CES 2013: Next Gen Home Theater

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While the remote control is certainly a big step up from the days of manually changing the channel, the technology is starting to feel a bit dated.

Today’s televisions are like patients in a hospital, hooked up to several devices feeding them content, each with its own remote, which can get confusing real fast. Universal remotes can only do so much — and some people find them too complicated to program.

That has some manufacturers researching the best (and most natural) way to improve how people interact with their sets — with a focus on interfaces where the machine learns viewer habits, rather than forcing viewers to learn a new way to access content they already enjoy.

Of course, home theaters are about more than televisions. Soundbars, receivers and more are critical components for some people. Because the TV is such a central hub for programming, though, that’s where the bulk of the focus is in today’s user interface research and development.

Interface solutions under study range from voice and gesture controls to far-reaching content search tools to make it easier for people to find what they’re looking for.

Count Samsung firmly in the voice/gesture camp. New top-of-the-line sets from the manufacturer still ship with a remote, of course, but can be turned on simply by talking to the set (“Hello TV. Power on.”).

B.K. Yoon, president of Samsung’s consumer electronics division, when introducing the sets, says television will soon evolve into a product that will “listen, see and do what you want, without ever touching the remote control.”

The company’s ES8000 LED set (last year’s flagship) used face recognition to let users sign in to personal profiles.

Sony is also looking at voice control for its sets and plans to introduce those controls in the coming months, says Mike Lucas, senior VP of the Networked Technology and Services Division at Sony Electronics.

Near field communication is also something the company is exploring. As consumers watch content on several devices, the ability to simply touch a phone or tablet to a TV and resume watching where you left off could come in handy.

Some of the most intriguing home theater innovation is coming from unexpected corners. Microsoft’s Xbox Kinect peripheral allows people to search multiple streaming sources for content at one time via vocal commands. And Nintendo’s Wii U console slets users switch from games to ESPN to Netflix without having to search for three different remotes. Content search and remote control functionality is all built into the system’s tablet-like controller.

“It is a perfect remote for the family because it will live on the coffee table,” says Zach Fountain, Nintendo’s director of network business. “There are attempts at other remote controls that are on other devices (such as smartphones and tablets), but those are taken away and put in bags. Ours is a living room device — it will be on the coffee table and be available to anyone who wants to watch TV, movies or sports.”

Ready for your next upgrade? 4K TV has arrived

Now that 4K television sets are starting to roll onto the market, the race is on to provide content for those early adopters.

Sony and Red Digital Cinema have been the first out of the gate to serve that market, each offering slightly different take for 4K content.

Sony’s player is bundled with its Ultra High-Definition TV set (which retails for just shy of $25,000). Included among the content are 10 Hollywood movies (such as “Salt” and “The Bridge on the River Kwai”) and a package of 4K gallery content, including musicvideos, shorts and indie productions). The company hints that additional 4K content will be sent to owners on Blu-ray discs.

Red’s “RedRay Player” lets users view .RED files from their cameras and upscales .MP4 HD files to Ultra HD resolution. The system comes with 1 TB of internal storage (enough to hold 100 hours of 4K video), but will not accept streaming content. The company is taking preorders now and expects to begin shipping in the first quarter of 2013.

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