Unless you’re vegging by yourself, TV watching has always been a social activity. You gather for a raucous Super Bowl party. You sit with family and friends and feel superior while you hoot and hollar at talentless American Idol wannabees, misbehaving reality show housewives, or blind referees and athletes who fail to fulfill your expectations.
Will these TV watching social interactions change with the new generation of smart connected TVs? It already has. Twittering while watching a show has become commonplace even among folks without smart TVs via laptops and smartphones cradled while couch potatoing. These social TV watching activities slowly but surely are being merged from two devices into the smart TV.
But anytime you mush together two previously divergent technologies, the sum often becomes more than its parts. Add in TV’s visual capabilities and the boob tube might become party central. TV socializing technologies, however, are still evolving, but break down into three distinct activities: recommendation, chatting while watching and video telephony.
Word of texting
Word-of-mouth always has been a valuable marketing tool for content producers. A show gets “a buzz” -it’s discussed around workplace water coolers, the school yard, at the barbershop, in the mall and, now, publicly in online forums, one-to-few in tweets and Facebook posts, and one-to-one in texts.
While many video-on-demand sites such as Netflix solicit user opinions to help guide your choices, thus far, only one “smart TV” technology provider has thus far harnessed the “buzz” gestalt – Boxee.
Yes, Boxee – in both its PC-based software and the Boxee set-top box (soon to be released) both aggregates Web-based content and supplies a VOD library of streaming content. But, well, let’s let Boxee’s VP of marketing, Andrew Kippen explain:
“We built Boxee from the ground up to be social. The social experience of the Boxee Box will be the exact same as the PC version – you connect Boxee to Facebook, Twitter, Google Buzz, and it will pull in any video links that your friends share with you. This is a key part of content discovery on Boxee. Additionally, anytime you play anything, you have the option to push that out to your friends on those social networks.”
As content venues continue to grow more diverse, both online and on cable/satellite, social recommendations are likely to play a larger role in how we discover what’s on. Boxee is likely only the first of a growing technology movement to better organize this social recommendation necessity.
Let’s give ‘em something to text about
But the real social part of TV watching is commenting on what’s on while it’s on, sort of a virtual version of Mystery Science Theater 3000. So far, though, smart TVs have been dumb about transforming the physical TV group watching environment to the virtual world. For instance, Boxee built a chat option, but didn’t include it in either its PC software or the Boxee Box. “Honestly, we don’t feel like people want to communicate in that way while they’re watching TV,” Kippen says, “and if they do, then it’s going to be easier through another medium – IM, phone, SMS, etc.”
That seems to be the sentiment of most other smart TV platform providers as well. While all smart TV platforms offer a Twitter app, each is segregated, arrayed on screens without that annoying TV picture in the way.
That’s not the way Yahoo! understands the TV watching world, however. The Yahoo! Tweeter widget lets you chat with other far-flung fans while simultaneously watching the TV program, movie or sporting event under discussion – without impacting the TV viewing experience. As with many Yahoo! widgets, you can re-size the TV window so you don’t miss any of the action or drama or laughs while your tweet.
Yahoo! also lets you search for current chats about your favorite TV show. For example, you could have tuned into the Twitter feed for Dancing with the Stars to read what others are saying about Bristol and the monkey suit. Mingle with the online throng via your smart TV QWERTY keypad or just sit back and enjoy the global peanut gallery.
TV, of course, is not the only thing you can view on a smart TV. All smart TV platforms include online photo gallery apps, some Flickr, some Picassa, some both and/or others. Yahoo!, for instance, uses Flickr as well as >a hre=”http://www.imemories.com/”>iMemories, which converts photos and videos from any physical media format for online viewing on the TV.
In nearly all instances, these photo apps work exactly the same as their Web counterparts, including the ability to let other folks see your photos on their smart TV, with one notable exception: you can’t upload photos from your TV to the gallery. For that, you still need an old-fashioned PC.
If you build it, they will call
Yes, chat while watching a show. Kinda cool. But wouldn’t it be more fun if you can see your peeps as they’re watching when you’re watching – or just rap (do kids still say “rap”?) virtually face-to-face?
Technology for the former situation isn’t quite there, but there is for the latter, which may lead to the former.
