In the 1960s, families gathered in the living room to watch Bonanza. In the 1980s, friends met at the water cooler to speculate about who shot J.R. In 2010, mom watches HGTV in the bedroom, dad cheers for the Longhorns in the living room, and the kids laugh at the new episode of Glee on in the study.

Social shows: A prototype TV menu lets viewers see what their friends are watching. Motorola researchers designed this version while studying the concept in 2008.

In an effort to “make TV social again” and to bring even far-flung family members and friends together around the screen, researchers at companies including Motorola, BT, and Intel are working on ways to combine social networking with TV viewing. The goal is to get as close as possible to a physically shared viewing experience–and to make it easier to find something decent to watch among the ever-increasing number of channels.

The idea is not new, says Jeff Patmore, BT’s head of strategic university research, who works with students at schools including MIT and the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. About 12 years ago, BT experimented with “interactive television,” allowing people to send messages to one another over their TV screens. But “we’ve been there and done that, and we don’t want to do it again,” h