Television on tap

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Today, many consumers are watching TV programmes on their computer screens, and accessing internet content on their televisions. The talk is of I-TV – television that offers internet access, interactivity or (BBC) iPlayer content in the living room.

Panasonic offers the Viera Cast service on its range of TVs, from the G20 series upwards, which provides access to selected websites including YouTube, Picasa (photo albums) Euronews and Acetrax, a video-on-demand service. Skype video calling is also available on selected Viera sets.

Samsung’s Internet@TV system offers a range of Widgets – web applications, such as Yahoo!, Flickr (the photo site) and YouTube. Later this year, new widgets in the form of BBC iPlayer, Lovefilm movies and Muzu will be introduced. TV music videos will be available on many of Samsung’s TVs including, the C9000, C8000, C7000 and C6500 LED TV series. BBC iPlayer can already be accessed via most Freesat HD set-top boxes and sets, and Cello Electronics’ iViewer LCD sets have built-in iPlayer, YouTube, WebTV and Podcast functionality.

Humax plans to add a portal service to its Freeview HD range, which will include services such as Sky Player, while its Canvas-enabled products (Project Canvas is an internet TV service supported by the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and others) will include a whole host of new services and features. Philips’ NetTV service offers a mix of open internet browsing alongside customised services. Philips plans to expand the range of sets offering NetTV, which will be available on this year’s 7000, 8000 and 9000 range of sets. LG’s NetCast gives access to various online content including, YouTube, weather forecasts and online photo albums.

A mass market offer?

But just what is the appeal of interactivity on a TV? Is I-TV a mass market offering or one for the ‘techies’? Graham North, Humax’s commercial director, says: “Interactive services on a TV are without a doubt a mass market proposition. As with most technologies, features like internet access and iPlayer functionality have started out by appealing to the more technologically-advanced consumer, but demand will quickly spread as others begin to see the advantages of on-demand television and catch up services. Watching your favourite shows via a PC does not make for the best viewing experience, but making these available on your main TV is a much more appealing proposition.” Stephen Gater, LG Home Entertainment’s head of marketing, says: “As the living room becomes the hub of home entertainment, it is more important than ever to provide consumers with the ultimate in convenience and innovation from the comfort of their sofas. Previously, people have been forced to use laptops in front of the television, (but) I-TV functionality has allowed online experiences and content to become more sociable when viewed on the wide screen.” Gater quotes research which shows that, between 2004 and 2009, there was a 28% increase in the number of hours UK consumers spend on the internet.

Joni Shakles, Philips TV customer marketing manager agrees: “The internet and internet streaming provide the ultimate in on-demand services and give consumers instant access to what they want, when they want it. TVs are setup for consumers to enjoy in the comfort of the living room. Bringing these worlds together is a natural step, as consumers get all the benefits of the on-demand services on a large screen that the whole family can enjoy.”

“Being able to access online content and services directly through a TV makes life much simpler for consumers. It means that services previously only available via computers and set-top boxes can now be accessed through a TV,” says Brian Palmer, chief executive of Cello Electronics, “Who wouldn’t want to be able to surf the internet, catch-up on programmes they’ve missed and check their social media networks from the comfort of their own sofa? Accessing web content via a TV is simple, easy and convenient.” Palmer adds: “I think internet-enabled TVs will definitely become mass market products – it will just take time to catch on like the vast majority of new technologies. However, once consumers become aware of the capabilities of internet-enabled TVs, then I think they’ll really catch on, especially if product price points are right.” Steve Lucas, Panasonic’s technical specialist, is another strong I-TV supporter: “It is a mass market offering. Networking functions make it possible to use the TV in a variety of fun ways, for example, sharing photos with friends and family.”

Help with installation

But in order for I-TV to become a mass market offering, it has to be easy for consumers to install and use. Many people are techno-phobes when it comes to computers and even more so when broadband services are involved. Setting up a wireless router and adding devices to a home network is not always straightforward, especially when consumers have to deal with issues such as firewalls and encryption keys. Philips’ Shakles notes that: “Two of the key issues in providing I-TV functionality are: simplicity of installation and operation, and providing content specifically designed to suit TV viewing. For I-TV functionality to become mainstream, it is important that it is simple to setup and use, and doesn’t require consumers to develop networking skills. We have designed a simple and intuitive interface for NetTV which looks no different to other standard TV features. It guides the user through the setup and requires little prior knowledge of networking.”

