Jim Louderback

August 19, 2013

FUTURE OF TV – I FIGURED IT OUT! (take that Apple)

Filed under: Commentary,Technology Reviews — Jim @ 3:52 pm

I’ve finally figure out what we need to make video work around the house. It’s not TV Everywhere, cord cutting or a la carte, although it could incorporate all of those. Nope, it’s Sonos for video. Pure and simple.

If you’re not familiar with Sonos, it’s the absolute best way to get music around your house. The company’s been around for about ten years, and what they do is simple, although oh-so hard. They take all of your digital music sources, and make it simple to browse, select, and then play through every audio rendering device in your house, either separately or together.

Note I said “audio rendering device”, and not stereo or speakers. And note I said “digital music sources” and not iTunes, Rhapsody or something else. That distinction is important.

But first, the magic behind Sonos is a clever Wifi hack that turns all of their devices into a mesh network, rather than using a hub-and-spoke configuration that your home base stations employ. Instead, each Sonos component is both hub and node, and communicates with all other Sonos devices in a mesh. That simple change (albeit hard to implement) is what lets Sonos do what no other wireless multi-room audio system can accomplish: syncing up a song to the beat in every room in your house.

They call it party mode, but what it means is that every note of Dave Matthews Band’s “Ants Marching” happens simultaneously in every room in your house – even if the node in your garage can’t directly communicate to the node on the patio.

In addition, Sonos has a variety of products that work with all the audio equipment you own. Have a killer stereo? The Sonos Connect feeds music to that device. Have a great pair of speakers? The Connect Amp brings an amplifier to the game. Recently they’ve developed all-in-one solutions, combining base-stations and amps with great sounding speakers, and released a TV sound bar and subwoofer to boot.
And when it comes to input, Sonos works with a variety of music sources, from your iTunes library or other shareable MP3 libraries on your PC or Mac, to all-you-can-eat services like Rhapsody and Spotify to SiriusXM, Pandora, LastFM and an almost endless list of web radio stations.

Plus over its life, Sonos has been happy to cannibalize its paid products with free alternatives when devices and forces shifted. For the first 7 years or so they sold an amazing family of controllers that made it simple to access all your music sources in one place, find what you wanted to listen to, combine and break apart groups of base stations, and just get on with adding tunes to your life. But as smartphones and tablets became ubiquitous, they killed off what had to have been a profitable line, and delivered free apps for PCs, phones and tablets that were better than the hardware they replaced.
In short, Sonos reimagined what a world-class multi-room audio system would be like in the age of IP-delivered music, and have always been a step ahead of everyone else.

And that’s exactly what we need for video. Here’s what TV looks like in a Sonos-imagined world. Homes have a variety of video inputs, and a variety of video rendering devices. Every glowing rectangle in your home, from the smallest smart phone to the biggest TV is a video rendering device. And every video source, from YouTube, Hulu Amazon and Netflix to that multi-channel cable or satellite bundle – along with all those home and ripped videos on your PC or Mac, is simply just an input. And that phone or tablet? That’s what you’ll use to select what to watch and feed to one, some or all of those glowing rectangles.

Here’s how it would work. A base station sits in front of each TV in the house. Each base station knows how to connect to all your internet-connected video sources, along with your local digitized video, and your multi-channel set top box or DVR. The set top box, though, will need to be physically connected to at least one of the base stations with some sort of IR-blaster or other remote control technology.

Each hub would include both the mesh-based high-speed network to communicate and synchronize with each other around the house, and a local, Wi-Fi based link to stream to phones and tablets in that room.

And for control, tablets and phones would make it easy to find all the available video in one interface, easy to peruse and manipulate.

Sounds great, right? All available video in once place, streamable to every TV in the house in a way that lets every device play its own stream, or some or all of them grouped together.

Of course there are implementation problems. First, the antique set-top box is a weak link. Companies as diverse as Logitech with their Harmony remote, and Sling have tried to make this all work, with some success – but it’s a pain. It’s probably best if we wait until a robust set of virtual MSOs (like the forthcoming Intel service) turn all of our video into IP-delivered streams.

And speaking of Sling, you’d probably need to acquire them to make all this happen, they are already 50% of the way there.

The wireless part is also problematic. Compared to 1080p video, audio streams are tiny. Keeping fat video streams in sync across multiple devices requires much more than standard wireless networking. And streaming wirelessly out to our phones and tablets adds another complexity to the synchronization.

But the benefits are clear. And with this type of system if new services come online, they can quickly be added in – as just another video source.

If someone builds this, and it really works, sign me up. And with a simple out-of-home streaming option, I’d be able to roll my own TV Everywhere – because in the end, that’s what I think viewers really want.

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