In other words, video telephony has come to the TV, but you can’t video chat while watching a TV show at the same time. But TV telephony will bring a sea-change in how we watch and use the TV, smart or dumb. But so far, smart TV makers have been pretty stupid about TV telephony, leaving the door open for a certain smarter soon-to-be smart TV maker.
Of course, futurists have been prognosticating ubiquitous videophoning since, well, since futurists have been prognosticating. In 1964, the Bell System initiated a short-lived video telephone service between New York, Washington, D.C., and Chicago. Three years later, Dr. Heywood Floyd famously called his daughter on a space station pay videophone in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Everyone back then figured we’d all be videophoning by now. Ouch.
Why haven’t we? All videophone efforts, either via standalone videophones or TV add-ons, have necessitated the purchase of two videophones (after all, it takes two to video chat). But none of the varying videophones introduced in the last 40-plus years were compatible with their competitors. And the video was awful. Videophones used the ancient and thin POTS (plain old phone service) copper lines, resulting in glitchy black-and-white 15 frames-per-second – you could hardly call it “footage” – displayed on a size-of-a-flip-cellphone low-resolution screen. When no videophone tech took hold, product makers postulated that phone chatters simply wanted to be heard but not seen. (As long )
Wrong. It was a technology, or more precisely, a compatibility issue, not social.
Fatter broadband pipes of the internet solved the video quality problem – even VGA was a huge leap forward from previous videophone products. So we started buying Web cams. Then nearly all laptops and desktop PCs came with Web cams build into the screen bezel. Then came Skype and video calling capabilities. Finally, with technolo
gy uniformity and ubiquity came adoption. According to Skype, more than a third of all Skype-to-Skype calls include video, a proportion that jumps to more than half on Christmas and New Year’s Day. Last year, nearly 600 million Skype users worldwide piled up more than 9 billion of video calls.
According to Skype, 90 percent of its users enjoyed video calling because it makes them feel “more connected” to friends or family. But Skype users didn’t start using Skype video calling because it made them feel connected. They used it because they had it.
Panasonic and LG introduced Skype HD video calling earlier this year, and more TV makers have since and will follow next year. And HD Skype video telephony looks and sounds great. So why hasn’t everyone been using it? Because TV makers haven’t learned the “if you build it in, they will use it” lesson. You have to buy a separate brand-specific proprietary TV webcam/mic array for around $100. Everyone assumes TV makers will start building the Web/mic assembly into their HDTV bezels, but so far none has.
If they wait too long to build in the camera/mic, they may (we repeat, “may”) have formidable competition in the smart TV space from a company that knows from creating technology ubiquity: Apple.
With FaceTime on the iPhone 4, Apple announced its video telephony presence with authority. But the company is not likely to restrict Facetime to just mobile devices. With OS X Lion, Apple is bringing its iPhone/iPad iOS apps ecosystem to the bigger screen on your lap and desktop. The even bigger Apple screen in your living roomcan’t be far behind.We know an Apple HDTV is coming because of a licensing deal made last month with Rovi, which supplies the electronic program guide (EPG) for 450 cable companies in North America.
This past May, Rovi unveiled TotalGuide, which puts all your content – TV, Web-based subscription services, and local networked PC-based – into the familiar EPG grid, with all the multi-content source universal search capabilities of Google TV, without the extra box. TotalGuide will be pushed to you from your cable provider sometime in the middle of next year.
Can there be another reason for Apple to make this deal if they Steve Jobs planning his own HDTV? And if/when he does, you better believe Apple will build in a camera and mic into its HDTV bezel and bring FaceTime to the living room.
You’re gonna need a bigger TV
But will Apple enable simultaneous video chatting and TV viewing? Plasma and LCD screens are big, but maybe they’re not that big.
HDTVs will get bigger with higher resolution. A technology called ultra HD 4K, capable of displaying around 8 million pixels – current HDTVs display around 2 million pixels – already exists. Panasonic has been showing off an astounding six-foot-wide 4K plasma for the last year, and says it will be available to high rolling customers soon.
Maybe we’ll end up with the multi-wall TVs Ray Bradbury predicted in Fahrenheit 451, with perhaps one wall dedicated to the Web, one dedicated to video telephony and one dedicated to TV. In any event, it’ll be hard to keep referring to the TV as “the boob tube.”
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