What is television? Historically, its definition was more or less set in stone. A television set was a very particular type of device, which served as the hub of audio-visual entertainment in a given household. To take Wikipedia’s description, it’s “a telecommunication medium for transmitting and receiving moving images that can be monochrome (black-and-white) or colored, with or without accompanying sound.”
Over time, the models, sizes and features evolved, but the basic meaning of the word “television” remained unchanged. That is, until recently.
For the first several decades of the TV’s existence, the concept didn’t evolve much. Black and white turned into color. They got lighter, they got thinner and the picture quality gradually improved. Today, the idea of what we used to call “television” is being turned entirely on its head, and we don’t really know for sure what it will look like a decade from now.
From Content to Hardware, TV is Changing
The biggest shift, of course, is in where the content comes from. That the Web has blown video content creation and distribution wide open is old news by now. What’s noteworthy today is how that Web video is maturing. Not content to let the networks and cable channels corner the market on professional-quality TV content, YouTube, Netflix and Hulu are all investing heavily in original, Web-only programming.
Plus, it’s not just the source of the images on the screen that’s changing. The hardware and the overall experience are evolving as well.
One thing that’s already obvious is that TV will no longer be an experience that’s based around a single, large screen in a fixed location. Mobile apps from providers like Netflix and Hulu started changing that almost as soon as the smartphone and tablet revolutions began. Social video apps like ShowYou and Boxee also turn tablets into mini-TVs, but with content curated from the social Web rather than more traditional sources.
It’s not just big tech companies and scrappy startups that are redefining how people consume video content. The cable companies and content owners are not sitting this one out. For evidence of that, look no further than initiatives like HBO Go and Comcast’s new Streampix streaming video service.
The Comcast streaming bid is only one point of attack into the changing market for the cable giant. By focusing aggressively on strategies for smartphones and tablets, it is trying its best to ensure that cable subscriptions remain an attractive option for consumers, who are are quickly growing less picky about screen size and location when it comes to watching their favorite shows.
Will We Have TVs in the Future?
Some believe the future of television won’t involve a television set at all, or at least won’t be very dependent on the traditional concept.
“It’ll involve a big, agnostic monitor on your wall,” writes Live Nation VP of Product Ethan Kaplan. “And even then, maybe that big space on your wall that was once a TV is now a painting because everyone has their own Retina display tablets in their lap and is thereby occupied.”
Even though TV is already moving onto smaller screens, it’s unlikely that the big screen is ever going to go away. People talk a lot about how television is becoming more social thanks to Twitter and Facebook. It’s a little silly if you think about it. Sure, social media is bringing a new digital dimension to TV-watching, but television has always been social in the real-life, flesh-and-blood sense we sometimes forget about. It’s the large screen, easily visible by a room full of people, that facilitates that social experience.
Televisions will continue to get thinner and higher in picture quality. Some may be replaced with pocket-sized, high-resolution projectors that connect to our smartphones (if they’re not built right in). However it evolves, the idea of a big, rectangular image on a wall isn’t going anywhere.
What will be interesting to watch is what evolves around that big screen – everything from the little screens and the apps they contain to the way that real-time communication and other data from the Web are integrated into the experience.
Then there’s the way we’ll physically interact with television, which is already beginning to be transformed. Apple’s much-rumored iTV HDTV set is widely expected to utilize Siri voice control, something we’ve already seen a sneak peak of with Microsoft’s Kinect. The popular add-on for the XBox 360 also allows users to use hand motions to virtually navigate through content. This is something we’ve seen hints of in Apple’s trove of patents as well. However things develop, you can expect the days of the basic clicker to be numbered.