Smart TVs sets with the ability to stream online content, run apps and show television channels simultaneously dominated the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) exhibition.At the end of 2011 there were 82 million connected TVs in homes worldwide according to research group Informa. By 2016 it forecasts that number will have ballooned to 892 million.
For years much of the tech industry has pursued a vision of the computer as the home’s digital hub. Owners used their PCs to copy photos off digital cameras, download music and movies and then transfer the material to other compatible devices.
Camera built into Samsung smart TV Samsung’s built-in camera allows its TV to recognise gestures and identify users
Advanced users might have connected their laptop to their TVs or streamed content to the sets wirelessly, but the televisions were at most at the end of a spur coming off the hub, rather than its heart.
The roll-out of cloud services allied to faster internet speeds now offers televisions the chance to usurp the PC’s place, and offers users further freedom from the confines of broadcasters’ schedules.
Samsung – the world’s best-selling TV-maker – has been at the forefront of efforts to deliver this vision.
One of the promotional videos it showed at this year’s event claimed watching television by appointment would become a foreign concept in the future, and its executives talk of the TV being the centre of the home.
Users are offered thousands of apps allowing them to use social networks, play video games, run educational software and follow exercise routines.
But smart TV makers recognise that people still want a sit back rather than lean forward experience most of the time.
Furthermore they acknowledge that increasing numbers of homes own other connected devices. So users may still find it preferable to tweet about a show via their tablet or smartphone rather than shrink the TV picture to pull up an app alongside.
However, manufacturers insist there are instances where it makes more sense to have everything on one screen.
While Samsung and Panasonic are developing their own system software, Google is taking a second crack at offering its own smart TV service.
At the show, LG and Vizio unveiled new sets with the search firm’s Android-based software built in. Sony also added the facility to two devices – a set-top box and a Blu-ray player.
The first version of Google TV launched in October 2010 to much fanfare, but proved a flop – enabled devices were criticised for being too expensive, and several TV networks blocked the US-only service from accessing their web content.
This time round a focus on apps may tempt content providers to co-operate, but for now it remains reliant on its own YouTube service as well as streams from Netflix, Amazon and several niche operations.
UK-based Canonical was punting a rival Linux-based Ubuntu operating system at the trade show. It says it offers a solution to clients who do not want to develop their own software and content deals, but feel uncomfortable linking up with Google.
Whichever operating system proves most popular, the internet poses a threat to the rest of the pay-TV market.
Furthermore, it says that recent developments have spurred pay-TV providers on to furnish its boxes with more material.
For now, the smart TV market looks fragmented from the point of view of content, and immature in terms of some of the technologies involved.
But as smart TVs become ever smarter, previous generations of unconnected sets may soon appear only slightly less antiquated than the black and white models of yesteryear.