AI coming to your television

There’s something new to consider if you’re upgrading your TV set – artificial intelligence.

When it comes to sales of television sets, 2011 was a bumper year in New Zealand. Thousands upgraded their screens, eager to watch the Rugby World Cup in high definition.

Back then, it was all about pixel count and how many inches of screen real estate you could get for your money. But seven years is a long time in the world of TVs.

We’ve seen new screen technologies such as OLED (organic light-emitting diode) offer incredibly lifelike colours, and streaming video apps such as Netflix and Neon have come to television.

Buying a TV in 2018 is still first and foremost about how good a picture you can get. But there’s a new factor to consider: artificial intelligence. The same technology that is powering virtual assistants such as Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa is being built into TVs, so there’s a good chance a TV that you buy this year will be AI-enhanced.

LG’s entire 2018 line-up of TVs, unveiled last week in Sydney, includes ThinQ, the AI engine starting to appear across LG’s line-up of fridges, washing machines and vacuum cleaners as well.

Samsung, New Zealand’s biggest-selling TV brand, is also building AI into its 2018 TV line-up with the inclusion of the Bixby assistant available on some Galaxy smartphones. It similarly wants Bixby in all its consumer electronics.

The ultimate aim is to have all of your consumer electronics devices talking to each other – the “Internet of Things” in the home. For LG, AI on the TV serves two purposes. First, a series of algorithms take advantage of the A9 computer processor to do clever things to improve the images displayed on the TV screen.

Second, the AI works in conjunction with the TV’s webOS operating system using natural-language processing to let people use their voice to control the TV, select programmes from the electronic programming guide and access content on the web.

If you’ve used Google Assistant on your smartphone, you’ve a fair idea of what is possible, and in future, Google Assistant will work with the LG TVs going on sale now. ThinQ will focus on making it easier to do regular tasks, such as switching from the MySky box to the Blu-ray player.

You may feel like we’ve been here before. My 2013-era Samsung TV has voice control and gesture-recognition features – all of which I’ve turned off because they simply aren’t worth the hassle. Have things improved?

Yes, markedly so. Advances in machine learning and natural language processing have boosted the abilities of these AI features to the point where they are useful.

The remote isn’t dead yet. A microphone in LG’s motion-detecting Magic Remote listens to your voice commands and understands a range of these and variations such as “volume up” and “raise the volume”.

Thirty types of commands cover the key things you need to control on your TV. The TVs in Sydney could also pull content from apps on the TV, such as Netflix and YouTube, with voice commands.

You can say, “Show me Robert De Niro movies”, and ThinQ will search for the available options from Netflix and other compatible streaming services. Ask about the week’s weather and it will pull in forecasts from a weather app and display them on the screen.

But it will take a bit longer for those capabilities to come to New Zealand, though the 2018 TVs will support the upgrade when it arrives.

We’ve typically been late to the voice-assistant party. Amazon debuted its Alexa-powered Echo home-assistant devices here only in February, and the Google Home gadgets still aren’t officially available here, though many people have bought them online.

The work required in tweaking the services for the Kiwi accent and integrating with local content providers is behind the delay, but by early next year, there’s a good chance AI on the TV will be a popular feature among new set owners.

Peter Griffin travelled to the LG 2018 TV launch in Sydney as a guest of LG.

This article was first published in the May 5, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.