Interactive TV Trends – How the TV Experience is Changing

The article below is the first in a three part series describing key interactive TV trends. This first article looks at new technologies to control the TV – and how the TVs future ability to recognize users will allow it to tailor content choices and preferences. The second article in the series will examine how multiple screens of the PC, tablet, smart phone and TV will alter the TV experience. Finally the third article discusses new trends in image processing and why major improvements in picture quality are still necessary

Credit: Soft Kinetic
Part 1: Where’s the Remote? Controlling the TV with your Gestures and Voice
The convergence of the internet and broadcast TV is changing the way we will interact with the TV set. Convergence is enabling the use of the TV for gaming, social interaction and new ways to watch content. As the internet and broadcast TV continue to intertwine – the way we interact to the TV will continue to evolve. This evolution will focus on finding new ways to fuse interactive functions to work well in the “lean back” TV experience. Nobody wants to “lean in” on the TV in the living room; this is why early attempts to simply graft a PC to the back of a TV were never going to create a useable interactive TV. The industry is finding new ways to bridge the internet more naturally into the TV experience. This is the first in a series of three articles explaining key trends in interactive TV and the technologies that are being developed to support them.

Improvements in the way we interact with the TV start with how we control the TV. Gesture recognition technologies are a very promising development – especially command gestures that do not require a remote. The Xbox Kinect is probably the most compelling example of the importance of this trend. The Kinect works by combining the use of a camera, and light emitter and receiver as well as voice control. The combination of these capabilities enables the Kinect to recognize you, watch and understand your physical movements and gestures, as well as understand voice commands. This results in an interactive experience that enables remote free gesture control. You can control the TV and games by using hand gesture. For games, this is great as it allows a more immersive experience.

For example, by detecting your body’s movements and articulation – your movements are translated to your avatar representation on the screen. For action games, you simply mimic the movements as though you were skiing, dancing or playing tennis. This technology can also be used to control the viewing experience on TV. A typical example is viewing menu pages or video thumbnails – you can move options or pages around by a wave of your hand. Future advances could allow for more intuitive controls as well as systems that integrate coordinated gesture controls from your tablet to your PC.

Apple’s new Siri improved voice control is also a promising technology that could have a place in the interactive TV world. Siri enables people to speak to machines in a more natural way. The Siri technology includes a semantic sensitivity – that can find meaning in your statement to help it understand you better. This has huge implications in the interactive TV world where we need this type of personalized control especially when we convey our intentions, preferences and feedback to search and discovery.

There are consistent rumors that Apple is working on an Apple branded TV or at least an improved version of their Apple TV media box. They could easily apply the Siri voice control capability to the control of the TV. (As we will discuss in the next series, Apple’s combination of the multi-screens in the home and their elegant interface to the cloud creates a TV ecosystem that could pose a threat to existing TV OEMs.)

TV OEMs like Samsung have been experimenting with remote free gesture control for a while. Samsung, Toshiba and others have shown these technologies at CES over the years. But there is no large scale market availability. That said, in China, mega TV maker Hisense announced that it will be shipping a remote-free gesture control TV starting this month. On the voice side, besides Xbox, there are several electronics companies that have been working on standalone voice activation TV remotes. Voice activation on a remote or a tablet may have a lot of advantages. For one, it is easier for the TV to isolate who it should listen to when there are several people in the room. It will be interesting to see what will come out at CES 2012 on these technologies.

Remote free gesture and voice control are excellent solutions for overcoming the lean back environment of the living room TV. And these capabilities will only get better as the underlying software, user interface, electronic program guide and menu systems improve. The methods of controlling the TV will also become more efficient as TVs take on their ability to personalize their menus for either an individual or a group in the household. In short, TVs will have the capability to recognize us and present a tailored list of menus and services when we come into their vicinity.

Personalization in general is a key trend on the internet. We see that many interactive programs attempt to improve their services by personalizing their user experiences. Examples include the voting function “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” on Pandora allowing it to tailor an individual’s song selection. The interactive TV will also take on capabilities to personalize menu options as well as content and service preferences. This represents a new level of convenience in terms of controlling the TV, as the TV will only be presenting options that you really care about.

