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TVs in 2012 will get brighter, thinner, more social

Brandon Griggs, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • HDTV debuted at CES in 1998, but it was six years before HD was common
  • No evidence yet that the average person wants all these new features, analyst says
  • Biggest buzz at CES has surrounded TVs with OLED screens

Editor's note: Follow @cnntech, @griggsbrandon and @markmilian for Twitter updates this week from the Consumer Electronics Show.

Las Vegas (CNN) -- When it comes to TVs -- often the flashiest, most buzzed-about gadgets at the International Consumer Electronics Show -- it takes several years for reality to catch up to the hype.

HDTV debuted at CES in 1998, but it was another five or six years before HD sets became common in living rooms. 3-D TV arrived at CES in 2009 amid massive hoopla but has yet to catch on with mainstream consumers.

So judging from the variety of next-generation products being unveiled at this year's show, TV manufacturers are still scrambling to find the next killer feature that will entice buyers to ditch their flat-panel plasmas for something better.

The buzz surrounding 3-D has subsided, but television makers here are pushing other enhancements in the hopes something will stick: TVs that connect seamlessly with the Internet, TVs that interact wirelessly with your tablet device, TVs with built-in social features so you can post to Twitter about the show you're watching and TVs you control by speaking or waving your arms.

But there's no evidence that the average person wants all these new features when shopping for a TV, said Andrew Eisner, a gadget analyst with Retrevo, an electronics shopping site.

"Do consumers really care? I don't know," Eisner said. "As long as it looks decent and it won't break down and it's within their budget, that's what's important to most people."

As long as it looks decent and it won't break down and it's within their budget, that's what's important to most people.
Andrew Eisner, gadget analyst
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The biggest buzz at CES has surrounded TVs with OLED screens instead of plasma or liquid crystals. OLEDs, or organic light-emitting diodes, produce a crisp picture and deep, saturated colors. They appear in some high-end smartphone displays but until now have been difficult to manufacture in larger screens.

At a CES press event Monday morning, LG Electronics introduced what it called "the world's thinnest, largest and lightest" OLED TV: a 55-inch model with a remarkable picture.

There was an audible gasp in the room when it was unveiled, and a throng of photographers crowded around the set afterward like paparazzi around a starlet.

Not to be outdone, Samsung unveiled its own 55-inch OLED TV that afternoon, calling it "the ultimate in picture quality."

Both LG and Samsung say their OLED sets will hit the market in 2012, although neither would talk about price. The TVs won't be cheap; Eisner, the Retrevo analyst, expects them to sell initially for at least $8,000.

OLED "is beyond the reach of most consumers at this point," he said. "But it looks gorgeous."

To confuse matters further, Sony unveiled a 55-inch prototype TV that uses an eye-opening 6 million LEDs in place of pixels.

But these impressive-looking TVs won't be mainstream products anytime soon.

Based on CES press announcements and interviews with analysts, here are some TV features that may be on display at your neighborhood electronics store within the next 12 months:

Voice and motion controls

The remote control may be an endangered species. Some TV makers are following the lead of Apple's Siri, the iPhone 4S "virtual assistant," and Microsoft's Kinect gaming system, which allows players to operate their TVs and manipulate onscreen avatars by moving their bodies.

Samsung on Monday announced its flagship ES8000 LED model, whose built-in cameras, microphones and software let users speak commands like "channel 7" to control the TV. Users also will be able to use gesture controls for Web browsing, adjusting the volume and more.

LG also is adding voice control to the Magic Remote interface that comes with all its high-end Cinema Screen TVs in 2012.

And don't forget Apple, which may add Siri voice-recognition functions to the TV set it is rumored to be building this year.

More social features

It's been documented that more people are watching TV with a phone or tablet nearby so they can check Facebook during commercials or chat with their friends about what they're watching.

Now, manufacturers want to help you do all that through your television. On Monday, Panasonic announced a series of Web-connected "Smart Viera" TVs that will flash your social-networking updates on the screen. The company also unveiled a split-screen feature that lets you launch Skype and chat with friends while you're watching TV.

Justin Timberlake appears during a Panasonic press event to announce Myspace TV.
Justin Timberlake appears during a Panasonic press event to announce Myspace TV.

Panasonic also announced it's partnering with flagging social network Myspace for a new service called Myspace TV. Pop star Justin Timberlake, a Myspace investor, appeared onstage Monday to help promote the product, which will let viewers use a connected tablet to share music and TV shows with friends.

Bigger, thinner, lighter screens

TV sets can't get much thinner, but that hasn't stopped manufacturers -- always looking for a design edge over a competitor -- from trying.

"We've gone to great lengths to reduce the thinness of our TVs without sacrificing picture quality," said Wayne Park, president of LG Electronics USA, whose 55-inch OLED TV is just 4 millimeters thick (or thin).

Sharp Electronics, on the other hand, spent much of its press event Monday emphasizing its push toward massive screens. The company showed a video encouraging consumers to fit larger TVs into smaller spaces in their homes and handed out special glasses to demo what it claims is the world's first 80-inch 3-D LED TV, coming in April (price not announced).

Better sound

It's not all about bigger, brighter screens. There's been some chatter, but few specifics, at CES about the next generation of home-theater audio, including 3-D sound systems that create "sound fields" around the TV viewer. Expect to see more of this by the end of the year.

"Sound is always the unappreciated element of TVs," Eisner said. "People don't pay much attention to it, and they probably should, because surveys have shown that good sound can make the picture look better."

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