Laser-powered contact lenses might sound far-fetched, but with many TVs already connected to the internet, consumers have proved their enthusiasm for an immersive, personalised experience. And the possibilities for innovative brands are endless.
What would we do without TV? It's been the focal point of our domestic life for more than half a century. The days of viewers staring blankly at the goggle box however, are well and truly over thanks to a number of technological TV innovations.
Over the past few years the viewing experience has been dominated by screens: huge ones in your living room, small ones in your pocket and medium-sized ones under your arm. But within a decade, mass uptake of lightweight video goggles and laser-powered contact lenses controlled by thought or voice will feed programmes directly into your brain, enhanced by sensations delivered via a digital patch on the skin.
"I can't see why anyone would want to replace a 50-inch plasma with a 70-inch plasma when they could go out and buy video goggles that could give them the effect of a 200-inch plasma, with full 3D in high-definition," says futurologist Ian Pearson. "We'll regain control of our living rooms. Suddenly, we'll be able to move the furniture anywhere we like. It essentially takes us back 100 years, before we had TVs and consoles."
We aren't there yet, but that shouldn't disguise the fact that nanotechnologists have patiently laid the beginnings of an entirely new set of tracks for TV. They might never get used, but then again they might soon lead into every home.
We already watch TV content on laptops, through games consoles and on portable devices, but it seems increasingly unlikely that these shifts will be where the developments end.
"There's a tonne of innovative stuff going on," says Jean-Paul Edwards, executive director of futures at Manning Gottlieb OMD. "We've got a bunch of different technologies that are looking to get onto our big screens. There are constant surprises that keep coming out of the lab."
A new experience
The TV habit, it must be said, isn't in serious jeopardy; wherever it washes up, quality TV-style content finds friends. But the method of delivery, the device via which we watch, the window of viewing time, the way the content is paid for - none of these things any longer seem certain. Perhaps a more down-to-earth prospect than video goggles and laser-powered contact lenses is that the TV set will remain, but that its brain will grow, enhanced by widgets, return-path interactivity and other characteristics of the web, plus goodies such as 3D, gesture-based interfaces, personalised programming and advertising, as well as placeand time-shifting technologies.
"All the separate audio-visual boxes will become embedded in a single device," says Nigel Walley, managing director of Decipher. "When Teletext first launched it was a separate set-top box. This trend will continue with devices like Slingbox, the place-shifting streaming unit, integrated into the next generation of Sky boxes, for instance."
Already beginning to embed itself in consumer devices is 3D technology, which is currently the public face of TV's cutting edge. In March, LG, Samsung, Sony and Panasonic all announced the introduction of their 3D TV ranges.
Sky has been the first broadcaster to snatch at the concept, running trials in pubs and unveiling plans for its first 3DTV channel. The BBC and ITV say they are looking at the possibilities, while Discovery, ESPN and DirecTV have announced similar plans in the US.
For advertisers, the appeal of 3DTV is immediately obvious; it offers the opportunity to produce visually arresting, creatively eye-popping ads. Visa and CBS Outdoor have already grabbed the medium in the outdoor arena, unveiling the first high-definition 3D projection in New York's Grand Central Station in February.
In theory, 3DTV takes the augmented reality experiments of recent years, eliminates the webcam and the mobile phone camera from the equation and potentially opens the door to something amazing. "It will certainly be very interesting to see how those 3DTV capabilities move beyond being a gimmick to being something meaningful," says Edwards. "Can 3DTV make products more tangible, more desirable?"
Do we want it?
Enthusiasts tend to gloss over the fact that 3D viewing of any kind still calls for foolish glasses, although Intel showcased a specs-free range of 3DTVs at the International CES in Las Vegas in January. Other experts suggest domestic 3DTV has arrived too fast and with too little reference to the requirements of the viewing public. Walley, a seasoned interpreter of technology, is stumped as to where some of the latest innovations could fit into the market, describing the convergence of broadcast and internet technology as "chaos".
"It's hard to say how much of that chaos is consumer-led and how much of it is supplier-led," he says. "You get the sense that a whole lot of it is supplier-led, particularly with something like 3DTV. Where did the impetus for that come from? It certainly didn't come from consumers."
In any case, 3D isn't the end of the story. Last November, 3D chip-maker Canesta outlined its vision for gesture-controlled TV. "Imagine if you could re-invent TV-based services the way the iPhone re-invented the mobile," says chief executive Jim Spare. "Well, the natural interface will enable just that."
Hitachi has promised to have a gesture-controlled TV on the market in Japan before the end of 2010, while in the US this autumn, Microsoft plans to release a gesture-based add-on, known as Project Natal, to its Xbox 360.
In both cases, the technology employs a relatively simple sensor and infrared pulses to create a 'depth map' that can pick up and differentiate gestures, and potentially faces, allowing for content that is not only interactive, but tailors itself to whoever is in the room.
Once the computer in the TV gets to know the members of the household - their age, likes and dislikes - it can serve ads that match those profiles, incorporating everything from games to interactive demos and brochures.
Gesture-based technology has already been deployed in digital signage to a limited extent. Orange showcased an interactive window in its Carnaby Street store in 2008 that offered consumers the ability to scroll through relatively straightforward menu choices; Coca-Cola's Olympic Pavilion in Vancouver earlier this year demonstrated another approach, inviting consumers to play gesture-based games.
It is true that the technology, while applicable to TV, appears to find a more natural home in gaming. But when games and viewing are delivered through the same broadband connection, advertisers will be able to direct consumers from one to the other.
