Samsung’s New TVs Point to the Future

Last week, Samsung announced that its 2012 HDTVs will start shipping this month. While their “fifth generation” Smart TVs have more processing power than ever, what caught my eye were four interface features. If you’ve followed my writing elsewhere (including this GigaOM Pro report), you may have noticed that I’m very interested in how we will merge the worlds of traditional linear programming, video-on-demand offerings by subscription television services, and the “over-the-top” streaming content available on the Internet. Clearly, the five-button remote is not going to get the job done.

So I find it interesting that Samsung has decided to be ready for anything. In addition to building a highly-capable computer inside a flat screen HDTV, they have added speech recognition, gesture control, a remote keyboard, and facial recognition to the set’s features. Each offers broader control than the traditional remote control, and combined they could be used in some innovative and potentially useful ways.

Speech recognition allows the set to convert spoken commands into instructions that the controller can act on. (Note that this is not the same as “voice recognition” which instead refers to recognizing individual voices, and is used for applications such as biometric security.) I think that this has potential, but it does not seem to be a naturaly fit with a group viewing experience. Who wants to be interrupted by someone speaking to the remote control? And will this lead to shouting matches in the living room? “No, television, listen to ME! Turn to Channel 426 NOW!”

I’m a little clearer about gesture control; I don’t think that it’s going to work “bare-handed”. I suspect that the gestures will have to be broad enough to separate them from inadvertant movements, and people will tire of doing calisthetics in front of their HDTV when they just want to channel surf. Instead, I expect that we’ll end up relying on some sort of visible or wireless “token” that the computer can identify more precisely when watching for gesture commands. (Think along the lines of the conch shell in “Lord of the Flies”.)

I’m particularly impressed that Samsung is offering a full wireless keyboard with these new sets, albeit as an extra cost option. It is a concession to the same conclusion that I have come to; there simply are some tasks that are best handled with a keyboard. It’s archaic and in the wrong direction from our “Minority Report” dream interface, but I suspect that we’ll be stuck with keyboards for a while longer.

The last feature is profoundly interesting: facial recognition. At this point, it is just baby step, designed to let different family members log onto their favorite social networks just by sitting in front of the television. However, I see this as an essential element going forward if we are to have successful recommendation engines for video content. The preferences in a household will vary with who is watching. What the husband alone prefers is different from the wife alone, and those are different yet again from what they want to watch when they are together. The combinations expand rapidly as you add children of different ages to the mix. So I don’t see this as being particularly useful yet, but we’ll be glad to have it before too long.

As our televisions get smarter, we will expect more from them. New features like those in these new Samsung sets will help them meet some of those expectations.