First, Google revolutionized Web searches -- now it's trying to reinvent the way you watch TV.
Inside a top-secret lab in Silicon Valley, programmers are putting the finishing touches on a new product called Google TV. The company says this new device will take all the best features of watching television, surfing the Web, playing online games, and connecting with friends on Twitter and Facebook, and combine them into a single experience.
It is "a new way to think about television," said Google Senior Product Manager Rishi Chandra. "Basically what we're trying to do here is take all that content that you already watch today on television, and add all that other content that you get on the web today, that you normally can't get on your TV."
With Google TV, users can channel-surf between traditional TV shows, websites, online video, social media, and eventually programs recorded on a DVR, all with just a few clicks of the remote. (The DVR function has not yet been worked out with all major cable and satellite providers.)
"You can bookmark all your favorite applications, all your favorite websites, and all your favorite channels in this one single interface," Chandra explained.
Google is betting that it will transform TV the same way smartphones transformed the telephone.
The device is expected to hit store shelves later this month. It will be marketed as a stand-alone unit that can be attached to an existing TV, and also as a built-in feature in Sony TVs and Blu-Ray DVD players.
Google TV already has competition from Apple, which markets a system called Apple TV. Apple's device -- a sleek little black box -- provides access to TV shows, movie downloads, online music, photos and more. Amazon and Netflix are also looking at new ways to provide immediate content for viewers to turn watching TV into a more interactive experience.
All of these systems use new technology to bring an old idea back to life -- the idea of the whole family gathering around the television to share hours of entertainment together. While mobile use has vastly increased in recent years, making it easy to watch a movie solo on a laptop or smart-phone, the average American still spends five hours a day in front of the TV. Google sees that as a big opportunity.
"The ability to actually enhance [TV viewing], to give them more content, to give them more opportunity to create new experiences, I think is what's most exciting for us," Chandra said.
At Google's lab, analysts sit in an observation room and watch as regular people test out Google TV. The company is looking for feedback on how well it works for the average couch potato. Programmers can tweak the system to make it more user-friendly.
One thing the observation team quickly confirmed is that Google TV users don't tend to sit through commercials -- not when so many other options are just a click away. A football fan watching a game, for example, could flip over to ESPN or SI.com for a deeper look at the stats, or check on their fantasy football team during the breaks. That could be bad news for traditional advertisers -- or a new opportunity. Google suggests smart advertisers could drive viewers straight to their websites for more information or to buy things they see while watching TV.
The number and variety of enhanced viewing options are still a work in progress. Google announced today that it's partnering with Turner Broadcasting, CNBC, HBO and other channels to optimize their websites for Google TV and provide bonus content. The New York Times, USA Today, Twitter, YouTube and other media companies are also developing Google TV versions of their sites.
Industry analysts say today's innovations are just the beginning. Google TV and Apple TV "are primitive ancestors to the devices we're going to see," predicts Jake Ward, deputy editor of Popular Science. Eventually, he believes, software will be able to sort through the entire universe of media choices and customize content just for you.