New products let you take your TV on the road

A new generation of products is promising users the ability to remotely access their TVs from around the world via a broadband Internet connection.

A new generation of products is promising users the ability to remotely access their TVs from around the house on a local network or from around the world via a broadband Internet connection.

Three such products made a splash at January's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. While all three are slightly different, they all offer similar functions -- and all three systems are completely legal.

Each of these three products supports one-to-one streaming so multiple users can't be viewing the same stream at the same time. This means broadcasters aren't trying to block the systems, according to each of the three companies behind these systems.

Sony's Location Free TV system is the most expensive of the three and the only one that doesn't require you to use a PC to view content. A base station for the system is bundled with a dedicated wireless TV. Two TVs are available, the 12.1-inch LF-X1 and the 7-inch LF-X5, and the sets cost US$1,500 and US$1,100 respectively.

The base station connects to your TV antenna and up to two additional devices, like a TiVo or satellite tuner, all of which can be controlled from the TVs. Around the home, the TVs receive a high-quality MPEG2 video stream across a dedicated wireless link while when outside of the home they rely on a wired or wireless Internet connection to receive a lower quality MPEG4 stream.

"I took one of these on a business trip to New York and I sat at a Starbucks near Central Park in the morning and watched Japanese television," said Satoru Maeda, a general manager in Sony's Tokyo-based TV group. Maeda was speaking at a Sony event in Tokyo on Friday.

Orb Networks offers an all-software solution that runs on a PC at home and can be remotely accessed from a PC, PDA (personal digital assistant) or smart phone. Users can access images, video and music files stored on the host PC and, as long as a TV tuner is connected, live television. The system uses Windows Media or Real streaming formats. It's been available since January for Windows XP Media Center PCs and a beta version for Windows XP was released last week. Orb offers the system on a subscription basis and charges either US$10 per month or US$80 per year for service.

The Orb system can't control additional devices but it does offer access to programs recorded using the Media Center PC software.

"It's spontaneous access to your media," said Joe Harris, vice president of marketing at Orb Networks. "We are able to take any media you have on your home network and bring that to any device that has a browser and a media player connected to the Internet."

In demonstrations and tests of the two systems both delivered impressive results.

The Orb system was tested over several days last week from computers in Tokyo -- both an Apple iMac and Windows-XP based notebook PC -- to a Windows XP Media Center PC in San Jose. On most days the system delivered an uninterrupted stream of several hours of San Jose prime-time television at a reported speed of 491K bps (bits per second) and 30 frames per second. While the image wasn't as clear as conventional television, it was good enough to fill a notebook computer screen and not impact the enjoyment of the programs.

The Sony system delivered comparable results during a shorter demonstration. At CES, a system showed a live stream of TV from a base station back in Tokyo while at the Sony event last week a system was connected to base station in San Diego. The Sony stream was running at about the same bandwidth as the Orb TV system.

As might be expected, changes in bandwidth can have a big hit on the system. At some points during the weekend -- specifically when it was Sunday afternoon in Japan and Saturday evening in California -- the available bandwidth between the two locations couldn't support an uninterrupted Orb TV stream. Similarly, during the Sony demonstration on Friday the link back to San Diego suffered from the same occasional glitches, although the test was too short to determine how frequently this occurs in average use.

The tests also demonstrated the importance of access to recorded content. Because of the 17-hour time difference between Japan and the U.S. West Coast, the TV line-up available during Japan's evening hours consisted largely of overnight shopping programs.

In addition to the Sony and Orb systems, a third product was on show at CES and is promised soon. Sling Media's system combines a hardware base station, called a Sling Box, with client software running on a PC. The base station hooks up in a similar manner to Sony's device and can be controlled remotely. Sling demonstrated remote control of a TiVo using its system at CES.

The system streams TV programs using Windows Media and constantly measures available bandwidth and adjusts the encoding to suit current connectivity, said Jeremy Toeman, vice president of product management at Sling Media, while presenting the system at CES. The system also tries to provide an uninterrupted audio stream because research has found people are far more willing to put up with glitches in the picture if the audio remains unaffected, Toeman said.

Sling expects to put the system on the U.S. market for around US$250 during the first half of this year and expects versions for Japan and European markets to follow.

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Martyn Williams

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