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Smart TVs: More than just for watching

Julie Harada joined her colleague Frank Gorman of Gorman & Williams at last week’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Harada writes today about the biggest trend she noticed at this year’s expo. Earlier this week, Gorman and Mike Yang wrote about what’s hot at this year’s show. Later this week, they’ll have their list of the 10 best gadgets from CES.

The most prominent product at the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show was the so-called “smart” TV that has built-in web browsers and Wi-Fi connectivity. Television remains the most powerful viewing screen, despite the explosion of mobile devices. Smart TVs were on display last year, but this year they have become even smarter.

Television manufacturers have to provide the viewer with the ability to browse the web, send text and e-mails and  perform other Internet functions, and the standard television remote cannot perform these functions well. Instead, there are apps that allow your tablet or smartphone to become an interactive remote and push any media through your tablet or smartphone to your TV.

Voice and motion control may eliminate the need to connect a tablet or phone to a smart TV, however. With voice control, web browsing on your TV requires no typing. One can perform a web browser search by speaking to the TV, which then converts your voice to text. (It’s similar to the iPhone’s Siri.) With motion recognition, simple hand gestures are all it takes to scroll up and down the on-screen menus. These two features ease the navigation process from one menu to the next, as well as from one web page to the next.

Other smart TV improvements include access to apps. In the Android operating system market, Samsung’s smart TVs provide access to apps. In the Apple or iOS market, access to apps seems to depend on Apple introducing a smart TV.

Multitasking on your smart TV is becoming the new norm with new apps that can allow, as Panasonic announced, chatting on MySpace while watching TV programs. Media-sharing apps are available to send photos, music and video wirelessly between your phone or tablet and the TV on the same network or over the Internet. Sharing content from one device to another is no longer limited by brand name or location of the other device.

Smart TVs also are being built to be to get smarter without having to be replaced. There are open slots in the back of the TV for features yet to be developed. But, as Sony executives acknowledged during a CES panel discussion, there is still work to do to make the smart TV simpler to operate.

The arrival of smart TVs could not come at a better time. More broadcasters are planning Internet TV launches. YouTube alone will introduce more than a hundred channels over the next six months. Panasonic, promoting its Smart Viera 3D HDTVs, announced that it will sponsor 3D telecasts of the Olympics from London this summer.

Smart TVs will facilitate and expand the use of the Internet, increase the number of unlicensed providers of content to viewers and increase the demand for content. All of this presents economic opportunities for new markets and businesses, new regulatory issues, and new challenges to copyright and privacy.

In photo above: Samsung launches its 55-inch Super OLED TV last week at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)