Rollable Television. Foldable Television. MicroLED TVs. Modular TV. Big TV. Bigger and Bigger TV. It is CES time, and it doesn’t surprise me that all the major consumer electronics players are talking about televisions (amongst other things.) I mean what can bring more oohs-and-aahs than television screens with high definition video in a dark room filled with media needing to file something — anything. But the question is for how long we will need this big screen? And what will Apple do about it?
I am always amazed by this display of displays — mostly because I am a television heretic. In 2006, when we launched NewTeeVee, I cut the cord and went off linear television. Ten years later, I decided that the big screen in my apartment that hadn’t been turned on for about four years needed to go to the recycling plant.
Over the past five years, I have replaced the big screen with a small screen — my iPad has become my one-stop video consumption device. It is perfect for YouTube, Netflix (though no longer a subscriber), Amazon Video, HBO app, MLB App, and Cricket App.
For everything else I end up using Safari or Brave Browser to watch videos, when I do watch videos — primarily live sports, and television shows from Europe, documentaries and very occasionally feature films, I do so when having dinner or lunch. It is then I plonk the 12.9-inch screen about three feet away from me and enjoy the video on what is a gorgeous display for near-vision. The smaller screen makes the experience of consuming video much more intimate. Plus there is one less thing to have around in my apartment.
I admit I might be an outlier and perhaps don’t quite understand the human desire to own televisions. I do remember getting out the first black and white TV in India in the late 1970s, and then graduating to color tube television in the mid-1980s, but given that I lived like a gypsy through my twenties, I didn’t develop much of a bond with the big screen. Maybe this is why I don’t care much about owning one.
I WANT MY ME-TV
With that caveat, I think both, the big (TV) and biggest (movie theater) screens are going to go the way of the DVD. We could replace those with a singular, more personal screen — that will sit on our face.
Yes, virtual reality headsets are essentially the television and theaters of the future. They aren’t good enough just yet — but can get better in the years to come as technologies to make the headsets improve. We need to make them wireless, and perhaps more tightly coupled with our phones — which can eliminate authentication and identity challenges. It also solves the biggest problem for VR: specialized content.
Instead of trying to spend their entire energy on creating virtual reality experiences, what if the headsets became better televisions with better sound quality and image quality and layered with some social features? It will be a smaller footprint and can make higher quality video streams more possible. By focusing on a singular task — video playback, the progeny of current headsets can have a better go-to-market proposition than current VR devices. Additionally, by focusing on “TV/Theater screen replacement” can help the devices evolve from the current generation of VR headsets, and bring new freedom in product design.
If you think about it — Applications define how devices evolve. The digitalization of music led to the emergence of MP3 players. We were all Napstering, and in the early days, the MP3 players were hardly seamless devices. Big, bulky and kludgy, they were for the real early adopters. Eventually, Apple came up with an iPod, and made a killing, especially after it launched Apple Music Store.
PALM, iPod & iPhone
The popularity of the Internet, email, and text messaging led to the eventual development of the iPhone. Remember, Palm, Treo and BlackBerry were amazing at text messaging and email and came at a time where messaging, and email was starting to become indispensable. When the Internet became an intricate part of our life, we were ready to take it on the go, and the iPhone originally came up to solve that challenge. Of course, it was apps, which fractionalized the Internet experience and made it more digestible on the small screen.
Later, when it became apparent that notifications and fractionalization of our time were going to become a reality, we saw the emergence of digital “watch”-like devices such as Pebble. I would argue, that Apple’s watch came too early to the market — forced by pressure on Apple management to show that the company can still innovate. However, finally it is starting to make sense, and its utility is going to increase over time. It is no surprise that revenues from watch sales are beginning to grow and become a significant contributor to Apple’s bottom line.
The future of television is going to follow the same trajectory. Streaming is a mainstream activity in advanced Internet economies. There are a few devices that take advantage of this mega trend — Roku is a perfect testimonial.
However, for Apple to have an impact, it needs to go beyond the sticks, pucks and old fashioned television screens. In other words, reinvent what it means to be a television screen in the streaming era. Just as phones and watches were big enough markets for Apple to disrupt, Apple has an opportunity to disrupt another one of those biggest markets — television. So, if Apple was to make TV — remember, Steve Jobs claimed to have cracked it — then it would (or should) go down this path.
