In 2005, video game maker Nintendo (PINK:NTDOY) revealed the controller to its Wii game machine, a wand-like device with just a few simple buttons on it. The real hooks of the controller were that it could sense people’s movements, and also work essentially as a mouse for a television screen, letting users point and click. It was simple and meant to be held vertically, designed to be inviting and familiar to audiences used to holding a simple remote after decades of watching television.
Six years later, televisions are mimicking the Wii — living room audiences will be pointing at their televisions to pick options and gesturing to navigate menus from here on out.
Hillcrest Labs, a developer of motion-control technologies, announced a whole new line of products on Wednesday that herald how televisions will change in the coming years. The Scoop Pointer remote control is itself not unlike a Wii controller — an “in-air mouse” that lets you point at options on television or a PC and connects through a USB dongle. The controller, of course, also would be coupled with the Freespace MotionEngine and Fresspace Sensor Modules, the technology that set-top box manufacturers that work closely with cable companies will incorporate into their devices to provide motion control.
For example, Motorola (NYSE:MMI) could license the Freespace technology for its cable set-top, boxes meaning Time Warner (NYSE:TWX) and Comcast (NASDAQ:CMCSA) could then offer motion-controlled video games as part of a cable service package. Roku’s digital video set-top box, which offers streaming services like Netflix (NASDAQ:NFLX), already use Hillcrest’s motion-control technology for both its TV interface and games like Rovio’s Angry Birds.
Internet television hasn’t gone mainstream just yet, but that stands to change in the next 12 months. Logitech (NASDAQ:LOGI), another Hillcrest partner, and Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) tried and failed in 2010 to bring television that uses a web browser style of accessing content to the masses. How people interact with that sort of interface, using a more intuitive and natural feeling device, will go a long way toward easing the adoption of Internet television.
What’s standing in the way right now? For one, television sales are in the gutter. According to Nielsen, just 66% of U.S. homes have bothered to upgrade to an HD TV. Television manufacturers like Sony (NYSE:SNE) and Panasonic (NYSE:PC), meanwhile, are pushing hard to sell not just HD TVs but 3D TVs, which consumers are disinterested in. If new motion-control technology from Hillcrest (which already works with Sony’s video game division) or another company adds an extra cost to actual television sets, it will be as ignored as any other new feature. If motion control is just an added bonus, consumers should respond.
The other difficulty is the conflict between cable providers and web-based streaming alternatives like Netflix. Cable companies, streaming television companies and television content providers are in the midst of a nasty power battle. Cable companies are losing subscribers — 32% of cable subscribers that responded to a Diffusion Group Survey said they plan to cut down cable service because of services like Netflix.
Companies like Time Warner, in turn, are rushing to offer their own streaming options beyond the living room but, as a result, content providers like Viacom (NYSE:VIA) are miffed about their wares being spread over disparate services (though Viacom is adapting fast).
Until this conflict smooths out and it becomes clear what customers are watching what television on what platform, new technologies like motion-control interfaces are going to take a back seat to control of content. But for investors curious about the future of living room entertainment, Hillcrest’s new toys offer more than a sneak peak.