Thursday, August 9, 2012

What is the "Killer App" for Smart TV

When IBM fist introduced its PC, Apple placed a full page ad in The Wall Street Journal saying that they were glad that this happened and how it would be great for the PC market. Of course it was great; but after having the market virtually to itself, Apple's own share of the PC market shrank well below 5% before rebounding on Apple's strength in other products. As with any technology, radical change is needed to keep the technology fresh. But radical change is frequently a great hazard to the major incumbents.

The first computers were behemoths. They were physically large and had very large, in many cases water cooled, specialized processors. Later, came both smaller computers (mini's and PCs) as well as even larger supercomputers. The supercomputers initially had specialized central processing units (CPUs) as well but eventually the high performance computing (HPC) world figured out that they could make very effective supercomputers using arrays of generalized processors, such as what was found in PCs, acting in parallel. Indeed, many of the more interesting problems that supercomputers were destined to work on were more appropriately addressed by parallel processing than by one large, supercharged, CPU. This contributed to the decline of companies like Cray and the rise of Intel in the HPC world.

Eventually the idea of parallel process was carried a step further. The generalized PC CPUs in supercomputers began to be replaced by Graphics processing units (GPU's) that are themselves inherently parallel. Most supercomputers being built today are being powered by GPUs rather than CPUs and the world's fastest is being created with GPUs. As the use of GPUs beyond the basic application of image rendering has grown, so too has the population of programmers familiar with GPU programing.

And how does this relate to television??? With the arrival of LCDs and digital images came digital image processing. There is a significant amount of computing going on in the background of your LCD in order to deliver the image that you see. In addition, TVs have gotten "Smart" with the introduction of such features as voice, facial, and gesture recognition requiring modern TVs to significantly boost their computing power. Although TVs remain as one of the most price constrained of any consumer electronics platform, they are also one of the most given to being sold based on specs. TV brands have done battle based on brightness, color fidelity, contrast, thinness, etc. What would happen if the industry borrowed a page from the computer world and started competing based on processor speed. Probably not much unless there were some application to drive it.

The Killer App
MiniTel was recently switched off. For those of you that are unaware of MiniTel, it was the first internet-like service. It was the brainchild of France Telecom and was up and running in the mid 1980's before there was an internet. I saw MiniTel and thought it was a useful but fairly limited service, which it was. However, what I failed to see was how such a service could blossom going from a limited and centralized service to the inherently decentralized internet of today. So, given my admitted limited abilities to comprehend technological advancement, here are some applications that I think will drive smart TV sales in the future.

Social Interaction
As TVs became cheap and the nation went from one TV per household to one TV per room, watching television went from a family affair to a solitary activity. Indeed, the whole social media revolution has bypassed TV for the time being. As sets gain in computing power and input devices are added (cameras and microphones) TV sets could adopt some of the same applications as in the mobile phone market. Also, similar to what is going on in social media in general, user generated content could become a significant part of what gets viewed.

2D to 3D Upconversion
At some point 3D will become common and even usual. At that point, most content will still be in 2D and with the market for 3D content growing, there will be, or is now, a market to convert 2D content to 3D. As with colorization of black and white films, the initial results may be less than spectacular, but as an audience grows up with an expectation of 3D availability someone will satisfy that need.

Home Automation
Some years ago I was involved in fundraising for a start-up called Toprover. I was able to get Mr. Jobs to look at it (he apparently visited their web site several times) but he apparently did not bite. What Toprover had was a comprehensive home automation program and device. It actually made use of large HDTV screens with a comprehensive control panel and had enough embedded computing power to do all sorts of useful things around the home. Like 3D, I consider home automation to be an inevitability. I think that control modules, device intelligence and communications are cheap and easy enough that now could be the time.

Voice and Gesture Control
Another inevitable technology, however, it can be more than an improvement to the remote control. As with Pandora, increased feedback from the user could tailor suggested content, switch the image to different perspectives, maybe even customize general content in some way. This could include changing the visual perspective on image content, customizing the news to skip uninteresting matters or provide more detail on others, or customized weather reports for the particular micro-climate in your neighborhood. As with most things involved with display technology, the innovations are not as likely to be involved with an improved display as with improved human interaction.

This article began with a longish introduction, mostly about the development of computing power, particularly the development of parallel processors useful in image processing and now other applications. What followed was some speculation about what sort of applications this computing power could be put to use on, most of which I consider inevitable. However, this is coming from an observe that did not see the seeds to the internet in Minitel. I have, however, had my share of prognostications including the rapid increase in pixel count for mobile devices. ("The case for a flexible touch panel keyboard", in Touch Panel, Sep 20, 2009) No doubt at some point the rise in available processing power will enable holographic 3D; but no time soon. However, there undoubtedly will be other apps that are completely new that few can envision now.

From the movie "The Meaning of Life"
Exec #1: Item six on the agenda: "The Meaning of Life" Now uh, Harry, you've had some thoughts on this.
Exec #2: Yeah, I've had a team working on this over the past few weeks, and what we've come up with can be reduced to two fundamental concepts. One: People aren't wearing enough hats. Two: Matter is energy. In the universe there are many energy fields which we cannot normally perceive...
... However, this is rarely achieved owing to man's unique ability to be distracted from spiritual matters by everyday trivia.
Exec #3: What was that about hats again?

The image above is from the movie "The Ring" about a videotape that will kill you if you watch it.

1 comment:

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