Technology Nobody Needs
Along with tracking the more promising gadgets and technologies gracing the Internet of Things, we keep a notebook in Evernote titled “The Book of Bad Ideas.” That is where I send all of the eye-rolling, cringe-inducing nightmares that crop up during my daily web scrape. Here are a few of the highlights:
Selfie Sombrero (Acer x Christian Cowan-Sanluis) $980
This glittery, obscenely expensive pink hat-and-tablet combo, which first appeared at London Fashion Week, was designed by the young Dutch designer Christian Cowan-Sanluis. It rotates 360 degrees, allowing you to find your best selfie angle. In case you were wondering, this was inspired by a similar outfit (minus the dangling tablet) that the designer created for Lady Gaga last year.
Quirky Egg Minder ($49)
If you have egg anxiety, fear not: The Quirky Egg Minder is here. This connected egg tray works with a smartphone app to track how many eggs you have, when each individual egg was placed in the tray, and when each egg is set to reach its expiration date. You can even check on your egg tray from the grocery store to see if you need to buy more eggs, and receive text alerts when your eggs are about to expire! As an urban chicken keeper, I strongly recommend investing in the low-tech solution of a few backyard hens and an egg skelter instead.
Sony Smart Wig (prototype only, price TBD)
This one may never see the light of day, but it’s so wonderfully ridiculous that we just can’t leave it off this list. Sony filed a patent at the end of last year for a smart wig, capable of such functions as navigation, health monitoring, and EEG tracking. Even better, Sony’s patent covers a Presentation Wig, designed for use with PowerPoint. The wig allows the user to control a laser pointer with a wiggle of the eyebrows, and advance to the next slide by tugging on the sideburns. Sadly, we’re not joking.
We:Ex Navigate Jacket (price TBD)
The designers of the Navigate jacket are very concerned about the risks of pedestrians using GPS on their phones. Citing an increase in pedestrian traffic accidents involving smartphones, they’ve developed jackets that will lead you around town using LEDs on the sleeves and vibrating shoulder pads. Because we can safely assume that all those smartphone-related pedestrian accidents involve someone intently staring at Google Maps, rather than checking Facebook or emailing the boss. And while you can use earbuds to get audio navigation cues from your phone, surely it will aid your exploration of the city if your sleeves are flashing and your jacket is abuzz with haptic feedback.
Aside from being ridiculous, the Navigate jacket is city-specific, meaning you can’t buy one and use it wherever you go — currently there are versions being tested for New York City, Paris, and Sydney. We don’t have a price tag just yet, but we think the idea of purchasing a distinctive-looking electronic jacket just to get directions to the Louvre is absurd. If you want to stand out as a tourist, this is probably a good bet.
airVR, by Metatecture, is a virtual reality headset that completed its round of funding on Kickstarter on October 16. This project “leverages iOS Retina hardware that is already in millions of peoples’ hands.” In other words, it involves strapping an iPad Mini to your head.
To be fair, it seems this device might actually have a few practical uses – one of the apps, diplopia, claims to help correct lazy and crossed eyes. But we just can’t get over the image of this guy cavorting around with an iPad strapped to his face.
Oh, and they make one for iPhone too:
Satis Smart Toilet ($4,000 no longer available)
This connected toilet, made by Lixil (now owned by American Standard) is no longer on the market – and for good reason. The toilet connected to a smartphone app via WiFi and Bluetooth, though we’re still not clear on why this was a selling point. In case you want to track usage? Or flush from your phone? (Never mind, we don’t really want to know.)
But the steep price tag and questionable utility were not the worst things about the Satis Smart Toilet. A Bluetooth PIN of “0000” was hard-coded into the app, making it possible for anyone with the MySatis app to control any toilet within range. According to a security advisory issued in August of 2013, “an attacker can cause the toilet to repeatedly flush, raising the water usage and therefore utility cost to its owner. Attackers could cause the unit to unexpectedly open/close the lid, activate bidet or air-dry functions, causing discomfort or distress to user.” We’ll just leave you with that mental image….
