Use voice, gestures to control TV

Samsung, Panasonic, Lenovo and LG are pursuing voice recognition and gesture control features in smart TVs

A new wave of TVs this year will provide the option of using voice controls or hand gestures to navigate channels, change volumes or find the right content from broadcasts or the Internet. Samsung recently shipped new interactive TVs that not only recognize hand gestures, but also voice commands with the assistance of a "Smart Touch Remote" control. Lenovo hopes to go beyond voice and gesture recognition with a smart TV that is capable of quality gaming. Panasonic has already shipped some of its latest Viera TVs in the U.K. with Nuance Communications' Dragon TV platform, which allows users to speak out channel choices or Twitter updates.

Samsung Smart TV

Samsung a few weeks ago started shipping new TVs that users can control simply by speaking or moving their hands. The interactive TVs include the Smart Touch Control remote, which has a microphone to take in voice commands that are then transmitted wirelessly to a TV set. The TV responds to simple commands like "volume up" or "channel up." Saying "Web browser" opens up the browsing software, and users can also speak directly into the Google search box instead of typing. The remote and TV are linked via a long-range Bluetooth connection, and voice commands are helpful if a user is not in front of the TV. Beyond voice recognition, the TV also has gesture recognition features in which moving a hand in the air allows users to browse around and select features, much like the Nintendo Wii or Microsoft Xbox gaming consoles.

But there are signs that Samsung is still adapting to the newfangled voice control technology. The company recently issued a firmware update for its voice-controlled TV sets that changes the power-on command from "Hi TV" to "Hi TV, power on." This change will "avoid any confusion both with the commands themselves as well as the way the TV is interpreting the commands," the company said in a statement accompanying the firmware.

The goal of TV makers is to enable natural forms of interaction with TVs, and Samsung is now a step ahead of Sony and LG, which offer smart TVs with traditional remote controls. Samsung's new interactive TVs are LED ES7500, which comes in 46-inch to 60-inch screens and is priced starting at US$1,999 on Amazon.com, the LED ES8000, which is priced starting at $2,300, and Plasma E8000, which is priced starting at $1,800. A separate keyboard is also available for users to type in commands.

Lenovo's smart TV ambition

Lenovo's smart TV plans are similar to Samsung's: Speak commands into the remote control and the TV obeys. The company currently has in the pipeline one smart 3D TV, the K91, which will come with 42-inch and 55-inch screens and initially be available in China. In addition to voice recognition, the TV also has the hardware to play casual games assisted by a game pad. The TV has gesture recognition and can run Android 4.0 applications, so theoretically it is possible to run an application like Angry Birds on the TV with players controlling the game through midair hand movements. Lenovo has also talked about plans to link the TV to its burgeoning cloud service, from which applications and games can be downloaded. Lenovo will take the TV outside its home market of China when it sees a business opportunity, the company has said. The company has not yet set a price for the TV.

Dragon TV

Nuance is known for its voice recognition software and for providing the underlying technology behind Apple's Siri voice-command service. The company is now offering its expertise to TV and set-top box makers. TV maker Panasonic has adopted Nuance's Dragon TV voice-recognition platform for its Viera TV sets, models of which have already started shipping in the U.K., according to Nuance. Nuance demonstrated the platform at this year's Consumer Electronics Show, and said the technology could change the way users interact with TVs. For example, users will able to specify a channel like PBS to switch to, or even blurt out Twitter updates to post. Just by speaking a few words, users will also be able to find specific shows, search for movies related to an actor, or select content to play on-demand. The technology sounds promising and will grow if TV makers adopt it.

Alternative options

LG is looking to roll out TVs with voice controls and may be close with its latest version of its Magic Motion remote control, which the company showed at CES. Apple is also said to be working on a new TV that redefines the way users interact with TVs, but for now the best option is the company's Apple TV set-top box, which iPhone and iPad owners will especially appreciate. The $99.99 box allows users to play movies and TV shows from Apple's iTunes store, but multimedia content can also be streamed from an iPhone or iPad to a TV. Users can mirror an iPad screen on a TV with Apple TV, which could be useful when playing games.

Agam Shah covers PCs, tablets, servers, chips and semiconductors for IDG News Service. Follow Agam on Twitter at @agamsh. Agam's e-mail address is agam_shah@idg.com

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Agam Shah

IDG News Service

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