Pixels & Bits:  Connected TVs

Article

posted 8/14/2012 by Sean Cahill
other articles by Sean Cahill
Platforms: AV
Welcome to Pixels & Bits, where the staff at Gaming Nexus will take a weekly look at the impact of audio and video products (as well as related gear) that enhances the gaming experience.  In this serialized article, we will discuss audio and video products, accessories and opinions on how these work within the confines of the gaming experience.  In this week’s article, we cover the incredibly deep topic of connected televisions and how they relate to gaming.
 
When Dan and I sat down a couple of months ago and decided that we needed to do a weekly A/V segment, we listed a ton of articles that would make the most sense to cover.  As we were writing up the topics, there was one glaring one that I'm certain neither one of us wanted.  It was like the sore thumb sticking out, just mocking both of us, because there is so much to cover in the topic, it's incredibly difficult to cover all of it.  Needless to say, I'd like to think that doing this article got me a freebie to make Dan do one he didn't want.  Nevertheless, let's take on this week's topic of connected televisions.

The Beginning
Connected TVs have been an idea for a lot longer than most people think.  Most people forget the first true way to connect up to the internet via the television, which was WebTV  It started in 1995 and was a rather clever way of giving people access to the internet without needing to buy  a computer.  While the product was incredibly expensive and very slow, it opened up the idea for many current television manufacturers about the possibilities of connecting homes to each other once the interface was there for consumer use.  It would take roughly 15 years, but it's crazy to think of what WebTV gave to people before the internet truly hit its boom in the 21st Century.

The true start of connected TVs
In the last few years, the market for connected televisions as exploded.  What started out as interfaces that included the basic applications that everyone was looking for in Netflix, Pandora, Hulu, and others, eventually turned into something far bigger than most could imagine in the short period of time that the televisions came out.  As Netflix exploded and gave consumers a reason to cut back on cable costs and invest in faster internet speeds, the inclusion of Roku also brought a different element to the market.  Eventually, independent app makers were creating just about anything that could be imagined.  CinemaNow, Amazon Rentals, eBay, Skype, and so on.  Before anyone could catch their breath, app markets were a mainstay in the industry.
 
The interfaces
Today, in 2012, just about every television manufacturer has internet connected televisions in their lineup of products.  Google TV brings full web browsing to the table, just like WebTV started in the 90s.  Roku boxes are cheap as can be and offer everything that is needed for the everyday user of the main applications.  Most of the interfaces have similar layouts with the manufacturer’s proprietary name.  Viera Cast (Panasonic), NetCast (LG), Smart TV (Samsung), Internet TV (Sony), and Aquos Net+ (Sharp) just to name a few.  In reality, while all of these have their own catchy (or not so catchy) names attached to the system, they all do roughly the same thing.  The difference comes in the form of how they deliver them to your home.  Most of the televisions use the remote control for the TV, and some are now including keyboards to interface with programs like Skype.  On top of this, what we here at Gaming Nexus expected much sooner than it happened, the remotes are slowly evolving into the form of game controllers.
 

Gaming in connected televisions
If you don’t own a connected television, it’s difficult to put a number on just how many games there are on these systems.  However, with the explosion of smartphones and tablets, many of those games are becoming available on the televisions.  Televisions should make an inevitable turn to implement operating systems such as Android into the interface.  Android has already made its mark as the top challenger to the iPhone in the world of mobile devices, and has supplanted Blackberry rather easily.  Samsung went out of their way last CES to announce that Angry Birds would make its way onto their connected televisions.  Some other highly popular games are already on these televisions, such as Bejeweled, various forms of tower defense-style games, and plenty of skill and puzzle games to test everyone’s mind.  However, adding to the argument at hand, is the fact that we are already seeing signs of consoles starting to disappear, but we get to the ultimate question....

Will Consoles be replaced by Connected TVs?
The short answer to this is, possibly, depending on what your expectations are.
 
The long answer is far more complicated, and really goes into the meat of this entire article.  In the current setup of today’s market, console gaming is just too big of a moneymaker.  It’s hit a bit of a rough patch, lately, but we said the same thing towards the end of the PS2/Xbox/GC era as well.  While I’ve criticized Microsoft in the past for their “Sort of HD” Xbox 360, I look back at it now and think that it may have been a brilliant move.  Sony really doesn’t have much they can improve upon, though they will find a way to do it.  Microsoft, on the other hand, still hasn’t tapped into the full HD connections just yet.  We all know that Blu-Ray is the next step for Microsoft, and now it makes sense.  Blu-Ray drives are insanely cheap to make, unlike when the Playstation 3 came out and the players were still running 400 dollars.  Nintendo, of course, is finally stepping into the HD world, albeit they weren’t in it at all in the last generation.
 



