Next-gen Web TV apps focus on the browser

Demonstrated at the DemoSpring conference, new couch-friendly browsers aim to make surfing the Web from your living room less of a pain.

The GlideTV (left), Hillcrest Labs Loop pointer (middle), and Viaclix Internet-ready TV box. Screenshot by Josh Lowensohn

PALM DESERT, Calif.--Companies have been trying to shoehorn the Web onto consumer TV sets for the past 15 years. However very few have been able to turn it into a profitable business, or, at the very least, something that finds a balance between being powerful and easy to use from the couch.

Still, some of those early missteps have led to hardware makers now putting Web services like Netflix, Twitter, and Facebook into their latest TV sets and Blu-ray players. There's also a growing group of companies that are trying to bring the entirety of the Web to the living room instead.

Three of these are launching new product iterations this week at the DemoSpring conference: GlideTV, Hillcrest Labs' Kylo Browser, and Viaclix. All three attempt to bring a full Web-browsing experience to TV sets.

Hillcrest Labs has actually been kicking around since 2001, and introduced its "Loop" remote control in early 2007. This is a special circular mouse that has had its buttons and ergonomics optimized for use on the couch. The tech inside it was also the source of a patent dispute with Nintendo over its Wii remote controller.

What the company introduced at Demo was a new browser called Kylo that works on both PCs and Macs, and makes use of the company's Loop hardware to make it easy to hop around the Web, and Web video sites. While users are able to download Kylo free of charge, and without buying a $99 Loop remote, the company is hoping it will spur sales of the remote.

Hillcrest Labs' CEO Daniel Simpkins demos new couch-friendly "Kylo" browser with the Loop pointer hardware. Josh Lowensohn/CNET

Also offering special mouse hardware was GlideTV, which introduced a revamped version of its couch-friendly browser. Unlike Hillcrest's Loop, GlideTV makes use of a touch pad. Though it too is about finding Web video content to watch in a nontraditional Web browser. Its big new feature is that it scours the Web for new content, then separates it into channels. The new version also adds predictive text input so users aren't pecking out too many characters in a text search.

The one company out of these three that's actually offering its own computing hardware is Viaclix. It makes a home theater PC that doesn't just do Web video, but cable TV too. Like the others it's also put together a special remote control that makes it easier to zoom around Web pages without a mouse.

Viaclix's system uses a remote control that has integrated mouse controls for on-screen browsing. It promises to bring the "channel up, channel down" experience to Internet video sites like Hulu and YouTube. Josh Lowensohn/CNET

Beyond the hardware, Viaclix has also built a software back end that tracks what users are doing on the systems for marketing data and targeted advertising. So say a user watches a lot of basketball games, the system can remember that and serve up advertising that's more targeted. This would presumably be for use in places like hotels, or for premium Web services that would be offered with some sort of subsidy or kickback to the hardware buyer.

One of the many challenges these companies continue to face is in consumer comfort in hooking up computers to TV sets. That's where the GlideTV and Loop pointer can make the transition a little bit easier. Glideclix, however is facing the same hard sell Intel had in getting hardware makers and the general public to adopt, or even understand the (now-dead) ViiV platform.

These companies also face competition from Boxee, which has been doing considerable work on content curation, its directory , and putting out its own hardware . There's also Yahoo and its TV widget interface, which Google is rumored to be building a competitor for , alongside Apple's AppleTV, which eschews Web browsing in place of connecting to Apple's myriad of paid content offerings.

 

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