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Skynet. Robbie the Robot from Forbidden Planet. Bender Bending Rodriquez from Futurama. 3CPO and R2D2. Colossus: The Forbin Project. These are smart machines.

By comparison, the primary machine in your living room, your TV, may be bright, but not so intelligent. Your TV cannot converse with you. It can’t know what you want to watch unless you tell it. It can’t tell you who was president during the Civil War. It can’t advise you how to answer your spouse after she/he asks you if the new outfit makes she/he look fat. So why, exactly, you’re asking, are people suddenly referring to seemingly dumb TVs as a “smart” TVs?

Your HDTV’s newly-found brains comes not from what it’s got atop its metaphorical neck but from what it’s connected to – the internet. A growing number of big screen 1080p HDTVs – and you’ll see a lot more unveiled at the upcoming Consumer Electronics Show this January for sale this spring – can access the information super highway. This makes your TV not necessarily “smart,” but “connected.”

To be clear, most smart/connected TVs do not access the World Wide Web like your PC or cellphone, via a browser. Instead, your smart TV accesses the internet via “widgets,” small, limited, single-purpose information or content applications such as news feeds, stock ticker, weather, sports, entertainment, video/movies on demand, social networking, photo storage sites, supplemental information for specific broadcast channels, video on demand, even some limited games.

But these widgets represent only a fraction of your TV’s potential IQ.

How’d My TV Get So Smart?

Getting the internet on your TV is an idea almost as old as the Web itself. In the mid-1990s, once lot of folks had jumped on the new email bandwagon, TV manufacturers figured a TV has a screen, a computer has a screen – why not make a TV that is also a computer? Initially, this TV/PC convergence took the form of set-top boxes and wireless keyboards to allow you to read and send large, pixelated text email from your TV along with some limited online information access.

What the so-called convergence TV/PC makers failed to realize was the behavior vs. distance difference – the eight feet between you and the TV screen when you want to just vegetate on the sofa and the two feet between you and the PC screen when you want to work in your office. “Interactivity” to a TV watcher has meant hitting “Channel Up” or “Channel Down” on a remote control, and a “keyboard” in the living room usually referred to the ebony and ivory keys on a piano, not keys embossed with alphanumeric characters.

The emergence of big screen HDTV with its PC-like high resolution screen, along with more powerful PC chip technology, the PC becoming a personal multimedia content sources, the rise of smartphone apps and the increasing instances of multi-tasking folks propping a laptop PC in their lap while watching TV, reignited interest in TV/PC convergence.

The Roky box was one of the boxes that made
web-video streaming to TV popular

But instead of simply mimicking PC behavior on the TV, these new convergence boxes focused on bringing new content from other sources to your TV. In May 2008, set-top boxes dubbed “media streamers” brought internet-based video content to your TV, and connected your TV to your home PC to access your music, photos and videos. The following March, the first “smart” HDTVs, which essentially includes built-in media streaming functions plus widgets, went on sale.

These first smart sets came equipped only with an Ethernet jack, which meant you had to figure out how to get an internet connection between your living room and your PC’s modem. TV manufacturers have finally realized most consumers don’t have an Ethernet jack in their living rooms and have started to include either built-in WiFi or an optional or included WiFi dongle.

What Can My Smart TV Do?

Right now, your smart TV can’t do as much as you can by simply propping a laptop on your lap while your watching TV – mostly stream information or video (movies, TV shows, user-generated video) from a growing number of free, subscription and video on demand sites, and maybe some limited social networking and Twittering.

Yahoo’s TV widgets have generated a lot of buzz when they came out

A button on your smart TV’s remote control brings up a strip of smartphone-like widget icons, usually arrayed across the bottom quarter of the screen, scrollable left-right. Once activated, a widget opens in either a portion of the screen or appears in a window, leaving a majority of the broadcast playing on the rest of the screen or a larger window. Some apps can be expanded to fill a screen. Social networking and messaging widgets do require text input, and so many HDTV makers sell ancillary wireless keyboards. One TV maker makes a standard-looking remote control with a smartphone-like slide out horizontal QWERTY keyboard.

Most smart TVs get their apps and interface from a single source (Yahoo!), while a smaller number have created their own proprietary widget platforms. While many widgets are pre-installed, you can uninstall or add new apps as desired. There are currently around six dozen smart TV widgets available, with more being added each week.

This type of “smart” TV, however, is about as smart as a kindergartener. Widgets, for instance, exist in their own universe – few have any interaction with what’s actually on TV. They merely supplement what you’re watching (such as updated fantasy sports stats displayed during the course of a game), or give you new sources of things to watch.

But with each passing year, TVs are getting more educated.

