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When you speak, your TV listens

A 75-inch Samsung LED TV at the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Samsung will introduce sets that allow voice and gesture control. A 75-inch Samsung LED TV at the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Samsung will introduce sets that allow voice and gesture control. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Columnist / January 12, 2012
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LAS VEGAS - Most smart TVs are pretty stupid. Sure, they give you access to a variety of Internet services, but only through a dumb push-button remote control.

It was Microsoft Corp. that gave television a brain transplant. Its Kinect accessory for the Xbox 360 game console, which allows users to browse online content by voice and gesture, blazed a trail toward truly smart TV systems.

At this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, software makers and electronics companies are showing off products that will bring Kinect-like speech and motion control to millions more TV viewers. A pair of Boston-area companies demonstrated their speech-control software, while two South Korean television titans displayed advanced sets they plan to roll out this year. What we don’t know is how much they will cost.

We may not make many TV sets in Massachusetts, but two of the leading speech-recognition software companies are there: Burlington-based Nuance Communications Inc. and Vlingo Corp., of Cambridge. Bitter competitors for years, they recently decided to merge.

But the newlyweds haven’t sorted out their differences over smart TV. Both companies came to CES to peddle their software to TV makers, and each has taken a very different approach.

Vlingo’s Virtual Assistant is designed for deployment by cable TV companies. I wasn’t able to test the system, because it needs Wi-Fi Internet service, which is lousy on the CES show floor.

But here’s how it works: You install a free app on an iPhone or Android, get a Wi-Fi-compatible set-top box from your cable TV provider, and connect it to your home network. The phone is now a Wi-Fi remote control that lets you operate the set by pressing on-screen icons or speaking words. But when the Wi-Fi is down, so is Vlingo.

Virtual Assistant is supposed to let users carry out the standard TV commands - shifting volume or changing channels - along with spoken searches for programs by type or movie star. You want Schwarzenegger movies? No problem. Unless you don’t have Wi-Fi.

Vlingo’s former rival Nuance showed off Dragon TV, a smart system that seems to work just fine.

Dragon TV is to be built directly into new television sets; the company is in talks with all the leading makers. It doesn’t require a smartphone, using an array of microphones inside the set instead.

You say “Dragon TV’’ to get the set’s attention, then ask for what you want. There are basic commands like “channel up’’ to go from channel 5 to 7, or “volume up’’ to drown out the kids. But the speech control is mainly useful for digging through thousands of programming choices. You can say “tune in CNN,’’ and it will, or “find comedies’’ to see sitcom listings.

Nuance is working with cable and satellite providers to offer voice searches of their electronic programming guides.

The Nuance system could be the most painless smart TV offering yet. With Kinect you must own an Xbox 360 and a Kinect unit, and remember to switch them on before viewing. And for now, Kinect controls your Internet viewing options, not standard TV broadcasts. Dragon TV is designed to do both. You can even use it to make Internet video calls via Skype. Just say a friend’s name, and if he’s in your Skype address book, the call goes through.

This may be the product that gets millions of us talking back to our sets. It’s supposed to show up on new TVs before the year is out.

Meanwhile, South Korea’s two television giants will have speech- and motion-controlled options of their own.

LG Electronics is bringing out high-end sets that will include a Magic Motion Remote, which works like the controller on the Wii game console from Nintendo Co. You point the remote at the TV to activate Internet apps, like YouTube or Facebook.

The remote also contains a microphone that will accept speech commands. If you’re looking for Humphrey Bogart movies on Netflix, just ask. You can perform Internet searches by voice, or post status updates on Facebook.

The trouble is, that’s all you can do with speech. You can’t even ask to change the channel or turn down the volume. And you’re still saddled with a hand-held remote.

We can do better, and LG’s Korean rival Samsung Corp. is certainly trying. Samsung will introduce sets with built-in microphones and a motion-sensing camera. You can stand in front of the screen and use your hands to control basic set functions.

It took some practice to get it right, and my arms got a little sore. But I found the Samsung’s gesture control a little more precise than that of the Kinect, and a good deal snappier.

Samsung also promises a feature that will allow the TV to memorize the faces of family members, and automatically set up the set with each person’s favorite viewing choices. Cool idea, but Samsung declined to demonstrate it.

The speech feature was a letdown. Yes, you could raise and lower the volume or switch channels. But you couldn’t do in-depth searches to find TV shows or movies - the real reason for speech control. I was told that Samsung’s smart TV software is a work in progress, so we can hope for major upgrades in the finished retail version.

Samsung and LG can’t afford to be sloppy. Rumor has it that Apple Inc. could launch its own smart TV this year, powered by the company’s excellent Siri speech control software. And Microsoft will keep right on upgrading Kinect. Pretty soon, we could all have smart TVs that won’t make us feel like idiots.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at Follow him on Twitter@watha.

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Smart TV systems from CES

DRAGON TV - Nuance Communications Inc.
WHAT IT IS: A built-in, Kinect-like microphone array to capture voice commands that control the TV. Will be built into TVs and set-top boxes.
HOW IT FEELS: Intuitive, powerful system could make voice controls a must-have feature for all TVs.

SMART TV - with Smart Interaction from Samsung Corp.
WHAT IT IS: Built-in camera and microphone array to control key functions with hand gestures and verbal commands. Also has facial recognition.
HOW IT FEELS: Motion detection system delivered snappy performance, but speech control is limited to basic functions.

VIRTUAL ASSISTANT - for TV from Vlingo Corp.
WHAT IT IS: An app to make your smartphone control the TV set through voice commands.
HOW IT FEELS: Easier than punching remote control buttons, but not totally hands-free.

LG SMARTTV with Magic Motion Remote by LG Electronics
WHAT IT IS: Motion-detecting remote that lets user select on-screen icons by pointing and clicking, and a built-in microphone to accept voice commands.
HOW IT FEELS: Fans of Nintendo’s Wii will welcome the motion controls, but speech control is limited and clumsy.