CES has been the subject of much debate in the tech media the last few days. For the first time I can remember it has not just been geeks salivating at the prospect of more shiny stuff to play with. Some have been genuinely questioning the point of a hardware-focused show in a social, software-driven age.
While some nice gadgets have been announced, there’s no new revolutions appearing that weren’t already in progress. Just about the only major stories from CES so far seem to be about TVs.
This spurred a quick chat I had with BBC Merseyside tonight about growing TVs: with the advent of 84 inch TVs at CES, the presenter wanted to know how big you really need your TV to be. Like any good analyst, I answered his question with a question: what is a television for?
What IS a Television For?
‘Television’ combines two words: ‘tele’ meaning distant and ‘vision’ meaning, well, vision. You can’t say this is inaccurate based on current usage, but the word ‘television’ conjures up very specific ideas for me. Families crowding around a flickering set for appointment viewing like Corrie or the FA Cup final. Dodgy aerials that always needed adjusting. Constant fiddling to get a better picture. That for me was ‘television’. The name describes not just the box in the corner but the programming it carried and the over-the-airwaves means by which that programming was delivered.
The modern television is very different. Appointment viewing is limited to live events and the big reality shows (though even those seem to be declining). Increasingly what we watch through our screens it is not broadcast over the airwaves and it is not watched synchronously with the rest of the nation. It is piped through an internet connection and watched at our leisure. It is interactive content fed from a games console. And increasingly it will be information and applications delivered from the cloud.
For me what was the ‘television’ is really today just another screen. An interactive interface to the morass of applications and content in the cloud that increasingly hosts and defines our day-to-day lives. Less and less will the TV be restricted to video content: more and more it will be a means of accessing calendars, shopping lists, news, games and communications.
The Future Will Be Televised
So what is going to change to enable this?
One interesting development at CES was the multi-user TV, that enables two people to simultaneously watch different programmes on the same TV in high definition. Today this uses glasses but you can imagine some form of micro-mirror based system that enables pixels to be restricted to a narrow field of vision focused on individuals whose head position is tracked around the room.
Motion and voice control is already here in high-end TVs, and combined with the smartphone and tablet these herald the end of the remote control. Not a decade too soon either. Finer gesture control will give us the slickness of tablet-style touch on wall-sized screens.
And these are very much a reality. Once manufacturers nail down how to mass print OLED screens on flexible substrates, 84in screens will fast become normal and even small. Why not have a fully interactive wall if it can be shipped like wallpaper, doubles as room lighting and costs little to run?
Content will not come over the airwaves. Why have a dedicated chunk of the spectrum devoted to TV when any kind of content can be delivered more efficiently over the internet? The only kind of aerial you may find on a TV will be for Wi-Fi or whatever has replaced it.
None of this is far away. Around ten years ago I bought myself a top of the range TV. One of the last CRT models, the Panasonic TX-36PD30. Plasma panels were available but they were expensive and didn’t yet deliver the best picture. It had a 36in screen and a list price of over £2000. But by today’s standards it was a relic: enormous body and bezel, small screen, all analogue connections, and totally dumb compared to the smart, svelte, internet-connected digital panels that seem to grace most homes now. Jump ten or twenty years into the future and the ‘smart’ TVs of today will look equally Neanderthal.