When Dinosaurs Walked the Living Room
The road to home theater heaven is paved with dead products. Windows Media Center Edition (MCE) 2005, tried to let desktop-style PCs deliver the entertainment people wanted on their big TVs while still preserving the PC’s functionality. Early adopt geeks loved home theater PCs; the mainstream ignored them. Could it be that the mainstream was biding its time until the arrival of today’s new smart TVs? Let’s dig into the question, and you decide.
The UI With Reach
Windows MCE may never have taken off on the desktop, but the breakthrough design work done on its interface survived for years within the XBOX 360. Many users rejected the complexity of a keyboard in the living room. The remote control (or game controller) remained the paradigm of choice for most users. One could argue that today’s critical advances in making game consoles the center of a home’s media experience started with MCE.
Early and Open Home Theater Apps
Windows MCE wasn’t the first media center platform for PCs, and Apple TV fans might harken back to the Macintosh TV, released in 1993 to miserable results. In 2002, the open source MythTV became one of the first widely used, 10-foot-oriented home theater convergence apps for PCs, spawning several competitors, including MCE and XBMC. Ideally, such HTPC platforms let you play any media media, whether from your own collection or streamed from the Internet.
Caption: "Screenshot of XBMC Media Center home screen using default PM3.HD skin." GNU General Public License. Source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/8f/Screenshot000.png
From Open to Commercial
Because XBMC is open source, developers are free to take its code and branch out with it into new directions. Avner Ronen did exactly this with XBMC and ultimately wrapped the application in a novel set-top product called the Boxee Box, manufactured in partnership with D-Link. Boxee also licenses its software to other hardware vendors, such as Myka and Iomega. Despite early acclaim and decent reviews, the Boxee Box has struggled to gain market traction.
Many wondered if the age of converged home theaters had finally arrived when Google TV arrived via select Sony TV and Blu-ray player devices as well as Logitech’s Revue set-top. Despite the fact that we really liked the Revue, the market disagreed. The Revue was discontinued, as was the CEO behind it. Logitech won’t be returning anytime soon to the Google TV market, although its Harmony remote business remains alive and well.
Google TV: Still Searching
Sony isn’t out of the Google TV game, though. In fact, the company showed new Google TV products earlier this year at CES, most notably a new Blu-ray player (NSZ-GP9) and network media player (NSZ-GS7). The Intel Atom processor fueling last year’s Google TV solutions has been thrown over in trade for Marvell’s dual-core ARM Armada 1500. Sony also has a fully redesigned QWERTY remote. Vizio and LG also showed Google TV-based models for 2012.
The Premiere Smart TV?
Which brings us to the present. Is the world finally ready to accept living room convergence if it’s invisible, meaning there are no more boxes or cords—just a regular TV tied to your stereo? (All of the old set-top electronics are now built into the display.) Will people use it if the interface is simple, attractive, and effective enough? We’re about to see. Perhaps the most talked-about smart TV today is Samsung’s LED ES8000.
Some Big Apps
The LED 8000 is about apps. As of this writing, Samsung boards 674 apps for its TV and Blu-ray platform, and they run the gamut from Netflix, Hulu Plus, and HBO GO to Pandora, BBC News, and Facebook. Don’t expect a lot of games. This isn’t the App Store or Google Play yet. But the one or two dozen must-have names are all here, sure to fill even the most demanding media nut’s entertainment hours.
Users can log in by either typing their Samsung account ID and password with a suitable remote device or by registering their faces with the integrated recognition software. The image becomes associated with the account ID during a registration process. If two registered faces are recognized, the LED 8000 will ask which account should be used. We’d like to see the remote disappear altogether from the login process, but this is a great start.
When you press the Voice button on the Samsung remote, it pops up a little microphone icon in the lower-left corner of the display along with a floating list of basic commands (power, source, play/pause, previous, next, and volume up/down). By speaking into the remotes microphone, you can control the display with these or a bunch of “more commands,” including starting apps and even browsing to Web sites.