To enable this, smart phones or tablets interacting with the TV through WiFi, Bluetooth or other interactive technologies can also identify users to the TV. Alternatively or in addition, TVs could use camera technology just like cameras are used in our hand held devices and laptop computers. Cameras together with facial recognition algorithms can do a good job to see who walks into the room. Imagine entering your living room or den and the TV automatically brings up options dialed into your specific preferences and interests. The TV can also set up all kinds of services and capabilities that are tied to your needs. The system can stand ready to serve up your favorite TV shows, download music for your run or commute, enable or disable your home security system, regulate the sprinkler system if it is raining, and update you on the whereabouts of family and friends.

Preferences do not have to be limited to individuals. TVs will also be able to recognize groups of people such as your whole family sitting together, the kids only or even the family dog and will serve tailored content and service options appropriate to each group.

The TV can be programmed to personalize its menus when the entire family or various subsets of the family is sitting in the front of the TV. The TV greets the family and immediately serves up some appropriate video, audio or service options. The father can ask the TV through a voice command to display the photographs from the recent family trip to Hawaii and provide some Hawaiian background music. During the slide show, the family can also ask the TV to dial in a distant grandparent to join the review of slides. If a child asks a question such as when Hawaii became a state – the TV can search video, webpage or blog content on Hawaii’s history. Likewise, if the family suddenly has an interest in buying a surfboard, the TV can put together a list of interactive ads from local surfboard shops.

Of course, it can be unnerving for some to contemplate this type of interaction with a TV or any machine for that matter. Thoughts of Space Odyssey 2001 may come to mind. There is no doubt that the preferences and choices made through an interactive TV represent valuable information to advertisers and retailers. The technology should also provide consumers strong privacy controls. But the advantages of personalization will outweigh the concerns of letting “HAL” loose in the home. In terms of control – it is much easier to control what you want if the TV is familiar with your preferences.

The technology driving gesture control, voice commands and cameras with facial recognition are available today. We are likely to see incorporation of these types of concepts in TVs next year. As the internet makes further inroads into our living room TV – we can expect to see the use of these tools to improve our ability to interact and maintain our feet-up laid-back position on the couch.

Give Your Smartphone Room to Stretch

As convenient and versatile as mobile devices have become, there are still times when that little 4-inch, 7-inch, or even 10-inch screen just isn’t enough. Maybe you want to enjoy your mobile apps and content with friends or colleagues – without knocking your heads together. Maybe you read the latest study that found that reading text, watching movies or playing games on small handheld screens could lead to problems with eyesight down the road. Or how about this one: you’re halfway through showing your awesome vacation video, and your phone’s battery suddenly goes dead. Sure, there are ways to output your handheld’s display to an HDTV, but they all seem to fall short in one way or another. Either the video quality is sketchy, the link is unstable, or both. Unless the connection supports HDCP, forget about watching copy-protected content like first-run movies. Wouldn’t it be great if you could just plug the phone into the TV and avoid all these problems? Display photos, watch movies, play games, and enjoy your mobile apps on the big screen, controlling it all with your TV remote and charging your phone’s battery while you’re at it? It’s not a fantasy, it’s MHL technology, and it’s here now.

MHL stands for Mobile High-Definition Link, a new digital interface that was purpose-built to connect smartphones and tablets to DTVs and other HD displays. It’s a high-bandwidth connection, capable of transmitting Blu-ray™ quality video and audiophile-quality 7.1-channel surround sound as a digital stream, with no signal compression.

