Internet Meets Large Screen
By Peter Wayner The New York Times
May 17, 2007
Robert Sorel, a trombonist from Woonsocket, R.I., keeps his PC in his basement media room, where, hooked up to his other components, it acts as a jukebox for his music and video collection.
In Woodbury, N.J., Dave Wasman, a computer consultant, keeps a Mac Mini connected to his high-definition television so he can browse the Web for news and short films.
And Chris Lanier, a student at the University of Houston, uses his network-enabled Xbox to link his living room TV to his office computer, which he taps for Web offerings and for archived video.
Each is exploring the couch-potato frontier, using a PC to bring the bounty of the Internet to the TV. They struggle with arcane formats, noisy fans and Web sites designed for the desktop to escape the old television broadcast networks and their collection of channels numbered in the mere hundreds.
The long-predicted convergence of the Internet and the broadcast world is accelerating. Unlike the established television networks, which serve up 30-minute meals of programming, video-sharing Web sites are nurturing a world of snacklike shorts. But finding the right hardware for this convergence still requires some thought.
Some hook up an office PC to a large screen, a process that is straightforward for most modern screens and computers but is often complicated by tiny idiosyncrasies often caused by the very openness that attracts the users. Both Apple and Microsoft have been slowly moving toward the living room by enhancing desktops with software packages like Front Row or Media Center, which display videos and play music with a simplified interface.
Another choice is a product designed for the living room, often by the same computer companies. The new Apple TV or the Xbox can bring videos, photos or music from the computer over to the TV, but they do not offer full Web browsers or all of the content that may be available online.
Steve Perlman was a founder of WebTV, the start-up company that built a set-top box for browsing the Web in 1996 a box that is now sold by Microsoft as MSN TV. He points out that PCs are poor guests in the living room because they can take a long time to start, spew white noise from a fan and are susceptible to viruses.
The standard graphical desktop interface is hard for couch dwellers to use because of the small fonts and many tiny buttons. Web browsers and other tools ask for input from a keyboard that usually requires two hands, or from a mouse that needs a hard flat surface.
The people on the couch will be leaning back, not sitting forward, and they'll be holding a beverage in one hand and possibly their girlfriend or boyfriend in the other, Mr. Perlman said. You really only have one hand available.
One common solution is a wireless keyboard like the Adesso SlimTouch (about $85 from www.adesso.com
) or the Logitech diNovo Edge (about $165 from www.logitech.com
). Both come with trackpads for moving the cursor. A more sophisticated solution is a programmable remote control like the SnapStream Firefly (about $50 from www.snapstream.com
). This will link the push of a single button on the remote to a long list of commands for the computer to execute. For instance, one button can call up a Web page with a weather report or the latest news.
If the computer comes with a remote, as the iMac does, products like Remote Buddy (from iospirit.com for about $13.50) or Mira (from twistedmelon.com for about $16) let the user push one button to activate programs.
Many users take advantage of features that were originally included to help people with poor eyesight. The Firefox Web browser, for instance, can increase the size of the fonts in most Web pages, and a number of programs will zoom in on any part of the screen, making it easier to watch Web videos on the big screen.
Juggling computer settings to make fonts readable is a constant challenge for most users. Many report, for instance, that they avoid the higher-resolution screen settings to make the fonts and the controls larger.
Mr. Lanier in Houston, for instance, uses a 37-inch Panasonic TV that displays signals in the 720p format, which is short of the highest definition. A higher-resolution set is not worth it for that screen size, he said.
As soon as you get up to the larger screen size, then it becomes a benefit depending on how close you are to the TV, he said. Based on how far I sit from the TV, the benefits aren't going to be seen by my eyes.
One big advantage of the open-ended PC platform is its adaptability to third-party products. Hauppauge, for example, makes a $99 HDTV tuner that converts broadcast HDTV signals into PC files that will play on Windows Media Center, where they can be watched later.
While many welcome this flexibility, it can also complicate matters. Mr. Lanier, for instance, began with a full PC in his living room, but moved it back to his office and replaced it with the simplified interface provided by his Xbox.
Some companies are introducing products to simplify the links between PC and TV. The MediaSmart flat-panel TVs from Hewlett-Packard include a small, limited processor that adds about $300 to the price. It uses the home network to download videos, photos and music from a PC with Media Center.
The neat thing about this, it does it without bringing the pain of the PC into the living room, said Alex Thatcher, senior product marketing manager at the digital TV solutions group of Hewlett-Packard. By that, I mean the pain of doing a virus scan.
Philip Schiller, Apple's senior vice president for worldwide product marketing, says that while he can understand why some might want to add a Mac Mini (about $600) to a living room TV, he thinks a better choice for many is the new Apple TV offering (about $300), which will display music, photo and videos from a Macintosh or a PC.
You need to focus on making things easier to use, he said. You start with making the simplest things work well from the beginning. He said Apple was concentrating on adding simple features to the living room, not shoehorning a PC into the living room.
Apple TV does not include a Web browser, but it will search the Web for some things. Movie trailers are downloaded directly from Apple's Web site; this may be how Apple will choose to open up its interface to YouTube videos in the future.
Smoothing the connections is a big topic for the companies as they jockey to find the best way to satisfy both content creators and the couple on the couch.
Just as Web sites are adapted to detect whether it's a mobile device, I expect that you'll begin to see Web sites that are adapted for viewing on a television screen, said Mr. Perlman, the WebTV founder, who is now nurturing media tools and content through his business incubator, the Rearden Companies. When that happens, you'll see an utter transformation of the business.
I think in the future, the broadcast stations will all turn off. There is a very limited amount of content on them.http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/17/te...gewanted=print