As so distractingly demonstrated in Samsung’s supermodel-fueled advertisement, the LED 8000 incorporates Kinect-like gesture control. As with Kinect, you wave your hand at the TV to initiate the gesture control mode. Closing your hand into a fist (even a “girlie fist,” as shown in the video) and then opening it will select an item. Note that the TV’s camera also powers the videochat capability in apps such as Skype.
The New UI
Samsung calls its TV interface the Smart Hub, and it seems modeled on a conventional icon-driven desktop concept running picture-in-picture in the corner. A search bar sits at the top, followed by recommended apps and then (largest of all) Samsung’s own “signature” services. The LED 8000 can also be controlled via smartphone app or the set’s remote control, which features an integrated touchpad and microphone in the top edge.
Bezels have always been a necessary evil with LCD and plasma displays, and when it comes to bezels, less is always more. Thinner is always more aesthetically pleasing. Unfortunately, there are many technical challenges to making thin bezels. This is one area in which Samsung has excelled, and this shot of the LED 8000 shows not only how thin the bezel is but also the thinness of the TV panel itself.
We’ve seen concept designs for modular PC upgrades, meaning systems in which the old “guts” of the unit (CPU, graphics core, etc.) could be popped out and upgraded with a new “block” of higher-end components. Keep the shell, improve the brains. Samsung has actually done this with its Evolution Kit, an annually improving, optional upgrade that snaps onto the TV’s back, upgrading its processing capabilities so it can run more demanding apps and data loads.
Send In the Clones
Naturally, LG has its own smart TV line, starting with the current flagship, the 55” LM6200 LED. The blocky remote shown in this show has been replaced with a more graceful, arc-shaped unit based on Wii-like motion control. Like Samsung, LG integrates Wi-Fi connectivity and universal search. The company also offers a smartphone control app, but LG lacks Samsung’s voice or gesture controls. Current app breadth and depth seems equivalent between the companies.
LG was among the first to dip into current-generation smart TVs. The company released its first product in the space, the Internet TV, back in 2007. The Internet TV featured LG’s NetCast Entertainment Access branding, featuring several major media apps, including the then-notable Yahoo! TV Widgets, which allowed users to see widget content (news, stock quotes, etc.) as an overlay on top of their live TV.
Is Bigger Better?
If you put 25 smart TVs together, do you get content that’s 25X smarter? Unfortunately, no. But this showcase from LG does illustrate that one could build an entire wall of smart TV and preserve 3D functionality across the entire wall. Whether or not this is technically (never mind economically) superior to running a top-end projector is debatable, but it does make one wonder about how we’ll achieve truly immersive TV.
Sharp also sports its own wireless-enabled smart TV units within the AQUOS family. Functionally, there’s nothing here that we haven’t already seen from Samsung or LG, although Sharp does offer some monstrous 70” and 80” models. Interestingly, LG, Philips, and Sharp all use the same app SDK, built on HTML5, CE-HTML, and HbbTV. This may shape up to become a rival “platform” in opposition to Samsung and Google.
Samsung’s promises of transparent LCD displays are finally arriving. Turned off, the Transparent Smart Window looks like regular, clear glass, but when activated the surface turns into a display. At CES 20012, Samsung showed its revolutionary glass running the usual bevy of calendar, weather, clock, Twitter, and recipe apps. But if it can do all that, why couldn’t any glass door, mirror, or window become a touch-sensitive, IP-based TV display?
Tomorrow’s Vanishing TV
What is a TV? Must it hang on the wall? Must it have an antenna or accept compressed signals from today’s struggling carriers? If not, then one could argue that the line between smart TVs and tomorrow’s smart “surfaces” (as with the Samsung SUR40 for Microsoft) is already vanishing. TV is just another data stream. The more people accept this shift, the more we will progress toward enjoying our media anywhere in any form factor.