The next step for Microsoft and Sony is making their new systems 2k/4k compatible, even with those televisions still costing tens of thousands of dollars.  Connected TVs will not give a hardcore gamer what they need, simply because the televisions currently do not have the processing power (nor the room in the product) to handle what is needed.  Televisions are getting thinner, not thicker.  While it isn’t outside the realm of possibility that a manufacturer could take advantage of this (Ouya, anyone?) and surprise the market, the fact remains that the big game developers still cater to Microsoft and Sony, as well as the PC gamer.  Connected TVs are, more or less, a gimmick in the world of gaming.  Many of the mainstream writers and experts continue to say that connected televisions will eventually destroy the console gaming industry because the games are so cheap.  The problem with this logic, of course, is that most of these games are just time wasters.  I pull out Angry Birds on my Galaxy S II when I’m sitting around waiting for something.  I don’t pull it out for a long gaming session, and I’d venture to guess that it’s the same for every console gamer there is.  I acknowledge that the mobile gaming industry has made a huge footprint in the world.  It’s tough to say no to games that are just 99 cents or, in a lot of cases on Android, completely free.
 
Now, as the years progress and technology improves, I believe that there is a day where Connected TVs and consoles actually become one.  It makes too much sense with the industry trying to cut down on space as much as possible.  While this brings in a lot of issues that we’ve already seen with TVs and DVD players built into the same machine, the signs are there, and they have appeared a lot sooner than everyone probably thought in the form of...


OnLive and Gaikai...and the expected battle between them.
These are two names that everyone will become very familiar with soon.  Both have had strong openings, and the big boys are impressed enough to show the support needed to survive in the industry.  OnLive is already available on its own system, PC, Mac (Intel-based only), Android, and iOS  Gaikai impressed Sony enough to earn a $380M USD price tag.  Both of these systems have garnered some impressive partnerships, while both obviously taking a page out of Steam's playbook and attempting to bring it to those who do not wish to partake in PC gaming.


Starting with OnLive, the model is simple:  Cloud based gaming in multiple formats.  Here at Gaming Nexus, we have had the chance to play around with the console as well, and it's simplistic in form, yet powerful when it comes to gaming.  Stating the obvious for just a moment, only those with decent  internet connections are going to be able to enjoy OnLive.  OnLive opts to be a truly cloud-based system by offering users the ability to play games at a flat-rate and access the titles via straight streaming capability.  For those who wonder just how good the titles are if they've never heard of OnLive before, such titles as Assassin's CreedAmnesia - The Dark Descent, BioShock, Saints Row, and so on.  It's impressive to see such a collection, and anyone can check out the list online.

GaiKai runs in a very similar fashion, though there are definitely differences between it and OnLive.  Gaikai is currently aiming at embedded forms of gaming, such as on websites and social media services.  Of course, the expectation is to see it move to mobile devices and connected TVs, hence the true connection with the future of gaming.  The software itself does run inside web browsers and mainly sticks to flash-based software.  The requirements are almost identical for internet users, except the recommendation of a minimum 3 Mb/sec connection is the difference between the two.  GaiKai seems to be taking the connection to internet televisions very seriously, announcing that Samsung  will have Gaikai featured, along with AAA titles.  Some ideas of those titles?  Already demo'd on Gaikai has been Dead Space 2, The Sims 3, Spore, and Mass Effect 2.

Between the two services, both have the right idea of the future.  Physical media is slowly getting phased out, though we're still nowhere close to  eliminating it completely.  Even with Netflix being a strong media proponent for movies and television, Blu-Rays and even regular DVDs have shown strength in this market.  There are still plenty of people out there without internet access to handle anything that has been mentioned in this article, though that will not stop OnLive and Gaikai from exploding the way that they have.  This is the next war that should be paid attention to closely.

Final Thoughts
The short-term outlook for connected TVs looks to be bright, even if they have become somewhat stale in the recent months.  Perhaps its because the industry needs to take a much larger step in the immediate future.  Maybe its because cloud-based gaming is still in an infancy stage.  The fact of the matter remains, though.  The day is coming where gaming is going to eliminate physical media altogether.  I believe that the "PS4" and "Xbox 720" will still have physical media, but they may very well be the last consoles that have this added to their repertoire, especially with Onlive and Gaikai showing their power in being able to bring so many games to the household without the need to drop 60 dollars on just a single title.

 
About the author
Sean Cahill has been on staff at Gaming Nexus since 2007.  He specializes in console gaming, primarily Xbox 360, as well as PC hardware, A/V, and car audio accessories with ten years of experience.  If you have a question or comment for Sean, please refer to the comments section below.



* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company for review.



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