There's been a lot of talk about 3D being the next big thing in TV. Next year most manufacturers are going to debut some kind of 3D set (if they haven't already), and Hollywood is already producing plenty of 3D content, with more on the way. I've seen the demos of 3D video, and most of them are impressive. Some writers are convinced 3D is going to invade our living rooms, like it or not.
They're wrong. 3D is a bold and interesting experiment, but it's not going to get traction because it's not what people want. Sure it's cool and flashy, but those glasses? Deal breaker. While others duke it out over the irrelevant title of becoming the standard in 3D, one manufacturer is leading the charge to where TVs really need to go. That would be Toshiba and its Cell Regza HDTV. The destination: real convergence.
Read on to see why I think the Cell Regza is the future of TV.
The Rise of Web Video
I work at a TV channel (Syfy, in case you missed the "Powered by..." under our main logo). Consequently, not a day goes by that I don't have a conversation about this or that TV show. This kind of word of mouth is how I get recommendations on what to watch. Whenever I want to try out a new show, my first stop isn't my cable box, it's the Internet — sites like Hulu, ABC.com and YouTube (disclosure: Syfy's parent, NBC Universal is a major stakeholder in Hulu).
I think my behavior is pretty typical. It's not uncommon now for people to watch some shows exclusively online. They don't care if it's in HD, SD, 3D or whatever — they just want the content, and their laptops provide the easiest way to get it.
So why hasn't it occurred to anyone to put Internet video in the TV itself? It has: Plenty of manufacturers have ventured into the territory of "convergence," or integrating the Web into the TV experience. They go by names like Aquos Net, VieraCast, InfoLink, Bravia Internet Video and others. These attempts at convergence have been almost universally half-assed, with relatively closed systems (most offer very few sites compared to what you can get on any Web browser) and poor interfaces.
There's definitely some laziness and poor planning on the part of the manufacturers, but these Web-TV interfaces suck mainly because TVs aren't designed for the Web. Regular TVs have processors, to be sure, but generally they're good at just one thing: putting video on a screen, and very specifically formatted video at that. They're not called upon to do much else, so asking them to interpret the Web and the large variety of Internet video out there is like asking a English-Spanish translator to interpret Chinese.
The New Convergence
The Cell Regza changes the game. The Cell is a processor, typically put in PCs, designed specifically for image processing. Putting such a chip in a television essentially gives you an HDTV and a really kick-ass computer in one. This removes a big obstacle holding back true convergence: that TVs simply didn't have the hardware for it. Starting with the Cell Regza, they do.
Now when you want to check out a show from the Internet, you don't have to run for your laptop, at least in theory. But in practice, there are four things the Cell Regza and its coming brethren need to figure out before it fulfills its promise of bringing the real Internet to the TV set:
1. Wireless: Stringing an Ethernet cable from modem to TV is unacceptable in 2009. There are wireless adapters, but as PC manufacturers discovered, wireless is so commonly demanded with Internet connectivity (to the point where it's now pretty much synonymous with Internet access), it should be standard. True, N-standard Wi-Fi can't handle streams quite as well as a wired connection, but it can do decently, and the convenience is worth it.
2. Cost: The Cell is powerful processor, but that doesn't justify the inflated price of this TV. The Cell Regza will cost over $10,000 when it goes on sale in December (Japan only at the start). That's absurd considering laptops with the Cell processor are in the $1,500 range, and the PS3, which also uses it, costs $300. Sure Toshiba's packaged it into a slick 55-inch HDTV, but 10 grand for a TV? This isn't 2003.
3. Storage: The Cell Regza can store over 3TB of video onboard — making a standard cable box's hard disk, with its 160GB of storage, look positively microscopic. The problem is that those terabytes are on the TV, which isn't typically what you use to tune into shows and record them. In America, those duties are taken on by your cable or satellite receiver. To truly get the most out of a connected TV, your cable and satellite service needs to talk directly with the TV, similar to how CableCARD was supposed to work. That, or start using an antenna. (You really should!)
4. Browser: The last thing TVs with souped-up processors need is a good browser, something that's designed specifically for Internet video. Software like Boxee or XBMC are good examples, letting you control your Web-video browsing with a TV remote control. Still, there's no reason a regular browser wouldn't work either.
A regular browser on your TV might actually be the best solution. Everyone knows how they work already, most Web video lets you choose a full-screen option anyway, and if there were a simple way to use the QWERTY keyboard on my phone as a wireless input device, I wouldn't even need a separate keyboard. Just think of it: All Internet video on your TV, playable seamlessly, with no extra wires or accessories.
That's what I want in my living room — not a pair of silly glasses.