Philips was one of the first companies to offer wireless internet access on its sets, so that the consumer’s TV set did not have to be positioned next to the broadband router – which is often some distance from the living room. The company’s 9000 range of TVs will have built-in wireless access, and optional Wi-Fi dongles will be available for the 7000 and 8000 series. Humax’s preferred option for connecting its products to a home network is the Powerline system, which carries data along home electrical wiring. “This is the method we are currently promoting with our latest Freeview HD products and also with our iPlayer-embedded Freesat products, as it’s likely to cause the consumer less problems when installing and provide ongoing stability of service,” says Humax’s North.

Cello’s Palmer says: “As long as the consumer has a good internet connection, they shouldn’t experience problems. The iViewer can run via a wireless connection or from a direct connection to the internet via an Ethernet port.” LG’s Gater agrees: “The challenges of offering I-TV functionalities are minimal. If consumers are unable to connect their TV directly to their router, LG offers a wireless dongle, which can be connected to several of our models.”

A complete on-demand service

The search engine giant Google recently announced that it was entering the I-TV market with Google TV. This aims to blend the internet with broadcast TV. The service will enable users to search for channels or shows, and access videos, music, photos and social networking websites on their TV screen. Sony plans to incorporate Google TV into future products. Google’s move has generally been welcomed: “Google’s move into TV is likely to just add another choice for the consumer and many consumer electronic products, both TV and set-top box, are likely to carry the service,” says Humax’s North. LG’s Gater is intrigued by the development: “Consumers would like to access content from the comfort of their sofa using their existing remote control. A fully integrated search engine inside the TV might be a perfect solution for someone without a PC or laptop, but whether this will replace a laptop or computer is unclear at present. This is something that LG is very
interested in, and we are constantly monitoring the way that we engage with technology in the home.” However, Philips’ Shakles is more cautious: “Google is one of many companies providing the gateway to the web. However we have chosen to adopt an open model to content using open standards, which gives consumers control of what they access and our content partners control over how their content is displayed.”

Cello’s Palmer adds: “It’s an interesting development and I’m keen to see the level of uptake amongst consumers. Many people believe it won’t really take off, and although I agree that a complete on-demand service is unlikely to go mass market, soon, it’s a trend that we are watching very closely.” Google TV makes the TV more like a PC, but is there a limit to how much a television should function more like a computer – for example, do people want to make Skype calls and read their emails on a TV? “The function of the TV will depend on where it is located in the home,” says Humax’s North, “our experience is that there is little desire for people to check their emails on the main TV. The main TV is often located in a shared room, so this can annoy others sharing the screen. It’s more likely that consumers will want to engage in more social aspects of computing using the TV, such as applications like Skype, where many people can sit in the same room and share a conversion with friends and family.”

“I think that there are some people who would love to do everything via their TV and others who prefer just to watch programmes on it – it really is a personal choice,” says Cello’s Palmer, “However, I’m sure a large percentage of people who regularly use email and Skype would love to be able to access the services directly via their TVs. Skype, in particular, really lends itself to TV.” Philips’ Shakles says: “Computer and television functionality will continue to converge. TVs will offer more and more features that are currently associated with computers – such as social networking and communication. There is also the potential for internet content to be merged with TV programmes, to create an enhanced viewing experience. However, it is important that any services don’t get in the way of standard TV enjoyment. TV viewing is a shared, social activity, so, while internet TV services are likely to increase, there are some functions that will remain better suited to the computer, such as writing emails.” LG’s Gater believes that: “Internet TV makes it easier for consumers to access their favourite content straight from the comfort of their sofa. As new services become available, the role of the TV in the home will change and give consumers a more interactive experience with their TV.”

Panasonic’s Lucas says: “Yes there is a limit, as TV processing power is not as great as on a computer. But there are lots of computer applications you may want to share with your family, which you can do on a large screen TV, such as Skype, or browsing photos albums, instead of sitting in a computer room, or having the laptop on your knee.”

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