Here's a peek into the not-so-distant future as envisioned by executives converging on this week's Consumer Electronics Show. You'll come home from work in the evening, plop into your La-Z-Boy, and while settling in for a round of Wheel of Fortune, you'll wonder, Hey, what happened to my stake in Citibank today? Lucky for you, you'll be able to find out on the tube—press a button on your remote, scroll across the screen until you find the Stocks menu, and, voilà, your stock ticker pops up over Pat Sajak's face. Easy, right?
True, it's not as easy as looking up your portfolio on your computer, which is most likely sitting next to you on the couch. But, hey, this is the future, and in the future your TV will be very smart. According to a plan by Yahoo, Intel, and several TV manufacturers, you'll soon be able to access the Internet through the tube—a library of downloadable "widgets," scrollable and selectable via your remote control, will give you the news, weather, your photos, even Twitter. These services will pop up alongside the main attractions, an innovation that will "forever change the passive interaction we've had with our TVs," Tim Baxter, Samsung's executive vice president of marketing, told the CES crowd.
While Baxter says that like it's a good thing, do we really want to give up "passive interaction" with our TVs? Passivity is television's main feature; we love it precisely because it asks so little of us.
"Interactive TV" is a recurring fever dream of the consumer electronics industry. Every few years, tech leaders serenade us with songs of television's coming golden era—of technologies that will transform our TVs from guilt-inducing laziness enablers into fully aware, two-way devices that will help us become more productive. Recall, for instance, the "information superhighway," Al Gore's early-'90s vision of "a 500-channel universe" in which we'd be able to shop, bank, chat, and learn about the world through our TVs. Gore was right about the underlying technologies that would power such a revolution; he guessed correctly that fiber-optic cables, packet-switching networks, and digital media had the potential to create a revolutionary communications system. But he—like nearly everyone else in the tech business—was wrong about the device we'd use to access that network. Check out this 1993 cover of Time or this 1994 cover of Popular Mechanics—each pictures a torrent of media flying at American homes, but neither mentions the device that would bring it to us: the personal computer.
Computer and TV people have wised up since then. Now, many discriminate between the sort of interactivity we enjoy on our computers versus the sort we'll tolerate on television. They've even coined jargon for these distinctions—computer users crave a "lean-forward" experience while coach potatoes "lean back." But over the years we've started leaning further back from our computers; now, we use our machines to watch TV shows and movies, laying off the keyboard and mouse entirely.
When it comes to TV, we're more discriminating about interactivity. Numerous attempts to bring the Web to the tube have failed, which is why announcements by LG, Samsung, Sony, Toshiba, and Vizio that their new TVs will let you access Yahoo and MySpace seem so silly. Have you ever flipped on the TV and lamented its lack of MySpace? Not me, because MySpace isn't that hard to get to. If you're on a social network, you've likely got a PC—not to mention a laptop, smartphone, or a netbook—that isn't too far away from the couch. Perhaps you even use it while you're watching TV—a kind of multitasking that is much more comfortable than having everything on a single screen eight feet away from you.
The best TV innovations at CES manage what you might call passive interactivity. Rather than try to give you whole the Web on TV, they bring streaming videos—the Web's version of television—to your living room. Apple TV, TiVo, and other devices already make it possible to get YouTube on TV, and last year Netflix, which runs a fantastic video-on-demand service available to subscribers of its DVD rental plan, began embedding its software in set-top boxes and Blu-ray players. Tomorrow's TVs won't require those peripherals—LG, Vizio, and others announced that some of their new models would come with built-in WiFi, allowing out-of-the-box access to your Netflix queue and all the splendors of YouTube. Vizio is reportedly in talks to bring Hulu, the Web's best TV channel, to its TVs—a development that ought to terrify cable and satellite operators. If you currently pay $30 a month for broadband and $50 a month for cable, why keep paying the higher bill if your TV can get The Daily Show through the Internet?
I also like some of the interactive features that programmers are building into their channels. Later this year, ESPN plans to launch on-screen widgets that let viewers take part in interactive polls and bring up additional stats during games. If your cable box or TV runs advanced programming software called Tru2Way—the technology covers about 90 million homes—you'll also be able to personalize the ticker that runs across the bottom of the ESPN screen, choosing scores from certain teams, sports, or geographic areas. Bryan Burns, ESPN's vice president of strategic business planning and development, told me that the channel added these features in response to popular demand and after lengthy usability studies with focus groups. He added that ESPN plans to run advertising sponsorships for these features, but at the moment, those ads won't be targeted to users based on their behavior—that is, if you choose to see scores for teams in New York, you won't be presented with New York-specific ads. But he didn't rule out such a scheme in the future.
If there seems to be a natural tension between the Web and TV, targeted advertising is the glue trying to hold them together—one of the primary reasons that entertainment companies, Web companies, and telecom companies are pushing for Web-TV hybridization. The more you interact with your Internet-connected TV, the more it'll know about you—all the better to serve you ads tailored to your desires.
Programmers know that TV already has a rich life on the Web: The best shows inspire vast tracts of online discussion and reference works. (Check out the sprawling Wikipedia entries for The Wire and The Sopranos, complete with organizational charts and deep biographical info about every character.) At the moment, entertainment companies play little part in those communities. Interactive TV may change that. In a talk at CES, Anne Sweeney, president of the Disney-ABC Television Group, said that her network is planning to create Web-connected widgets that would help center these communities around the tube rather than the PC. For instance, there might be a Lost widget that would let people chat with other fans during the broadcast of the series finale in 2010; ABC, of course, would sell advertising on these widgets.
Perhaps there are some Lost fans who'd like to connect with other fans through their TVs, but I'm still dubious. It's much easier to express whatever you want to say with a keyboard rather than a remote control. In 2010, I'm guessing we'll be watching the last episode of Lost in the same way we consume every big TV moment these days—with one eye on the TV and the other on the laptop.