Voice Control: Next Big Thing in TV?

While the Consumer Electronics Show includes just about every type of gadget imaginable, the star of the show is almost always television.

People mingle in front of a display of LG Electronics televisions.
Frederic J. Brown | AFP | Getty Images
People mingle in front of a display of LG Electronics televisions.

Every year, manufacturers roll out their latest and greatest, touting a new technological advance they hope will resonate with consumers. But for the past few years, the reaction among shoppers has been more "ho hum" than "I gotta have it."

Sales are hardly faltering, however, since some 247 million TVs were sold worldwide in 2010, a 17 percent increase over the previous year, according to research group DisplaySearch. But with rumors of an Apple TV set growing louder by the day, manufacturers are starting to sweat.

3D might be a draw in theaters, but the bulky glasses and lack of truly great home content have kept interest fairly low. And while Internet-enabled sets offer plenty of extras, they haven't proved compelling enough to persuade people to trade in their existing sets.

Up next in the efforts to woo consumers are major changes to user interface — specifically, voice control.

It's something Microsoft started offering Xbox 360 owners last year and is expected to be the centerpiece of Apple's set. By simply telling your TV what you want to watch, it will scour broadcast, on demand, and third-party sources (such as Netflix) to try to find it for you.

LG is already on board. The company in late December added voice recognition to its "Magic Remote," which also supports motion control.

"LG has been striving to constantly improve the comfort and convenience with which our customers use the CINEMA 3D Smart TVs," said Havis Kwon, president and CEO of LG Home Entertainment. "The new Magic Remote is our latest example, incorporating new functions that will make it easier for users to approach and use the [sets]."

Other insiders agree that making it easier for people to find the content they want is critical in driving a new replacement cycle. And, they add, the technology is already a lot smarter than most people think.

"Having a conversation with a device that knows you enough that it can make a good recommendation is mind blowing," says Brian David Johnson, a futurist at Intel who specializes in the television industry. "And as you start to extrapolate out, you have a relationship with your devices that you haven't had before. Your TV knows more about you and what you watch than you do. Your TV knows if you like [a program], you watch it — and if you don't, you change channels. We can create a deeper relationship between ourselves and our devices."

Manufacturers aren't putting all of their eggs in that single basket, of course. There are plenty of other new features on display at CES this year.

Ultra High Definition

Vizio has unveiled a line of sets that uses a 21:9 widescreen rather than the 16:9 aspect ratio. Dubbed the CinemaWide line, the sets will let viewers watch Blu-ray movies in full screen, without the typical black bars at the top and bottom.

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And Sharp, LG and Toshiba showed off 4K sets, ramping up the visual quality to a level much higher than today's high definition standard.

The images are eye-popping, but the sets aren't likely to make a splash anytime soon.

"The amount of content that's in ultra high definition makes the 3D library look like the Library of Congress," says Jordan Selburn, principal analyst for consumer platforms at IHS iSuppli. "I'd be shocked if in the near- or mid-term if that changes."

Speaking of 3D, don't expect that technology to go away soon — though it may not be emphasized quite as much as it was two years ago.

"If you ask the average consumer why they haven't embraced it, they'll say 'I don't really need 3D' and that's an opportunity for us to overcome," says John Schindler, vice president of products at Vizio. "We have to make the glasses cool and hip — and we need to make those glasses something you're proud to wear and not embarrassed to wear. … We need to work as an industry to drive the right standard. This will not work if there's not a single standard for consumers. If we don't do that, we're not going to drive adoption."