Webcam might be intgrated in the next-generation smart TV,
if video chat becomes ubiquitous

A growing number of HDTVs now can be converted into giant video internet telephones with the addition of a microphone/camera array perched atop your HDTV. These HDTV telephones can connect to other similarly equipped HDTVs as well as desktop and laptop PCs running the same video phone software. In the coming year, expect to see these mic/camera arrays built into the bezel of new HDTVs ala your laptop and desktop computer, perhaps with cellphone-like address books.

Earlier this year, Google introduced its Android-based Google TV service, available as a separate set-top box. Currently included in four Sony LCD HDTVs, Google TV is likely to be available from other HDTV manufacturers this spring. Unlike other smart TVs, Google TV actually gives you a PC-like Web browser. And instead of widgets largely disconnected from what’s being broadcast, Google TV ties the internet to what you’re watching via “dual
view” – you can actually do Web searches via an actual browser in one window while the program plays in another window.

TVs can be made smart by adding a box today.
They should be “born smart” tomorrow

Google TV also does system-wide content searches – once you start typing characters into the search field, Google TV starts looking for matches in your cable/satellite program guide, the Web, your DVR, apps/widgets, etc. If you locate a future program, you can set the recording with a couple of clicks without leaving the search screen. Using a DLNA connection, you also can access all the multimedia content such as home movies and photos on your PC.

But even Google TV merely scratches the intellectual TV surface.

How Smart Can My TV Set Get

Using the new-found intelligence of TVs boils down to making it as easier to find what you want to view amongst the cornucopia of new internet and personal content sources. Smart or connected – whatever you call these new internet-enabled TVs – will change the way we watch TV more than the way cable, the VCR and the DVR did combined. And the change is likely to happen slowly over the next decade as innovations built upon innovations are introduced by HDTV makers, interface designers and widget developers, as the business models of the varying content creators and suppliers – studios, broadcast and cable networks, cable and satellite TV providers – shift how they deliver and, more importantly, charge, for their content in reaction to the changing smart TV technologies and how our behavior as viewing consumers shift accordingly.

Top: the Windows Media Center EPG. Amazingly most TVs don’t even feature a decent program guide.

Your familiar program guide grid – referred to in the industry as the EPG, or Electronic Program Guide – could be the launching point for a true universal smart TV revolution – no new HDTV purchase necessary. This past May, Rovi, which creates the EPG for most cable and satellite companies, unveiled TotalGuide, an EPG that lists all your local content – your Web-based video subscription services, recorded DVR programs, your home networked PC-based multimedia – into the grid, along, of course, with what’s actually on TV, with all the multi-content source universal search capabilities of Google TV. You won’t have to buy TotalGuide – it’ll be pushed to you from your cable or satellite provider, perhaps as soon as sometime in the middle of next year.

But the whole paradigm of programs being broadcast on a certain day at a certain time has been in danger ever since the DVR gave us more control over our TV viewing schedule, and smart TVs will accelerate our freedom from network tyranny. A growing number of online episode/program subscription or movie rental sites, along with the Web sites of the networks or programs themselves, offer access to complete current and past episodes. Smarter access to these Web-based program sites will increasing give you the ability to cherry pick exactly what you want to watch when you want to watch – and pay only for what you watch rather than paying a flat fee for packages of channels you never watch.

How you find what to watch will become a three-pronged experience – your own search, browse/discover and social networking. And instead of simply hitting “Channel Up” continually until there will be new, multiple, more precise methods of conducting these searches.For instance, future grids may let you choose to watch the listed program – or choose from all past episodes. You might be able to click on a program suggestion a friend texts you to take you directly to that show’s listing in your grid. You may be able to do relational searches – Western movies 1950s, for instance – and get a list of all available programs meeting those parameters, tailored to what the smart TV knows are your actor/director/plot preferences.

One company (AT&T) is developing voice search technologies which will allow you to speak a key word or even a phrase – “comedies with Adam Sandler this weekend” – to find programs and set your DVR to record. Another search capability will let you locate instances of actual spoken content within shows – “President Obama Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” for instance – from broadcasts stored in the cloud.

TV of the Future

The truly smart TV of the future – one that not only integrates all the current separate media streaming set-top box capabilities, with a smartphone-like simple interface and intuitive software that learns about your likes and dislikes – may come not from a current TV maker, but from a smart phones or computer company, one with more experience with building a user interface for a multi-functional device, which is exactly what your TV is turning into.

How you access, experience or watch TV also could change the programming itself. Connectivity to the internet increases the potential for viewer interaction during shows – not just voting for contestants on TV talent shows, adding and viewing your and others’ Twitter two cents or being able to instantly order advertised merchandise with the click of a remote control button, but deciding how a story proceeds – choosing story directions much like a video game, opening a door to new ways of story telling, and making viewing programs a more social experience.

Smart TV will change TV the way the internet has changed all the other ways we get and use information – and could make the living room a lot more lively.

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