Making TVs "smart" is one thing, but being able to use them smartly and to their full potential is another.
Smart TVs have come a long way since Samsung first introduced theirs as a "connected-TV" back in 2009. In 2011, Samsung was the first to use the term "Smart TV" that converged the computer and its integrated internet, a conventional TV, and set-top boxes.
TVs remain the primary gateway for easy content consumption in the home, despite the fact that it no longer holds a monopoly thanks to the compatibility of PCs, tablets, and smartphones for viewing content. Gimmicky features and other functions that overlapped with other screened devices introduced in earlier launches have disappeared, and TV remains the best device to watch content.
However, thanks to internet access and the variety and availability of content, smart TV menus have become more complicated. The biggest hurdle in using smart TV smartly has become menus that are easier to navigate.
To tackle this, Samsung introduced the One Remote last year as a cure-it-all remedy. For the 2017 version, it has made the remote simpler with one home button that controls all functions, an accompanying TV User Interface (UI), and a power-upped voice command that the company says will allow consumers to use their smart TVs to their full potential.
One remote to rule them all and one-screen UI
With the introduction of the One Remote control, Smart Hub 2.0's UI has been altered to match the simple up, down, left, right menu interface.
"It took two years of negotiations with content providers to get agreements on the concept we had in mind," said Minsup Kim, product manager for QLED TV and the One Remote control of Samsung's Visual Display (VD) division, in an interview at Samsung's headquarters in Suwon, south of Seoul. "For example, content providers can request how their logos are exposed on screen with other logos."
"On the technological side, as set-top vendors have their own protocol, understanding them [is] always a challenge. We leverage our worldwide network to negotiate with content providers and at the same time worked without regional offices to collect information from local set-top vendors," said Kim.
The concept of the One Remote and a matching UI that shows all content began back in 2011. It materialized in mid-2015, before the launch of the first version of the universal remote in 2016. "One home button that can gather all those icons in one screen with seamless control, as a service, we believe is a huge step forward. A big hurdle for consumers [is] to navigate bulletin or app-style menus; I think having overcome that is an innovation in terms of service."
Jiyoung Song, who developed the Smart View that allows smartphones to control Smart Hub 2.0, said that there was a lot of back-end work that took them long to complete. Smart Hub 2.0 now reads the set-top connected to its HDMI 1, 2, 3, and 4 immediately when hooked and processes it to show accessible content on-screen.
"We can confidently say we cover over 90 percent of existing set-up boxes. We can deploy those contents on a worldwide scale," he said.
The One Remote has been put in as a UI in Smart View. Smart Voice can be used on Smart View just like with the control. Smart View was previously fragmented; different versions of apps for different yearly models were required. But the latest Smart View processes all the UIs of TVs made after 2011.
Direct to content with voice command
Samsung believes voice command -- its Smart Voice -- is the best complement to its One Remote, and will allow consumers to cut through navigating menus to reach the content they want directly. There are more and more functions on a TV, including VOD, live-streaming, apps, and internet connectivity. This is where voice recognition comes in, according to Jihye Chung, in charge of the Smart Voice engine. The microphone is in the remote control and is activated by pressing the voice button.
"Our goal for this year's voice command was to have it cover all functions of the TV, which it does, and reduce the 'depth' of the process," said Chung. "Our 2017 Smart Voice for this year allows you to cut through the processes and go to the content you want directly."
Research conducted in 2015 by Samsung Consumer Experience Lab, or CX Lab, at Silicon Valley and UX Group at Seoul R&D Campus, found that there was an upward trend of more active use of voice command. But it was also found that firstly, consumers didn't know that many of the functions they use remote control for can be done more easily, and secondly, they didn't know what to say as a voice command.
"Old habits die hard. Our research shows that elderly almost never use voice command. Another consistent complaint -- which I guess will always be there -- is that they wish their TVs would know what they are saying better," said Chung.
Using its big data base, which will be even expanded further going forward, recognition capability of Smart Voice has been improved. There is also now a user guide that explains how to use the function.
Like last year's model, through Smart Voice consumers can go directly to the channel they want by saying the number or name of the channel. This year's model allows consumers to say a genre, which will then display related TV shows. Surfing through set-top boxes can also be done through voice.
"You can just say the number to control volume, said Julia Yoingjoo Lee, product manager for Smart Voice. "You can go directly to the setting menu, configure modes, and execute contextual commands such as schedule, say, 'turn off the TV in 3 hours'."
When the consumer wants more choice, they can say more intuitive commands, such as "show me sports channel", and will have the TV display all relevant channels for the consumer to say the next command, she said.
"If there is a feature that is actually more convenient with voice command but the user attempts to use the remote control button, the TV will show at the bottom of the screen that an easier voice command is available," she said.
Personalization and security
Personalized voice commands is a possibility for the future, according to DK Bae, who is in charge of Smart Voice apps. This will allow the remote or TV to identify the speaker and configure settings or limit the navigation scope, such as preventing children from reaching adult content.
"Personalization requires login. But using voice, you can have it detect who the speaker is, which is technologically not that difficult," said Bae. "There are some hurdles how well voice recognition reads utterance or the commands themselves, but having it detect different voices is not that difficult. We are preparing and may launch this as a service at a later date, but not this year."
Samsung was open to new technologies from artificial intelligence and machine learning, but there is a need for broader and deeper research on how people use voice commands. "Our research showed that different people used the same word for different meanings. Someone can say a celebrity's name [to look] for a shopping site with the person's catalogue. Somebody else might be looking for the program he or she is on," said Chung.
Recent leaked documents from Wikileaks say CIA and MI5 tested out whether they can spy on Samsung smart TVs via malware installed through USB. The targeted models were those of 2012 and 2013, and physically connected USBs were needed to install the malicious software. Patches since then have superseded the hacking methods described in the report, the development team said.
Samsung also removed the camera and the microphone from their TVs since last year's model. The decision to have the microphone as a press-to-command on the remote control was strictly out of convenience, the development team said.
On Monday, Samsung announced that its Bixby voice interface, to make its debut on the Galaxy S8, will be applied to all of its devices going forward.
The smart TV development team said the VD division was working closely with other divisions such as mobile to unify the brand and experience into one platform. "We do have plans but we can talk again in a year," said Chung, without providing further details.
On whether voice recognition will replace the remote control entirely, Samsung's smart TV team remains skeptical, despite new technologies. "There are so many, many more peripheral devices that connect with the TV, [and their] functions are more easily accessed using the remote control," said Song.
Voice recognition was convenient when a user's eyes are caught on something else, the collaborated research by UX Group showed, and can be used as the preferred choice for some consumers for certain functions of the TV. Whether it be remote, voice command, or smartphone, the important thing was to have each preferred method available.
"Each has different advantages. Voice and remote you can use together while looking away from the screen. Smartphone, via Smart View, requires you to look at the screen. So it really comes down to preference of the consumer. All three can be used together or separately to allow the consumer to reach the content in the best way possible," said Song.
"TV is not a personal device. It is family device. The TV has to be very easy to use, even if the technology behind is complicated," he said.