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Hollie Mason participated in a live virtual yoga class on April 13 in Brixworth, England.

Photo: Clive Mason/Getty Images
Hollie Mason
People

Quarantine pressure cooker may yield smart TV's next killer app

The growth of fitness and gaming apps, and a new reliance on video chat, has provided a new opening for startups to play a part in the future of TV.

Netflix, YouTube and … air squats? With much of the world at home, consumers have begun to use their connected TVs for much more than just binge-watching. Fitness, meditation and even education apps are seeing a huge upswing, and consumer electronics companies have noticed, with some accelerating plans for launching this type of content.

TV makers have long tried to figure out what they can offer consumers in addition to the now-ubiquitous streaming services, especially since their devices are getting more powerful every year. The quarantine-boosted adoption of fitness, wellness and related apps, and our growing reliance on video chat, has accelerated the quest to find TV's next killer app, providing a new opening for startups to play a part in the future of TV.

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The huge growth of streaming has been one of the least surprising stories of the COVID-19 era. After all, people who don't leave their house watch more TV. But there's also growth in unexpected areas, said Fire TV GM and VP Sandeep Gupta. "The home has become your theater, your restaurant, your gym, your school," Gupta told Protocol. And often, TVs play a central role in all of this.

Cases in point: Use of Peloton's Fire TV app has doubled in recent weeks, and fitness apps overall are seeing a 40% surge worldwide on Amazon's smart TV platform. Meditation and Yoga apps have enjoyed a 25% growth in users, and the entire health and fitness segment is growing faster than entertainment on Fire TV. "TV has become a more holistic experience, as opposed to purely an entertainment device," Gupta said.

Amazon isn't alone with these observations. Installation numbers for non-video-streaming apps have nearly tripled on Google's Android TV platform in the last 28 days, said Android TV product lead Anwar Haneef. This includes, in addition to fitness apps, a notable increase in music and games, with dancing games leading the charge in the latter category.

And Vewd, which operates app stores on a range of devices, including TiVo DVRs, connected TVs and Blu-ray players, has seen significant growth in games, game streaming and fitness, as well as local news.

The expanding interest in fitness on the TV prompted Samsung to accelerate its 2020 launch schedule. The consumer electronics giant announced plans at CES to bring its Samsung Health platform to its smart TVs later this year. Last week, it launched health and wellness apps from six partners ahead of schedule, before the formal integration into Samsung Health was finished.

Samsung Electronics SVP Sang Kim argued that it only made sense for consumers to turn to the TV for fitness and wellness in these times. "TV is the largest screen in your house," he said.

At CES, Samsung had demonstrated a design concept that paired consumers' phones and smart watches with their TVs to monitor exercises. "I don't think that this is far away from a technology perspective," Kim said. Consumer acceptance may be another matter, especially when it comes to introducing cameras into the living room. But again, the forced lockdowns and daily video calls may quicken this process.

Zoom's success in particular has been a massive learning moment for the entire consumer electronics industry, Kim said. Not only in demonstrating demand, but in struggling with privacy issues and being forced to respond. "It is teaching us a lot," Kim said. "This is accelerating our learning curve."

Underlying this evolution is that, thanks to faster processors for video upscaling and smart apps, TVs and streaming devices have gotten a lot more powerful in recent years. The industry has long tried to figure out what else it could do with all that processing capability, with mixed success. Amazon's first Fire TV device sold with a game controller, but the company ultimately pulled back on gaming, conceding it couldn't compete with traditional consoles.

TV manufacturers have also begun to incorporate smart home control into their devices, and Vewd Chief Product Officer Sascha Prueter suggested that new display technologies may yield always-on scenarios, which could turn TVs into ambient smart displays. "The caveat with these examples is that these technologies have to become a lot cheaper from a hardware perspective to achieve," he said. "Because they are additive use cases, it's tough to convince a consumer to buy a new TV for them."

Consumers replace their TVs less frequently than their smartphones, which is why even new services must work with existing devices, Gupta said. "We try lots of things," he said. But most of those ideas never leave the lab because they don't work with what consumers have in their living rooms. "We always want to make sure what we are doing is accessible to all," he said.

Fitness, meditation and similar activities, on the other hand, don't require hardware changes and come with a low barrier of entry for startups looking to break into the smart TV market. "These can be great revenue streams for them," Gupta said. Kim agreed, arguing that startups like meditation app provider Calm face little competition on the big screen. "This is a white space for them," he said.


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The big question is whether these companies will retain a receptive TV audience once everyone returns to the office. Kim seemed cautiously optimistic. "Fitness is all about growing your habit," he said. "I hope it sticks around."

Gupta asserted that new use cases for smart TVs wouldn't go away, in part because we might feel the economic aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis for some time, which could lead consumers to, for example, rethink gym memberships. "Some of these things can be more cost-effective over time," he said.

Prueter was more skeptical, saying, "Consumers are turning to their TV sets now more than ever to be entertained, and the majority of that entertainment is 'lean back' — fairly passive, not a lot of thinking, and totally focused on escapism."

In other words: Even with a growth in new use cases, TV's killer app may ultimately remain … simply watching TV.

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