needs a set of iterative steps to become a true breakthrough in the marketplace. The other camp sees the future of TV in older Apple tech, specifically the iPad. These individuals envision the path to true disruption in the development of the “second screen.” Apps such as Zeebox and Bravo’s two companion apps show a direction for where these second screen apps could go.

These two camps highlight something we have collectively forgotten in the technology world: the circumstances that led to the smartphone revolution ushered in by the iPhone.

Here’s a simple thought experiment. Imagine that the iPhone was never invented, and we were left with a progressively souped-up iPod Touch. Would we still be talking about a smartphone revolution? If so, we might be here talking about the Nokia 770’s offspring realizing the vision of the “Fantastic Four”.

No, without the addition of the cellular phone component, there would have been no smartphone revolution. At the end of the day, the addition of that core function was essential as was, of course, the addition of a camera and Web connectivity. The access to an ever-growing repository of apps and great design was also a key contributing factor.

That’s why experts such as video management software firm Kit Digital’s Global Lead Analyst Alan Wolk believe that, in order for a second screen to succeed, it must replace the remote control. Just like smartphones replaced the pocket occupancy of feature phones, second screen devices — be they smartphones, tablets or something that has yet to be unveiled — need to replace that piece of plastic already on your couch.

“The killer app for any second screen device is the ability to change the channel. Without that, it’s just a novelty,” said Wolk via e-mail, “But give users the ability to act on the information they get from the app and you’ve got a serious tool. For most users, social TV and other second screen content will be a lucky-strike extra, something they use on occasion. An app that lets them search for content and change the channel, however, will be something they’ll soon wonder how they ever lived without.”

This replacement technology will likely do more than change the channel. It will eventually take on all of your television remote’s functions. That feels like a tall order, because this new tool would need to drive a number of devices (e.g. a receiver, set top box, and TV) made by manufacturers who seem to only agree on support for infrared remotes at this point.

Meanwhile, the first screen continues to be firmly fixed in living rooms. Connected television devices such as Roku and Apple TV add engaging apps. Additionally Apple TV, via the AirPlay standard, is also able to stream audio and video from compatible devices such as the iPad (although Google is mounting a challenge to Apple in that space. More on that later.). That’s why it is not surprising some people think this is a clearer path to the future.

But there’s one flaw that, to me, is as big as carrying two pieces of plastic in your pocket during the smartphone revolution. Changing inputs between video devices is awkward. It is one thing to do that for the occasional DVD, it is another to be swapping back and forth between Web and app content with the video content from your cable or satellite provider. Let’s face it, there’s a lot of content that comes through those subscriptions, and it is easier to imagine those staying mostly the same than being unbundled rapidly and offered through connected TV devices instead.

So that leaves me with what I call the serial disrupters. These are the devices that simply get in between your video set-top box and your television. The granddaddy of them all is the Tivo box. Unfortunately, Tivo doesn’t look much different to me now than it did ten years ago, aside from high-definition support. They do seem to be in the news for patent litigation a whole lot more. That’s too bad, as they were revolutionary once upon a time.

Google TV has attracted my attention, more so than other television alternative technologies. The Washington Post launched an app last year called PostTV to feature programs such as “The Fold” and its upcoming Politics programming. That said, Google TV is an imperfect device that was priced too high, at least until recently, and the hardware is manufactured by others. This means there is no consistent optimized remote and user interface. So, this is by no means a recommendation to go out and get one, at least not yet.

But Google TV at least shows a way forward for television disruption. By running in between the set-top box and the television, it allows programming to be accessed through it, while also offering Web connectivity and an app store that, while not as extensive as Roku, is a start. I have used Google TV over the last few months and three apps have led me to be truly delighted about prospects for future innovation in this space.

The Airtight app for Google TV is an implementation of the AirPlay standard, allowing permissioned video content to be streamed to the Google TV. Unlike Apple TV, where I’d have to find my remote and change video inputs to send a YouTube video from my phone or tablet to the television, Google TV and Airtight allow the signal to just take over what you are watching the same way that Bluetooth takes over the radio in your car.

The second app, called Social GTV is not particularly impressive in its own right, but it paints the future dubiously called “social TV”. All it does is take a Twitter search or hashtag and overlay it onto your screen much like subtitles. The end-result is no more compelling than when cable news channels throw in some tweets in a lower-third. But overlaying social media information on the first screen allows users to leverage algorithms and sources beyond Twitter, creating something actually useful.

The third and by far most polished app that I’ve been using is called Thuuz. Thuuz is designed for sports fans and is on both iPhone and Android platforms. But it is particularly special on Google TV. After telling Thuuz your favorite sports and teams, Thuuz uses Google TV’s on-screen notifications to let you know about exciting games while you are watching TV. I’ve been notified when one of my favorite teams was playing and I had forgotten, and of exciting close finishes of games in the sports I selected.

But Thuuz goes one step further, and really shows us what the future could be like by also knowing when sports are available online. When using Thuuz to navigate to a sporting event, it not only knows the cable/satellite channel that its on and can take you there, but it also will recommend some games being streamed on the Web. And thanks to Google TV’s Chrome browser with flash support, sites such as ESPN3 are accessible and navigable. For true sports fans, this brings together live streaming Web content with traditional cable content. That is what the future should be: more selection and better discovery tuned to my tastes.

I have no idea if Google TV will be “the future”. Just like the Blackberry could have been the iPhone, someone else might absorb the right lessons from Google TV and take the next step. But, by building something that sits at the intersection of the vast majority of Americans’ video content, television, the limitless possibilities of apps and the Web, at least I know that the future of TV could be very cool.

Vijay Ravindran is is senior vice president and chief digital officer for The Washington Post Company and leads WaPo Labs, which develops experimental news products. Before joining The Post, he was chief technology officer for the start-up political technology firm Catalist and technology director for Amazon.com.Follow him on Twitter at @vijayravindran.

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