Future of Home Theater

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Well, CES is over and the “honorees”:http://www.cesweb.org/attendees/awards/innovations/rd_honorees.asp are in, so a good time to reflect on the future of the home. Its interesting to see what has and hasn’t happened. Right now, the home entertainment business reminds me a lot of minicomputers in the 1980s (Ok, I’m dating myself!). That is, lots of standalone boxes that can do everything. Microsoft is the IBM giant with their System 36 and AS/400, big and most share and highly intergrated. Digital Equipment Corporation feels much like Apple, they are stinging like a bee and moving around, but essentially with designs to be the next IBM in terms of being totall integrated.
So what could be the left hand turn here? Well, I’ll go out on a limb and say that this feels much like the music business in the mid 1990s. Back then, all the talk was about protectable content, etc., and I remember thinking as I ripped my first CDs that this just isn’t sustainable. It is just way to easy to copy things and it is so convenient. Now it did take a decade for things to mature to the iPod today, but I wonder if the same thing isn’t going to happen with video.
Right now, the hearty are using Tivo (reminds me so much of the Apple II to strike another analogy), but the excitment for me is in “Bit Torrent”:http://bittorrent.com and in “Isohunt”:http://isohunt.com. They are horribly hard to use, etc., but it is way more convenient.
So here’s one way to think radically about the home and video. Suppose there are the following pieces:
* The PC. Also known as its OK to use a keyboard. The home is really different from mobile. A keyboard is one room away. So why can’t I select an entire stream of video and then just watch it anywhere. It’s the playlist analogy. Now everyone at this point will say what about digital rights etc. I agree these are big issues, but fundamentally because
* The TV. To me, this is more about what you can do with a 9-key remote (ideally, 9 keys plus 5 buttons, but more on that in another post about user interfaces). The idea is that you should make it easy to take the “playlist” you have from the PC and then watch it. Personally, I’m less of a believer in this EPG like world, where you have to adapt to what is on and more of a believer in the, you should watch what you want to watch when you want to watch it. If you don’t like it, then you should be able to iPod-like skip fast. Most folks are very good at browsing lots of stuff and skipping quickly, that’s why skip is promoted to a top level button in most interfaces from Blackberry to iPod. I’m also a believer in the idea of shuffle. That’s not a bad way to think about, it if you just to lie on the couch and watch, then pick the things you like and shuffle away. Now live content is a little different in that you don’t pick but same idea applies, make it easy to channel surf. The best demo I saw was the Dish network, see 9 live feeds at once. I think people are super good at scrolling quickly through content. Witness the simplicity of the iPod Photo. I have 3,000 photos on mine and I’m amazind how easy it is to just scroll through huge lists if the machine is really keystroke fast.
* The Internet. I love netflix. To me, that’s a way better model than this Tivo, find a program and then record it all. The content is in nice chunks, you treat people like adults who know how to use Keyboards. Another analogy is that 90% of our movie watching is what “United Airlines”:http://united.com shows. Turns out that these shows are just perfect for our house (not too violent, lots of romantic comedies etc.). That’s the iMix of our house and you can see the analogy in the wonderful future world. With RSS and Blogs, I should literally be able to subscribe to what “Ludwig”:http://www.ludwigs.com is watching.
* The Home Network. The world seems to be filled with loosely coupled standalone devices. Seems to me that the right world is one where you insert a new device into the network and like enterprise computing’s push to the grid, you get the same thing at home. When I put a Mac Mini or a PC in, then I get its hard disk as part of the virtual hard disk. I shouldn’t have to manage all the video and music everywhere. Similarly, any device I plug in shouldn’t require some expensive set top box, but it should just have Ethernet and you plug it in. Same for displays, you should be able to plug a display in anywhere and every input and disk is available.
What are the implications of this:
* Channels. Someone said, what’s a channel if you can select exactly what you want. That’s my Bit Torrent experience exactly. I just want to see the shows and shuffle them for me.
* Digital Rights. There is alot of locking on stuff right now, yet eventually, it all has to appear in analog form somewhere and there are always going to be digital camcorder lurking about. Maybe the first copy won’t be full fidelity, but everyone after that will be, so that means that the first folks who make things easy and reasonably priced are going to be big winners.
* Text entry on distance viewing. Probably wrong, but it does feel like you enter on a keyboard and then view/surf in the family room.
So who is working on things in this area. Some interesting companies are ideas came out of CES. I just picked CES winners:
* Meedio – Media Center PC And Automation Software For The Digital Home. This came out of the myhtpc effort and is now a commercial product. They have three products. First an EPG (electronic program guide) that make it possible for any PC with a OTA or cable tuner to be a DVR and record shows. They also have a viewer that lets you have a simplified user interface so you can use a TV and remote with your PC. Finally, they have a bunch of home control widgets so you can turn the lights on and off. And there is a development environment so folks can writes applications and drivers around their user interface.
* “Snapstream”:http://www.snapstream.com/. These folks have similar offerings, they have an EPG and a DVR for your PC. They also have a distance viewing user interface and then a way to have other PCs look at recorded shows.
* “Tivo”:http://tivo.com/. The early market leaders, they have a DVR and an EPG and are well known for simplicity. You buy this as hardware plus either a monthly subscription to the EPG or for $250 you can buy it forever. They have a deal with DirecTV that integrates DSS and a HD DVR, although this device (the 921) is expensive and phasing out as DirecTV is going to build their own.
* “MythTV”:http://www.mythtv.org/index.php. This is the Linux version of the above.
* “ATI”:http://ati.com/products/tvwonderelite/index.html. From their first Wonderboard, ATI has been building hardware cards, the latest called Wonder Elite
* “DVR”:http://dvr.sourceforge.net/. An open source project to do the same.
There are lots of places posting about this including:
* “PVR Blog”:http://www.pvrblog.com/. Well named blog focused on the travails of Dish these days.

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