MHL technology has a number of unique performance features that make it ideally suited for connecting mobile devices to DTVs. First, MHL technology is connector-agnostic, so manufacturers can link MHL-enabled mobile devices through its existing connector to just about any brand of DTV or monitor as long as it’s MHL-enabled or there’s an HDMI port. Rather than try to force mobile manufacturers to add an additional hardware connector, it allows them to repurpose what they already have on the device. Second, its streamlined architecture requires only five wires, allowing for extremely lightweight, flexible cables that make carrying them around simple. Third, it does more than just transmit audio and video. It’s a smart connection that allows the user to interact with a smartphone or tablet using the TV’s remote control, and for the TV to recharge the phone or tablet’s battery while it’s connected. Finally, being able to charge your mobile device while it’s connected to the TV may sound like a small thing, but it’s a huge convenience factor — especially compared to other connectivity options, such as Wi-Fi, that will drain your battery faster than you can say “drain your battery.” Of course Wi-Fi has other performance issues, like the fact that it can be prone to radio interference from other devices on its increasingly congested frequency band.

Signal compression is another shortcoming of many legacy interconnects, both wireless and wired. They just don’t have the bandwidth to handle HD content without running it through compression and decompression algorithms, an inherently “lossy” process. MHL technology, by contrast, provides plenty of uncompressed bandwidth for even the richest content, so what comes out of the TV is exactly what you loaded into the phone, with no loss of clarity or fidelity, even if it’s 1080p video with high-fidelity surround sound. And since MHL technology offers native support for HDCP copy protection, you can watch protected content without running afoul of anti-piracy measures.

MHL technology also offers the unique benefit of being able to control your mobile device with your MHL-enabled TV’s remote. Forget about scrolling through tiny windows and pressing tiny buttons – now you can do it all on the big screen thanks to something called the Remote Control Protocol (RCP), a technology that’s built into MHL-enabled TVs, phones, and other devices. Better still, it’s brand-agnostic, so you can connect any phone with MHL connectivity to any MHL-enabled TV, regardless of manufacturer, and control your mobile apps through the TV.

MHL technology is backed by an industry Consortium co-founded by Nokia, Samsung, Sony, Silicon Image, and Toshiba. As of October 2011, more than sixty additional companies have licensed the technology as Adopters. Adopters agree to submit their products to a compliance testing program, helping to ensure reliable performance and cross-vendor interoperability. Many MHL-enabled products are already on the shelves, including smartphones, tablets, adapter cables, and the first wave of DTVs featuring a new, dual-purpose, MHL/HDMI port. Legacy TVs, projectors, and other display devices can be made MHL-ready with the use of adapters, also available now.

While MHL is hardly a household word at this point, this could change rapidly as the pace of adoption increases, more products hit the stores, and more consumers experience the unique benefits of the technology. What’s not to like about watching a movie, TV show, or YouTube video from your phone on a big-screen DTV with surround audio and walking away with your phone fully charged and ready to go? Or playing your favorite games on a 46-inch screen instead of a 4-inch for that truly immersive experience? Sharing photos and videos likewise gets a lot easier and more convenient with MHL technology. As smartphone cameras offer increasingly higher image quality and video recording capabilities, MHL connectivity provides the reliable, high-bandwidth connection people need to share these images with family and friends, or to pull them down from an online gallery and show them on the living room TV.

Business travelers can also benefit from MHL connectivity. With an MHL-enabled video projector, the savvy road warrior can now carry all her slides and demos on a smartphone, update them on the plane or even in a taxi, and plug in to the projector at her destination for a high-resolution, high-impact presentation. The technology also has potential applications in automotive, aircraft, and hotel environments – wherever people travel with their handheld devices.

As consumers increasingly view a smartphone or tablet as their primary computing device and content repository, the rise of MHL technology marks an important step forward in that trend. By giving users the option of switching over to a big screen at any time, it makes it easier to view the handheld as a legitimate replacement for the PC, or at least to create a more seamless interface between the two devices, by offering greater flexibility in how people interact with their content and apps.

In brief, MHL technology has the potential to revolutionize the way we interact with our smartphones and tablets, delivering a premium big-screen experience when the small screen just isn’t enough. Optimized for mobile platforms, designed for an immersive audiovisual experience, and built with on-the-go consumers in mind, it has established its roots in the industry with products already in retail and a promising future.