Dec 7, 2012 · 5 minutes

Tim Cook has declared that TV is an area of "intense interest" for Apple. In an interview to be broadcast on NBC tomorrow night, the CEO told Brian Williams: “When I go into my living room and turn on the TV, I feel like I have gone backwards in time by 20 to 30 years."

Meanwhile, at the UBS Media Conference yesterday, Netflix Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos said ratings don't matter. Time slots are for sports and talk shows, and the future of TV will in part be about deep personalization, including "voice recognition, visual recognition," and personalized recommendations that can be pulled up as soon as you walk in the room.

Is it finally happening? Is the experience of watching television as we know it today finally set to change after so many false starts?

Consider some of the ideas brewing among both small and large tech companies:

Subscriptions + TV everywhere

In Sweden, a startup called Magine has created a product that lets you stream live and on-demand TV across devices. Beta users of the product can choose from 16 channels and watch the programs on their iPhones, iPads, computers, or smart TVs, and pick up on a show at any point from the last week. When the full service launches next year, it'll have more than 50 channels. Subscribers will pay on a month-to-month basis, at a similar price to what they pay for regular cable.

Magine, unfortunately, won't be available in the US in the foreseeable future. It has a hard enough time getting rights from broadcasters in Europe. In the US, where broadcasters and cable companies are deeply intertwined, those licenses just aren't going to happen.

Death to the set-top box

Because Magine's service is a "cable over IP" deal, it won't have any set-top boxes. When Apple gets done with reinventing the TV, you can bet that a set-top box won't be part of the final product either. Apple-made TVs will likely come with an app platform baked in, with your cable subscription being merely one of the available "apps." (Note: None of this has been reported; these are merely my predictions.)

So, your "lean back," live-TV experience will be merely another option alongside apps for Netflix, Hulu, Vimeo, YouTube, Spotify, Pandora, photo albums, and the likes. And the user interface will look like the iPad's. As I have previously noted:

During interviews for his biography, Steve Jobs told Walter Isaacson that he had “finally cracked” plans for an easy-to-use integrated TV set. It will do away with complex remote controls, and sync with all your devices and iCloud, Jobs told Isaacson. “It will have the simplest user interface you could imagine.”
And by the way, lest you doubt Apple's commitment to TV, take heed of what design chief Jony Ive said in an interview with British newspaper The Telegraph in May. The one design he would like to be remembered for was the one he was currently working on, he said, while refusing to divulge details. “[W]hat we’re working on now feels like the most important and the best work we’ve done,” Ive said.

No more remote control

Apple no doubt has plans to integrate Siri's voice controls into its TV experience, and hopefully it will have figured out how to use touchscreens without the dirty-fingerprint problem. But those controls might not be the final solutions.

What we might well see within two years is gesture and gaze controls. Leap Motion already enables "Minority Report"-like 3D gesture controls, so I'm sure we'll be changing the channels and turning the volume up with karate chops and upper-cuts in the near future.

But if that sounds like too much energy, then the guys at PredictGaze have us covered. They've developed technology that allows you to perform actions just by looking at certain parts of the TV screen. Need to mute the show you're watching? Just look at the bottom right-hand corner of the screen. Want to rewind a little? Look at the middle quadrant on the left.

PredictGaze's technology can also pause a show for you if you get up and walk out of the room. When you return, the TV's camera will see you and resume the entertainment.

This technology is all teed up. Samsung, LG, Google, and Apple all have the will to make it happen. And content-oriented giants like Amazon and Netflix are doing their best to disrupt the status quo, while startups like Magine nibble away at the edges. If you believe that old maxim that technology waves are overestimated in the short term but underestimated in the long term, it seems like we're long overdue an actual revolution in the living room.

That doesn't mean our dream TV is an inevitability, of course. In TV perhaps more than other entertainment medium, there are powerful external forces that are only too willing to slow the motion of innovation.

In the US at the very least, cable companies and broadcasters can thwart Magine-like offerings at the drop of a contract. As we've seen with HBO, there's hardly an in-built eagerness to embrace disruptive digital models. And when it comes to remote controls and set-top boxes, there's an entire manufacturer ecosystem invested in their survival beyond what logic should dictate. Meanwhile, TV is so mainstream that you'll have to change a lot of deeply ingrained habits. The remote control will have it defenders, and new TVs are bigger, more serious communal investments than personal mobile devices. Even if these changes do start to happen within the next two years, the evolution is likely to be slow.

But with the emergence of credible startups such as Magine, who have managed to work with the broadcasters that might otherwise resist digitalization, all the technology now primed and ready to go, and with the attention of the world's most powerful computer company, it feels like TV's time has finally come.

At least those of us – like Cook – who don't like to time travel when we walk in the living room hope so.

[Image Credit: Gustavo Devito on Flickr]