I get, but mostly don't get, the slingbox

Jeff Pulver is a giant fan of the SlingBox, a small box you hook up to your TV devices and ethernet, so you can access your home TV from anywhere. It includes a hardware encoder, infrared controllers to control your cable box, Tivo or DVD player, and software for Windows to watch the stream. The creators decided to build it when they found they couldn’t watch their San Francisco Giants games while on business trips.

And I get that part. For those who spend a great deal of time on the road, the hotel TV systems are pretty sucky. They only have a few channels (and rarely Comedy Central, which has the only show I both watch on a daily basis and which needs to be watched sooner rather than later) as well as overpriced movies. But at the same time you have to be spending a lot of time on the road to want this. My travel itineraries are intense enough that watching TV is the last thing I want to do on them.

But at the same time it’s hard not to be reminded of the kludge this is, especially hooked to a Tivo. And if you have a Tivo or simliar device, you know it’s the only way you will watch TV, live TV is just too frustrating. I don’t have Tivo any more, I have MythTV. MythTV is open, which is to say it stores the recorded shows on disk in files like any other files. If I wanted to watch them somewhere else, I could just copy or stream them easily from the MythTV box, and that would be a far better experience than decoding them to video, re-encoding them with the SlingBox and sending them out. Because of bandwith limits, you can’t easily do this unless you were to insert a real-time transcoder to cut the bandwidth down, ideally one that adapts to bandwidth as the Slingbox does. And I don’t think anybody has written one of these, because I suspect the MythTV developers are not that too-much-time-on-the-road SlingBox customer.

(Admittedly the hardware transcode would be useful, but a 3GHZ class machine should be capable of doing it in software, and really, this should just be software.) For watching live TV, if you cared, you probably could do that in Myth TV. If you cared.

So the SlingBox… is in part an compensation for the locked design of TV systems compared to an open design like MythTV. And the locked nature of TV, since it’s pretty silly to have the signal go to your house to be re-encoded and send back out your internet. In a perfect world you would just get a feed directly from the source. They won’t sell you that because they’re scared you might copy it (even though you can readily do so from your feed at home) and because TV rights are all sold on a geographic basis. A TV studio sells a station exclusive rights in their territory, and thus can’t sell you the live feed you would prefer. And of course they would not want to let you have it free, without commercials, the way the Tivo+Sling system delivers it to you.

The territory system makes the slingbox scary to the studios. In theory, it really isn’t interfering with their markets much at all, since it’s letting a person who lives in San Francisco watch San Francisco TV while they are on a trip. Hardly a killer.

For me it makes more sense to readily automate the syncing of desired shows from the TV recorder box to the laptop before you leave the house, so you have plenty to watch on the plane or in the hotel. In higher quality with no bandwidth used. Then bandwidth would only be needed for those few shows you must watch right away, which are largely sports, The Daily Show and a few addictions. Those who get a PVR know you soon start caring less and less about when shows are on, and how quickly you watch them after airing. There are a few “must chat around the watercooler” shows but they are the exceptions.

So I can’t help feeling you have to be pretty TV addicted to need the SlingBox. Hotels seem like a good place to catch up on work, or delayed TV and DVDs, not so much live TV. While the SlingBox can be connected to a DVD player it would have to be a jukebox to be useful, and DVDs are so portable it seems a waste to watch them in low-res rather than take them.

Though I certainly agree with the general principle that we shouldn’t have to take our physical media with us, that we should just have a nice fat network pipe to get everything from home when we want it. We’re just not there yet with the pipes for doing it live, which is more IPTV than TVoIP, as I noted in an earlier post. Especially when it comes to HDTV. My TV is HD, and my connection from my MythTV box to TV is VGA, so the SlingBox doesn’t even work with it, I have no NTSC video output running.

(To top it off, the Slingbox would not even work on my laptop, some sort of codec problem in Windows Media Player 9, which it insists on using. I tried it from a local PC.)

I may discover of course, when next trapped in a hotel, that I didn’t bring along media to watch and so want it. It does do a decent job for what it is. It just shouldn’t have to exist in the first place.

One idea for the SlingBox, to help users of open PVRs or other video playing computers would be a mode where larger mpeg2 (or even mp4) video comes in on the ethernet, is hardware transcoded, and goes back out as a smaller stream suitable for remote playing.

SageTV Placeshifter Beta

Appreciate you sharing your ideas on your blog Brad. We're releasing a placeshifting solution similar to what you describe for Linux and Windows next month. Be glad to send you a beta invite Brad. There are some advantages to integrating PVR with placeshifting.

Good to do

Though I am not likely to shift to a windows box for my TV watching so I won't be beta testing Sage. The point however is that with a PC platform based PVR, "space shifting" is a trivial feature -- it's called "file copy." (Not that Myth, which its default cryptic filenames, puts a good UI on that, but that doesn't alter the point.)

So it's good to put a better UI on it. The only complex part is doing a live transcoder for limited bandwidth remote viewing if you want that.

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