Steve Jobs “very much wanted to do for television sets what he had done for computers, music players, and phones: make them simple and elegant. ‘I’d like to create an integrated television set that is completely easy to use,’ he told me. ‘It would be seamlessly synced with all of your devices and with iCloud.” No longer would users have to fiddle with complex remotes for DVD players and cable channels. ‘It will have the simplest user interface you could imagine. I finally cracked it.’”—Walter Isaacson
Just as iPhone was nothing like the 12-keypad phones and iWatch is nothing like the watches of the past, Apple’s TV should be nothing like the television screens of today. Apple has enough skills to develop chips that can offer higher graphics performance and yet consume less power. They are doing that on the iPhone and already have the law of large numbers on their side.
THE DIVIDEND OF SMARTPHONE WARS
Just as small storage drives and batteries led to the emergence of iPod, we are on the verge of new technologies being developed that will lead to the advent of new screens. And a lot of that is going to come, thanks to the smartphones.
The VR and Augmented Reality (AR) headsets need to have similar energy requirements (and performance) as smartphones today. The display, CPU, and GPU consume the most amount of power. In ten years, don’t be surprised to see mainstream adoption of augmented reality glasses or contact lenses, that we wear all day.
Our smartphone might fade into the background, just like the PC. And so will the television screen, the cable box, and the entire ecosystem, which will lead to the evolution of a new screen that is a replacement for TV and Theaters. Of course, many of these future devices will need a more powerful computer and unique kind of displays (such as light-field displays) – and consume a lot more power if you follow the trajectory of semiconductor breakthroughs and improvements in energy management technologies. Researchers are making continued improvements in power storage density.
The biggest challenge in any new technology is how humans embrace them. It wasn’t till early 2010, we started to see touch-interfaces began to become popular, but it was about seven years before the touch-based smartphones became ubiquitous. Alexa and Siri have been around for about four years, and it is only now we are starting to see the mainstreaming of the voice interfaces. It will be a few years before we begin to embrace the idea of what is the new television screen.
We might get arguments from loyalists that television watching is a social experience. So was music and so was having dinner with family. We increasingly live disjointed lives, in smaller dwellings and connected only over the network. The software can mimic the social (watching together experience, as Big Screen VR has shown.*)
I think it is hard to grasp that reality today — when we are pre-conditioned to watch everything on large screens. We look at the future from the perspective of today’s consumer when in fact future trends are determined by consumers who are still walking around in their shorts. Future generations will spend less time with the linear TV that requires a bigger screen — a trend that is underway. In 2019, we will be spending more time online, than on television, a direction that is going to accelerate, according to data from the measurement company Zenith.
Attention is a zero-sum game, as I have said earlier:
Daily attention is being sliced and diced multiple ways — from Facebook to Twitter to whatever. And it is going to keep getting sliced and diced. In other words, Instagrams, Secrets, Whispers, and Snapchats are in direct competition with the Times and everything else that is meant to inform us.
Put differently, “It is a hypercharged race for increasingly fractionalized attention.” And someone loses, for someone else to win. Sure we can use the Internet and listen to music, but when it comes to video, that kind of multi-tasking is harder, especially if we get more interactive television.
Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, that allows an audience to choose their adventure is a perfect example. Your actions determine the outcome of the show, so basically you can’t multi-task, and you need to give it your undivided, non-fractionalized attention.
More Netflix can have of that, less of it is there to share with Apple and its apps, New York Times and its articles and Zynga and its games. That is a sign of what’s to come — a marriage of games and movies/TV/other media formats — then we are looking at an opportunity for a new screen format to emerge — one that will sit right on the rim of our noses.
If streaming music made us all comfortable to walk around with headsets — they are the fastest growing part of the music electronics business — and spend big money on them, a device dedicated to video streaming that is small and portable and attaches to our phone isn’t such a ludicrous idea. Culturally, in a matter of a few years, there will be much less of a stigma around a dedicated video watching device.
Plus wireless phone companies need to fill up those so-called 5G wireless waves and pilfer our pockets, just like they needed photos and social networks for their 3G & later 4G networks. We shouldn’t be surprised to see a screen that sits on our noses, is more elegant than what we have today and is more in sync with the needs of the next generation of consumers.
- BigScreen VR is a True Ventures portfolio company.