All such technologies require a TV that is at least connected to the internet. And whereas the commercial future of 3D and gesture-controlled TV is still unknown, internet-connected sets are already flying off the shelves. More than a quarter of new TVs sold in the US in January were taken home and plugged straight into the internet, according to iSuppli Corp.
That connectivity alone raises the imminent possibility of TV experiences enhanced or generated by downloadable apps - something commonly referred to as 'widget TV'.
"It's about adding little bits of functionality to TVs to enable things like social TV," says Edwards. "Younger audiences want to connect with their friends while they consume content, and there are lots of opportunities for advertisers to add things around that."
The presumed death of linear, appointment-to-view TV, replaced with on-demand, potentially interactive content, paints a picture of personalised TV schedules and, inevitably, personalised ads. Sky has been making in-roads in this sector for several years, but now it's targeted ad initiative has a name - Sky AdSmart.The service is being trialled on Sky Player, using postcode and other customer data to serve ads based on the likely interests of individual viewers. The results of the trial, Sky promises, will be kept secret, but as the return path opens up, the implications of targeted TV ads, good and bad, are huge.
As consumers exercise ever greater control over their viewing, their attention becomes a valuable thing, and increasingly difficult to buy through a media owner. Ad credits that can be redeemed directly against premium content are just one of the potential ways of engaging consumers.
"I can see a positive future where the consumer will see fewer ads for products they don't want to buy, the TV companies will make better revenues and advertisers will make a better return," says Edwards. "It is a matter of making sure all three parties are happy, which obviously means that any privacy issues have to be dealt with."
What's in it for brands?
Advertisers, while concerned at falling viewing figures, have not necessarily called for this structural overhaul of TV, and in that respect their position is somewhat equivocal. They like the idea of engaged eyeballs, but they want to know more about what it all means. "Brands don't like change. But they are extremely excited about online TV advertising. Pre-rolls are, without doubt, the premium advertising space online," says Tess Alps, chief executive of Thinkbox.
The further implications of on-demand TV for advertisers have already been hinted at within online TV pre-rolls, which, while generating many click-throughs, don't come under the Barb TV measurement system.
"It is not exactly a leap of faith to advertise around online TV, because people are watching it and it is trackable, but working out its value is the real challenge," says Keith Welling, broadcast account director and head of implementation at Universal McCann. "We don't know whether moving £100,000 out of TV and into online TV will get us more rating points."
Another striking feature of this vision of TV is that most of us appear to prefer it when the content itself comes from a professional source. Jane Young, founder of collaborative creative platform Scramblr, believes that will change. A key element of the future TV experience, she suggests, will be the ability to make your own content, though she acknowledges professional tools will be needed to make it happen.
"At the moment, there's a gaping void between professionally produced and user-generated content," she says. "But I'm really excited about the future of content creation and consumption, because we are not too far away from a true meritocracy where anyone with an internet connection can access the tools and resources they need to produce great stuff."
The way we consume audio-visual content is on the brink of irrevocable change, and only one thing is certain: the revolution will be televised.
TOP TV INNOVATIONS
The Nipkow Disc German researcher Paul Nipkow's spinning-disc theory cracked the problem of capturing and reconstructing an image for TV. It was finally put into practice in 1926 by John Logie Baird, who had to put his subject's head in a vice for three minutes to minimise movement.
Radio-vision In 1928, General Electric first demonstrated TV transmission in Schenectady, New York. The Boston Post made it the next day's lead story, with the headline: 'See Over Radio For First Time.'
Slow uptake Ten years after Baird's demonstration, there were still only 100 TV sets in the world.
Philco Safari The first micro-TV, launched by Philco in 1959, was 15 inches tall and could only be viewed from a specific angle.
Smell-o-vision Actually a cinema innovation that never took off, a spoof TV version of the smell-o-vision technology was created by the BBC for an April Fool's Day prank in 1965.
Kuba Komet These German sets from the early 1960s incorporated a TV, record player and radio receiver. They stood almost six feet tall and resembled a wooden sailing boat.
Cartrivision The first commercially available VCR was launched in the US in 1972. An integrated TV and video unit, it sold for $1,600 (£1,045).
Teletext Launched in the mid-1970s as Oracle, Teletext shut down its text info service in December, although its holiday and travel services remain on Freeview.
Star Trek viewscreen When the producers of Star Trek wanted to update the giant screen on the bridge of the Enterprise for the late-70s shift to cinema, they added a digital clock above it.
Watch-TVs Sieko's 1981 model had a 1.25-inch screen. Though it fitted on the wrist, it was powered by a rather larger portable receiver.
Freeview Freeview emerged as the number-one TV innovation in a survey last summer by Deloitte/YouGov, directly ahead of PVRs and plasma screens.
Skype TV CES 2010 showcased various videoconferencing technologies, floating the very real prospect of widescreen video chat and social viewing.
SMART THINK!NG TV INNOVATION
1. Brands need to follow TV technologies as they emerge. Things are changing; this is no time to switch off
2. 3D is beginning to offer tangible experiences, particularly in out-of-home and public broadcast environments. Good ads still have the potential to make a disproportionate impact
3. With the arguable exception of the telegram, no mass communication medium has ever been entirely replaced by another. TV isn't dying
4. Content remains critical, and although the distribution path might change, the viewers will remain, albeit in a fragmented state
5. TV, games, social media and communications are all converging. Don't consider them in isolation, but in the light of what they can bring to each other