How Smart Does a TV Need to Be?

Sure, they’re big and they’re flat. But TVs still aren’t that bright. This, however, could be the year they start acting more like smart phones

The Samsung Smart TV
The Samsung Smart TV Feedloader (Clickability)

Pity your poor TV.

Just a few years ago, it owned Super Bowl Sunday. For hour after hour, it held every eye, every ear at every party.

But last Sunday things were different. The TV was still in center ring, but there was all this other stuff going on. Someone was playing “Words With Friends” over there, someone else was tweeting to pretend polar bears over there. What’s up with that? How could a TV lose the room during the Super Bowl?

The truth is that our TVs are now badly outnumbered by the other screens in our lives, screens on devices that, whether we like it or not, know a lot more about us. In fact, research released today by Nielsen confirms that Americans under 35 are definitely spending less time in front of TV sets. Which is why a lot of people think that if TVs are going to get back on top of the heap, they have to get more like those other devices. They have to get a lot smarter.

What makes you so smart?

Smart TVs have actually been around since 2009 when Samsung came up with the name to describe its TVs with Internet access. But it was only last month, at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, that they started being hailed as tech whose time has come.

So what exactly can a Smart TV do? For starters, it allows you to browse the Web. You can watch YouTube videos and finally blow up your Facebook page to a size fitting your greatness. You can transfer photos from your phone to the big screen. You can make Skype video calls.

But the real transformation of the TV into something more like a very large smart phone will come, not surprisingly, through apps. Samsung, for instance, offers a Netflix app and a Hulu Plus app so you can watch movies and TV shows on your own time, like you would on your laptop or an Xbox 360. It also has something called ESPN Next Level that layers the kind of stats sports geeks love over live game action. And then there’s a Social TV app which allows you and friends’ tweets to run down the screen as catty commentary while you’re watching the Oscars. Two screens in one–now you’re talking.

And then along came Apple

Still, there are those who feel that Smart TVs won’t really be all that smart until they can tell you which episodes of “Breaking Bad” you missed and can recommend other shows with the snarkiness of ”30 Rock.” Or when they’re connected by WiFi to every other device in your house–your smart phone, of course, but also your dishwasher and refrigerator (“Chill the brewskis, March Madness today.”).

Then there’s the remote problem. I mean, how smart can a device be if it relies on another one that’s a) designed to make you feel stupid and b) always lost?

And this is where the Apple intrigue begins. Looming over the future of Smart TV is Apple TV. Not that an Apple TV actually exists, but its aura does, fed by cryptic comments by Steve Jobs in Walter Isaacson’s biography. ”I’ve finally cracked it,” Jobs said of Smart TV, which in the tech world, qualifies as an Issac Newton moment.

So it was a big deal last week when it was reported that Apple’s been in touch with companies that make TV components. And then again a few days ago, when Best Buy sent out a survey to customers asking them if they’d be interested in a product it described as an “Apple HDTV.”

The notion that Steve Jobs from beyond the grave will do for Smart TV what he did for smart phones has tech writers channeling Talmudic scholars as they try to interpret just what he meant. Nick Bilton, for one, writing for the “Bits” blog in the New York Times, posits that Jobs wasn’t just talking about the TV’s interface, but rather how artificial intelligence (AI) software could change the whole TV-watching experience. Jobs, he says, was talking about Siri, the digital personal assistant on the iPhone 4S that ‘s become the voice of AI.

Sure, other entertainment systems, such as Xbox 360 Kinect respond to hand gestures and voice commands. But Siri can carry on the semblance of a conversation. Imagine…

“Siri, how about another episode of ‘Cops’?”

“Are you sure that’s what you really want to watch?”

“Yes, Siri, that’s what I want.”

“But you know that’s not good for you. Might I recommend ‘Downton Abbey’?”

TV or not TV

Here’s some other recent news on the TV front:

  • Killer ads: One group that’s especially jazzed about the potential of Smart TV is advertisers, who are starting to imagine what’s possible when you combine the emotional power of the big screen with the targeting precision of Web advertising.
  • Finally, couch potatoes get a little credit: A new iPhone and iPad app called Viggle can track what you’re watching on TV, then gives you credits at the rate of two points per minute. Rack up enough points and you can win a $5 gift card to places like Burger King and Starbucks. May not seem like much, but you’ll know you earned that latte.
  • Watch and buy: A mobile app called Zeebox is hoping to make a business out of making it easier to buy things you see on TV.
  • TV goes new school: Another indication that Smart TV is percolating was the announcement this week that Flingo, a company that makes TV apps, has landed $7 million in venture capital funding.

Video bonus: Want to see for yourself? Here’s a quick tutorial on what a Samsung Smart TV can do.

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