LAS VEGAS (Reuters) - Electronics makers are covering all bases as they rush headlong into a "smart" TV market deemed the next stage of evolution, trying to figure out just what will catch on with consumers using increasingly sophisticated displays in living rooms.
From the industry's giants -- Samsung, Sony Corp, LG, Panasonic -- to upstarts like Vizio, tech manufacturers fell over themselves to tout the latest versions of their connected televisions at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last week.
Parks Associates expects connectable models to make up 76 percent of global TV sales by 2015, although some analysts express concern about whether the broadband infrastructure can cope with such a massive increase in actual usage.
The most apparent end-use may be as a simpler way to access sports, movie and standard television content, without the need for cable, satellite, or the game consoles that many households now resort to for streaming video.
"We have been doing net TV for more than two years, especially in the American market," said Masaaki Osumi, head of Toshiba's TV division.
"It's replacing the kind of things people used to rent on video, not so much looking up stock prices or searching for things. It's the way people have always used televisions."
That's why Sony and Samsung announced content deals with Time Warner Cable at CES last week and Samsung with the largest U.S. cable company, Comcast Corp.
These tie-ups are being spurred on by the cable companies' need to protect their customer base against growing threats from the Web, where viewers watch many programs for free.
Beyond conventional TV content, the future is less certain. Games, music, shopping, social networking, photo galleries and health and fitness applications were just a few of the plethora of uses proffered by TV makers at CES.
"What makers are realizing is that there's no way to predict what the next phenomenon will be, so it's best to open it up to third parties," said Kurt Scherf, principal analyst at Parks Associates.
High-definition had a long road to fruition, coming into its own only after content that took advantage of crisper resolutions reached critical mass.
Samsung, LG and Panasonic are all set to offer third-party applications on their televisions, similar to those consumers use on phones and tablets.
With so many electronics makers vying to differentiate themselves, none has yet come out as a clear leader, and several are in any case hard-pressed to make profits off televisions.
But many say ease of use will be key to promoting take-up. Sony offers a keyboard interface for its Google TV, but smartphones and tablets are hot contenders to become the new, and hopefully more intuitive, TV remote.
"People are overwhelmed by technology," said Joe Taylor, CEO of Panasonic's North America unit, which showed a tablet-style remote for its Viera Connect smart TVs at CES.
"Essentially, we want to make an intuitive device. A 70-year-old could figure out how to use it without looking at an operating guide," he said.
Microsoft showed how TVs could be controlled with an LG Windows smartphone, by swiping and tilting the device to control what is shown on the big screen.
Other, even more futuristic technologies are being put forward as ways for people to control their TVs, with Microsoft and Toshiba showing off hand-signal and voice-command systems.
For those who are not looking to replace their televisions, Blu-ray players from some makers are also beginning to add "smart" features, or there are separate accessories from Apple and Logitech.
Another less expensive option could be a new phone from Sony Ericsson, the Experia Arc, which can be simply plugged into the TV's HDMI port, using a cellular or Wi-Fi connection to deliver content such as YouTube videos to the TV.
"Its not a full blown Google TV but it does give you access to your email and content like YouTube," said Peter Farmer, head of marketing for North America.
Additional Reporting by Edwin Chan, Miyoung Kim, Bill Rigby, Sinead Carew, Gabriel Madway, Paul Tomasch and Kenneth Li, Editing by Edwin Chan and Diane Craft