Home is Where the Heart (of Media) is

By Carl Lindemann

SVG Digital Media Editor

There’s a revolution underway that will bring us ubiquitous wireless broadband through things like 3G cell connectivity, high speed mesh networks, and whatever else follows. But until then, media delivery remains squarely focused on the home as it has been since people first placed radios in the living room in the 1920s. Appreciating that, Sling Media, best known for its “Slingbox”, draws content from the home entertainment hub and slings it to wherever you want – as long as you’ve got a broadband connection there delivering at least 256Kbs.

What’s in a Slingbox? The core function of the device is to reroute and repurpose whatever you may be getting over cable, satellite or over-the-air at home. It uses the Windows Media 9 codec to crunch it on-the-fly into streaming media appropriate to whatever device you want to watch it with. According to company spokesman Brian Jaquet, the big value-add is the devices’ ability to navigate broadband conditions to determine the optimum compression and so all-but-eliminate dropouts.

“The sports audience will not tolerate an experience where the image goes black. What we call ‘Slingstream’ technology is a set of algorithms that monitor upload/download speeds and even anticipate network conditions. It makes adjustments on the fly, and combined with buffering, makes for uninterrupted viewing,” Jaquet said.

The slingbox does not store any content, but is designed to work in tandem with PVRs so that content stored can be forwarded to whatever IP-connected device you like – laptop, cellphone, or PDA. The big advantage for fans is the ability to create your own streaming media experience even where the home games are blacked out. Since the home games are broadcast to the home, Slingbox can sling it to you.

The challenge here is, as you might expect, how the actual quality of the viewing experience depends on the quality of your home network connection. And there’s the rub. Since this is consumer-centric, it is limited by the asynchronous broadband service typical to DSL and cable connections. These services address the needs of the everyday consumer who’s likely to download far more content than upload it. The Slingbox-enabled consumer needs to have ample upload speeds to reach out like some microbroadcaster serving this audience-of-one.

Despite these issues, the Slingbox may give a window to what’s ahead for media professionals, but not as you might expect. While the chief selling point is being able to extend the home TV experience anywhere there’s a broadband connection, it does an even more amazing job extending the home TV experience anywhere in the home. In house, the system can take advantage of far, far greater upload speeds over the home network. Rather than squeaking by at 256Kbs, running full-throttle at 3+Mbps turns that streaming video into a flood that is a close match to the TV. Portable – and ever wearable – TVs have never gained much currency. But coming in through the backdoor as an ancillary TV might just develop a new taste for viewing wherever.

“If you’re not going out over the Internet, the viewing experience is really nice,” said Jaquet. “You walk around the house, maybe into a room without a TV or even in front of the main TV where you want to watch something different than what everyone else is watching.”

As such, this may be just the thing that “sports widows” have long wished for. The fanatic can maintain an unbroken sports media fix without having to absent themselves from the family. Gaining this kind of unbroken attention anywhere will likely create a need for meeting it everywhere, just in time to drive the market for the emerging wireless broadband landscape.