Samsung’s new TVs could usher in an era of contextually aware smart TV apps

When Samsung prebriefed a few dozen journalists about its new TV sets during a private event on the sidelines of the 2014 CES in Las Vegas Sunday night, executives marveled about the picture quality of the company’s curved displays and the pixel density of 4K. However, they barely even mentioned apps and other smart TV features – with one exception: Samsung’s new 2014 TVs allow viewers to check out related web and YouTube(S GOOG) content while watching live TV.

The awkwardly named “Multi-Link Screen” feature essentially launches a split screen. A web browser can take over the right half of the screen, launch Microsoft’s(s MSFT) Bing search engine, and automatically suggest search queries relevant to what’s playing on the left side. Similarly, launching YouTube in link-screen mode gives users a split screen with suggested clips that are relevant to what’s on air right now.

samsung contextual smart tv

This may seem a bit gimmicky, and Samsung’s split-screen implementation looks a lot less polished than what Microsoft has been doing with “snapped” apps on the Xbox One. Samsung’s support for third-party apps is also limited. Users can launch smart TV apps into a split screen, but there is no contextual awareness, at least not for now.

However, the new feature could nonetheless be a first sign of big things to come for smart TVs. App developers have long tried to provide some type of context around what people are watching on TV, and many of these efforts have focused on all kinds of awkward workarounds. A number of social TV apps, for example, use your iPad’s (S AAPL) microphone to figure out what you are watching on TV, and then serve up contextual information, allow real-time conversations, or simply make ads more relevant.

smart tv context sheet

However, most of these apps are only capable of identifying which show is playing at any given time, not who actually is on screen or which kinds of topics are being discussed on a news program. That kind of contextual awareness is possible, as TV data startup Boxfish has shown with its experimental but very cool programming guide. When I talked to the Boxfish guys a while back, they told me that CE makers in particular were interested in this kind of technology to make their devices more smart.

I don’t know whether Samsung tapped Boxfish, which it is an investor in, for its multi-link feature, and I haven’t been able to get any answers about the technical details behind the feature. But this is the first time I have seen any of the major TV makers embrace contextual content on screen during live TV broadcasts, and I think it could be a big deal as this technology matures.

Imagine, for example, a Twitter (S TWTR) sidebar that automatically displays relevant information to the current sports game, or a live feed of Instagram (S FB) or Flickr (S YHOO) images as a major news event unfolds. Giving smart TV app developers access to contextual information around live TV could enable a whole new wave of innovation, and possibly even help both worlds to grow closer together. That may be less flashy than a flashy 105-inch 4K TV, but it could nonetheless make for an interesting future for TV viewers.