Why are smart TVs not scaling?
Nielsen published some interesting stats recently on technology adoption in the United States. Broadband access to the Internet is now near 80%, meaning even Grandma has it. Smartphones have skyrocketed from about no use in 2007 (when they were first released by Apple as a category) to adoption by 3 of 4 adults. Tablets went from zero in 2010 to 46% last year, and today should be in the hands of 1 in 2 consumers. But smart TVs are trailing … in 2014 reaching only 13% of the U.S. population. At that lackluster growth rate, in five years only 1 in 4 U.S. households will have one.
Smart TVs are basically large video screens connected to the Internet, allowing you to “stream” content online, from Kevin Spacey taking over the world in Netflix’s House of Cards to YouTube videos. There are numerous reasons adoption may be slow: the average U.S. household already has three TV sets; consumers recently went through mass spending on flat panels, as they emerged as a sexy category about a decade ago, so may be reluctant to upgrade yet again; and the remote controls of the smartest TVs still don’t lend themselves to typing in commands for Internet video searches. Between the cost outlay and the lousy absent keyboards, it’s little wonder few have adopted to Internet-connected flat panels.
But there is a deeper psychological issue at play, too. When Robert Sommer first wrote of “personal space” in 1969, he suggested we actually have three fields of taking in information: an intimate space near our face or ears, similar to a lover’s whisper; a personal workspace about arm’s length away, the distance of tools in our hands; and a social space from about 4 to 10 feet away. Today’s technology fits perfectly in each of these fields: mobile is intimate, laptops are personal/work space, and TVs are social. We are more likely to speak up in our intimate space (“Honey, please move your elbow”) and more focused on listening in our social space (“shh, don’t interrupt the storyteller.”) This is why our thumbs crawl over mobile smartphone keyboards but with TV, we just want to chillax for the show.
Don’t get us wrong. TV is still king of all media. Despite all the hoopla over digital and mobile, consumers spend more than 4 hours a day letting the blue light of cable bathe over them, outpacing time spent on any other communication devices. But our utility of television is one of social receptivity. We don’t want to engage with big screens, but instead, wish for them to entertain us without nuanced input. Like stories from around a campfire, the streams that come from TV are meant for us to be received as passive entertainment. Our guess is “smart TVs” may never take off, even as screen resolutions grow sharper and the flat-panels increase in size until they are as large as your basement wall. Our modality is simply passive as we watch Kevin Spacey. When we want to truly engage, we turn to the mobile Twitter interface in our hands.