Smart TVs, dumb TVs, Google (s GOOG) TVs, Ikea TVs and even everything we know about the rumored Apple (s AAPL) TV set all have something in common: In the end, they’re just TVs. That’s whether they’re 42, 50 or 60 inches in size, with a bezel that frames your viewing experience. And whether it’s Netflix, YouTube or just plain old cable TV, the way we watch video on them is fairly similar as well. Sure, the bits may come from different places, and you might even have funky widgets on your iPad or on-screen while you watch TV. But take a step back and today’s TV still looks very much like the TV of yesteryear. Turn it on, watch something, turn it off, and be done with it.
That’s not what the future of the TV will look like at all, if we can believe the folks at NDS. The Israel-based TV services provider, which Cisco (s CSCO) acquired for $5 billion in March, has been exploring what the actual TV set will look like five years from now. Company executives came to San Francisco this week to showcase some of their research, and the results are pretty intriguing.
To sum it up briefly, NDS was showcasing a big matrix of six bezel-less flat screen TVs that were combined to form a huge, almost overwhelming TV wall. NDS CTO Nick Thexton then went on to demonstrate big displays like these can be broken up, showing a video of varying sizes somewhere in the middle, with personalized and content-relevant widgets off to the side. And once you get some cinematic 4k content, you might even want to use the whole screen. Check out Christina Bonnington’s story over at Wired.com for more details about the demo, which was neat.
But what I found fascinating was the points that Thexton and NDS Chief Marketing Officer Nigel Smith raised about the future of TV. The real question, Smith told me, is, If you have a TV the size of a wall, how are you going to interact with it?
The future of TV will be modular
We have all gotten used to the fact that TVs are getting bigger and bigger every year, and the NDS demo of a TV screen that would fill your entire living room wall seems to fit quite well into that narrative. However, Thexton was very vocal about this not being a question of size. “We are not advocating just big TVs,” he told me while standing in front of the giant NDS demo screen.
Instead, Thexton thinks that TVs may become modular and actually consist of much smaller displays that can be combined to fit the room. Think of 6-inch to 8-inch bezel-less squares that you can buy individually and then mount to the wall next to one another, gradually growing the size of your display to fit your needs. These displays would automatically work together, making sure your Saturday night movie runs on all of them at once.
NDS is currently using a PC with multiple video outputs to run its six-screen demo, but Thexton told me the company is developing a small module to connect to each screen separately and then mesh network these to coordinate the complete video output. Mesh networking devices like these could also come in handy if you wanted to include another TV on a second wall, for example to run a news feed or an in-home video stream while you’re interacting with other media on the main screen.
The future of TV will be ambient
One of the main points of the NDS demo was that huge displays don’t always equal huge videos. Instead of watching your morning news in theater mode, you’re going to watch clips with a much smaller size and use the rest of the screen for other information. In fact, sometimes you might not be watching TV at all but will still find it useful to leave the large screen wall on. For example, it could display cover art for the music you are listening to while giving you access to your calendar reminders, a wall-sized clock and your Twitter feed. Home automation and security-camera footage are also applications that could be useful to run all day, or fade in and out as needed.
But with that big ambient screen also comes a unique new challenge: You really don’t want to turn it off. Anyone with a big TV screen is already aware that the device can look like a big, black annoying hole in the middle of your living room when not in use. Now multiply this by three, four or even six and you end up with a whole lot of ugly dark screen estate.
Leaving your big TV wall running all day, though, will cost you a fortune in electricity. The solution will be e-ink-like display technologies that allow you to keep a visual wallpaper or even some widgets up and running without burning a hole in your wallet.
The future of TV will need new interaction models
NDS ran its demo off an iPad, allowing me to change the immersion level — and display size — of a video with simple sliders. That was good enough for a demonstration, but it still seemed somewhat complex for everyday use. Thexton told me that the company had evaluated Kinect-like gesture control as well as Siri-like voice control but eventually abandoned both because they seemed to require too much effort and were too prone to errors. In the end, he said, people didn’t want to control their TV in a Minority Report-like fashion but with something that felt more natural. “We don’t want people to feel weird in their living room,” he said.
But is the tablet the be-all and end-all? Thexton didn’t think so, and he reminded me that controlling a TV traditionally can be boiled down to just a few core indicators. Give someone a remote control with a D-Pad, and they can pretty much navigate through any cable guide or online video app. So if only four to six buttons are needed, how about replacing these with interactions that can be accomplished without any remote control at all? The key might just be to treat the TV like a pet, said Thexton, and develop a kind of interactive language both you and your TV understand. In other words: Don’t be trained to use a remote; train it to do the things you want.
Define TV’s future without its constraints
A TV that consists of many little displays working together, a TV that’s always on, a TV the size of your living room wall and a TV that obeys you like a well-trained dog: That’s a lot to swallow, especially if you’ve thought of the next wave of apps as innovation in the TV space.
However, it may be time to think bigger, and leave some of the assumptions of what TV is — and what TV sets are — behind. “TV has to start defining a future for itself,” Thexton told me. And that future may not fit into a 60- or 70-inch bezel.