The role of smart TVs in gaming
How new technology is influencing the industry
TVs have long been at the center of the video game industry. From first person point-and-shoots to family-friendly tennis matches and high-speed racing games, game consoles connected to TVs have dominated the gaming scene for decades. This has changed now that smartphones and tablets have become gaming platforms and fueled the casual gaming market. This casual gaming market is big business with 2013 mobile gaming revenue approaching $2 billion in the U.S., and topping $12 billion worldwide.
The TV now has a much larger role to play in the gaming world. The latest smart TVs have all the makings to become an important casual gaming platform. High performance processors, motion-sensing remote controls and app store availability have created smart TV platforms with the potential to play a much larger role in the living room gaming experience.
Convenience and popularity
According to Gartner, many casual gamers choose to play a game based on convenience and social popularity. This makes the TV an ideal platform. Convenience is high, since the TV is often right there in the corner of the room, easy for anyone in the family to access. Smart TV’s popularity is also growing fast, representing 46 percent of all U.S. TV shipments in Q4 2013. Plus, today’s TV screens are larger and higher resolution than ever before.
What’s more, the fastest growing markets for both smart TV adoption and use are developing economies, especially China. If a household has a gaming console, it is less likely to use smart TV functions for games, unless the game console is being used only by the kids or is not connected to the main TV in the home. In the U.S. and Western Europe, gaming consoles are increasingly popular and compete with smart TVs to deliver ‘smart’ functionality to the TV set. However, in countries like China, which is both the largest and fastest growing market for smart TVs, gaming consoles are less popular and smart TVs are even better positioned to become a popular gaming platform.
While consumer understanding is still in the early stages, the statistics show that people actively use valuable smart TV services, such as Netflix. An NPD Group report illustrates the power of compelling content, showing that Netflix is used on 40 percent of all connected TV devices in the U.S. Therefore, a game service that provides access to a broad range of games, such as those popular on smartphones and tablets, has the potential to gain a large user base, especially when combined with the high resolution screens and convenience of the device.
Enabling the experience
In the last few years, smart TVs and set-top boxes (STBs) that provide similar services, have significantly advanced processing and graphical power. It’s not uncommon to see dual-core processors and dedicated GPUs, and the recent Amazon Fire TV STB went one step further with a quad-core Snapdragon 600 processor with a dedicated Adreno GPU core. However, raw processing power must be matched with controls that can provide compelling and engaging gameplay.
Fortunately, new user interface control technologies for TV are also great for gaming. Many of today’s smart TVs come with motion-sensing remote controls. These remotes include sensors and software that translate the user’s movement into an onscreen cursor for pointing’ controls, and recognize tilt, twist, and swinging motions. This might sound familiar, as it is similar to the control system used on the wildly popular Nintendo Wii. However, today’s smart TV motion remotes are much higher performance and can offer even more sophisticated and enjoyable gameplay.
Let’s review how motion control works from a system standpoint. The foundation of any solution is inertial sensors, specifically an accelerometer and a gyroscope, and software to translate the sensor data into application-ready information. The sensors are embedded in the remote control and are sampled at a rate at or above 125 Hz to track the acceleration and rotation of the remote. The data from the sensors can either be processed on an embedded 8-bit MCU in the remote control, which doubles up as the MCU for the RF system (typically Wi-Fi Direct, Bluetooth, Bluetooth Smart, or ZigBee RF4CE) between the remote and the TV, or it can be sent across the RF link as raw data and processed on the TV’s main application processor. There are advantages to both methods, but most implementations are processed on the TV’s application processor to allow for more advanced calibration and fusion software. This proves a more stable, responsive, and accurate motion control experience.
Using motion control for gaming
The Wii first demonstrated that motion control provides a great deal of potential for fun and immersive gaming. Today, four of the top five smart TV OEMs and several other key players, include motion control in smart TVs. Hillcrest Labs pioneered the use of its Freespace motion control for smart TV platforms, partnering with LG in 2010 to build the motion-enabled ‘Magic Remote’. Since then, LG has built its smart TV platform around the Magic Remote and offers a range of advanced gaming options. Some of LG’s games mimic Wii games: Gutterball is a bowling game that uses the same realistic arm swing that Wii Sports users are familiar with, tracking the speed, motion, and rotation of the wrist as you bowl the ball, using your remote control to determine direction and spin. LG also has adapted a range of popular mobile games. Disney’s Where’s My Water, a game which topped Android and iOS download charts in more than 30 countries, makes an appearance, as does Plants vs. Zombies.
Another company with its own OS and a focus on gaming is Roku. To separate itself from the array of other streaming media players, Roku integrated Hillcrest’s Freespace motion control to become the first company to bring Angry Birds to a non-mobile platform — and the strategy worked. Roku is now the number one streaming media platform.
The trend for gaming in connected STBs has continued with the Amazon Fire TV launch. One way Amazon is leveraging its impressive hardware is to enable games. At launch, Amazon made more than 100 games available, including popular games such as Minecraft, The Walking Dead, and NBA2K14. Fire TV is based on Android, and is therefore able to draw upon and optimize some of the large pool of Android games.
Samsung recently adopted motion control in its smart TVs, and three leading Chinese brands — Lenovo, Hisense and TCL — have also launched Android-based Smart TVs using motion control. These companies have also put gaming at the heart of their smart TV platform plans, converting popular Android games to run on TVs using motion controllers.
Content is key for the future
As with everything on TV, content is king. The quality and volume of game content might be the most significant factor in the platform’s growth.
We discussed how LG and Roku pioneered the conversion of games developed for mobile devices to TV platforms. Their success of mobile-based games on the TV, such as Angry Birds and Where’s My Water, provides an intriguing model for other smart TV platforms. Given the plethora of gaming options on mobile devices and the similar level of control afforded by motion controllers, this seems to be a prime source of gaming content for smart TVs. However, currently the conversion is only happening for a small number of the top games, leaving a somewhat limited selection available for smart TV users. This must change if gaming on TV is going to take off.
In order for the gaming content of smart TVs to expand, a few key steps are necessary:
• Engage the developer community. More games will increase user engagement. TV makers must encourage Android developers to make their games available to Android TVs or develop games for proprietary app platforms. This should happen naturally, as the installed base of smart TVs increases and consumer awareness rises, but will also need effort and education on the part of the leading smart TV brands and platforms.
• Standardize smart TV controls. Motion control forms the foundation of any smart TV gaming experience. While it is used by four of the top five TV OEMs, motion control is mostly found in high-end (and some mid-range) TV sets. The lack of standardization in the available features limits developer options and motivation to create or adapt games specifically for smart TVs.
• Create consumer awareness. There is a range of apps and games already available for smart TVs today. One of the challenges the industry faces is the lack of consumer awareness of the value smart TVs brings to the consumer. TV brands and industry alliances, such as the smart TV Alliance, need to invest more in creating awareness of the category and how consumers can benefit from the new services and platforms.
While gaming is just emerging as a major part of the smart TV experience, there’s a potent foundation of processing power, broader adoption of the Android OS, and advanced motion controls that could accelerate the evolution of TV as a gaming platform. As more Android smart TV devices are released and the abundant mobile gaming content is adapted for smart TVs with motion controls, we expect to see gaming become a core driver of adoption and engagement in the coming years.