Want to Reinvent TV? Don't Forget the TV

Think Batman. Multiple screens will fill a wall if you want—and you'll control their size, content, and sound
Photograph by David Balhuizen/Getty Images

Smart TVs, dumb TVs, Google TVs, Ikea TVs—even everything we know about the rumored Apple TV—all have something in common: They’re just TVs. That’s whether they’re 42-, 50- or 60 inches wide, with a bezel that frames your viewing experience. And whether it’s Netflix, YouTube, or plain old cable, the way we watch video on them is fairly similar. Sure, the bits may come from different places, and you might have funky widgets on your iPad or on-screen while you watch. But take a step back, and today’s TV still looks very much like yesteryear’s. Turn it on, watch something, turn it off, and be done.

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 Systems acquired for $5 billion in March, has been exploring what sets will look like five years from now. Company executives came to San Francisco this week to highlight some of their research, and the results are intriguing.

NDS showcased a large matrix of six flat-screen TVs, without bezels, that combined to form a huge, nearly overwhelming TV wall. Nick Thexton, NDS chief technology officer, demonstrated how big displays like these can be broken up, airing a video in varying sizes near the middle of the wall, with personalized and content-relevant widgets off to the side. With some cinematic 4K content, for example, a viewer may want to use the whole screen. Check out Christina Bonnington’s story at Wired.com for more details about the demo, which was neat.

What I found fascinating were the points that Thexton and Nigel Smith, NDS chief marketing officer, 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

NDS uses a PC with multiple video outputs to power its six-screen TV wall. This could soon be done using small, mesh networking-capable modules.

We’ve become used to TVs getting bigger and bigger every year, and the NDS demo of a screen that would fill your entire living room wall seems to fit that narrative well. However, Thexton was vocal about future TVs 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 TVs may become modular and consist of much smaller displays that can be combined to fit a room. Think of 6-in. to 8-in. squares without bezels that you can buy individually, mount on a wall next to one another, and gradually expand the size of the full display to fit your needs. The screens would automatically work together, making sure your Saturday night movie runs on all at once, for example.

NDS is currently using a PC with multiple video outputs to run its six-screen demo. 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 want to include another TV on a second wall, for example, to run a news feed or in-home video stream while interacting with other media on the main screen.

The future of TV will be ambient

A key NDS idea was that huge displays don’t always equal huge videos. Instead of watching your morning news in theater mode, you might watch much smaller clips and use the rest of the screen for other information. Sometimes you might not watch TV at all, but still find it useful to leave the large screen wall on. For example, the wall could display cover art for the music you’re listening to while giving you access to calendar reminders, a wall-size clock, and your Twitter feed. Home automation and security camera footage are applications that could be useful to run all day, or fade in and out as needed.

A huge screen doesn’t necessarily mean you watch everything blown up to the max. With that big ambient screen, however, comes a new challenge: You don’t want to turn the TV off. Anyone with a big-screen TV 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 that size by three, four, or even six and you end up with a lot of ugly, dark screen estate. Leaving your big TV wall running all day, though, will cost a fortune in electricity. The solution will be display technologies similar to e-ink 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 using 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 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 feels more natural. “We don’t want people to feel weird in their living room,” he said.

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 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. 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, is always on, is the size of your living room wall, and 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 about 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.

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