CES: Are TV viewers salivating for voice controls?

Despite Siri's popularity, speech and gesture commands need to find acceptance

Voice command may seem like a natural evolution for television, given the popularity of Apple’s Siri on the iPhone. But is it ready for primetime?

Samsung’s ES8000 LED set, the company’s flagship “smart TV” model introduced at last year’s CES, can be turned on simply by talking to it. LG’s Magic Wand remote control uses gesture control. Even accessories like Google TV and Microsoft’s Xbox 360 videogame console let people search for programming by shouting at the devices.

While voice command is one of many new user-interface ideas that manufacturers are exploring as they search for ways to let consumers search for programming, analysts seem a bit uncertain over whether it will catch on with consumers. Most agree that user interfaces need to be updated to reflect the significantly larger amount of content (and content sources), but educating users on how to activate their new TVs may prove daunting despite the apparent simplicity.

“Voice command is an attention getter,” says strategic innovation consultant Scott Steinberg. “The same way Siri caught the public’s eye — or, rather, its ear — with the iPhone, that’s what manufacturers are trying to do with their TV sets. Certainly it makes the experience easy, but I don’t think it’s a killer app or anything that shoppers are demanding.”

The advantage of speech (and gesture) as a user interface is it’s often quicker to control functions. Rather than using arrow buttons on a remote (or an embedded miniature keyboard) to type a password or search term, for example, users can simply call them out and move on to selecting their content.

Some of the sets and systems utilizing this technology claim to “learn” a viewer’s habits, allowing the devices to recommend programming. The better those recommendations become, the better the chances that it will be embraced by the public.

“When you start to natively build systems that have those new (functionalities) in it, they become pretty core,” says Tawny Schlieski, an Intel Labs researcher. “The thing we’ve been pushing on in this new space is a more natural, more human interaction. We want to push the machine to learn us.”

Microsoft has been leading the charge on voice control through its integration of the Kinect peripheral on the Xbox 360 and the growing list of apps from major content partners filling its screen. For example, Bing can search for content using voice commands on the more than 20 million Xbox 360s in homes.

“You’ve only seen the proverbial tip of the iceberg as to what the technology can do in the entertainment space,” says Blair Westlake, corporate VP of Microsoft’s Media & Entertainment Group. “Kinect is both a technology as well as a product that we embrace. To be able to embrace it more in future products is certainly something we’re looking forward to.”

Whether it’s shouting at the TV, gesticulating at it or some other yet-to-be-unveiled option, there’s a consensus among consumer electronics manufacturers that something needs to change.

“In the last few years we have seen apps like email, Twitter and Facebook on CE devices like TVs,” says Shawn Dubravac, research director for the Consumer Electronics Assn. “Manufacturers wanted to show these properties because it said to consumers that the product is connected. But the experience is generally poor. The next focus will be on improving the user experience.”

And tapping into the capabilities of the devices people already are using.

“Tablets transformed the computer industry, and that’s what many television-set manufacturers are hoping to do with their TVs,” says Steinberg. “They’re hoping to bridge the gap between users and the television. The holy grail is finding a better way to interact with your set.” By the numbers
of HDTVs are connected
to the Internet
of HDTVs are connected to the Internet when factoring in set-top boxes and Blu-ray players
of TVs connected to the Internet are used to access streaming video services
stream music services
like Pandora through their TVs
use their TVs for Web browsing
of HDTVs are used for Facebook; even less for Twitter
Source: NPD