The Great Lab Purge of 2014
Landscapes are changing, both inside the lab and out. We’ve seen the “hardware streamer” category flare up and settle back down; the major players have been established, and the lab shelves are cluttered with “televestigial” devices and piles of remote controls. And so, the purge begins.
A few of the favorite televestigials get an honorary HDMI port — namely the Boxee Box and a 2nd-generation Sony Google TV. The 1st-generation Sony Google TV gets to stay too, because it’s another screen (but probably the dusty 91-button remote control will live in a drawer).
The multiple outdated devices from Netgear and Sony (not to mention the associated tangles of cords running behind the lab shelves) are getting the axe.
Fortunately for those of us dealing with cord-clutter, 2014 is shaping up to be Year of the Dongle. We’ll have offerings from Roku and (so we hear) Amazon joining the lab next month, and we’re looking forward to covering the next phase of OTT technology and branching out to some new areas as the traditional hardware streamer market dies down.
Meanwhile, I recently moved from the connection-challenged farm and am officially back on the cord. Happiness! My new house gets Comcast service, so I now have access to cable TV and 50MB internet – a big upgrade from the farm, where I’d get 4.7MB downstream on a good day. As soon as I find the boxes labeled “OTT,” I’ll be back with an update on how my streaming experience at home changes with a much faster connection. Stay tuned!
Chromecast: It’s about time.
Chromecast: It’s about time.
Finally, after weeks of waiting and delayed shipments from Amazon, the lab has a Chromecast. And we have it thanks to Leslie’s pal Ryan Petty, who loaned us one of his – thanks Ryan!
I’ve been putting it through the paces for the past couple weeks, and it’s left me intrigued for future applications (and a bit frustrated with the current limitations).
What it is: Chromecast is a streaming dongle that plugs into the HDMI port of your TV, so that it’s barely visible (much less taking up precious shelf space). It’s similar in form factor to the Roku Streaming Stick, with one big difference: Roku uses MHL (Mobile High-Definition Link) to power the device, so it only works with a small subset of newer TVs. But you don’t need to find power for it.
This isn’t true for Chromecast – you need to find power for it. It uses micro USB, which means it plugs in to the USB port on your TV, and then to the included wall adaptor. Then you need to find another hole in the power strip.
So, while MHL devices like Roku’s Streaming Stick have the advantage of being completely cordless, with no powering requirements, Chromecast has the advantage of transforming any TV set with an HDMI port into a connected TV. But it needs power.
How it works: Chromecast receives signals from smartphones and tablets, and from computers using Google’s Chrome browser (with the Chromecast plugin installed). It can mirror any web page or video from the computer’s browser, on the TV screen, and it also works with a few mobile apps to play optimized video. The mobile apps work by sending a URL to Chromecast, which then retrieves the video, rather than streaming directly from the device– making for much better video quality.
The premium video content is limited — just Netflix and YouTube were available initially, and Hulu Plus just joined the crowd yesterday — but HBO Go, Redbox, Vimeo, and others have expressed intent to porting their apps to Chromecast as well.
So assuming those Chromecast-optimized apps arrive soon (and there’s no telling, since the Chromecast SDK isn’t even finalized yet), this device will likely be a real contender for the holiday season.
Chromecast setup involved me going to a URL on my mobile device, which then directed me to install the Chromecast app (on both my iPhone and laptop.) From there, I connected to the Chromecast from the WiFi settings on my iPhone (as if it were a wireless network) and gave it the name and password for our local network. Then, it was just a matter of connecting my phone to the home WiFi network again, and then opening an app on my iPhone (i.e. Netflix) and selecting a piece of content. A new button within Chromecast-compatible apps allows you to select the Chromecast dongle as your output device, so whatever you select from your phone or tablet automatically starts playing on the TV.
Bonus: Chromecast doesn’t tie up whatever device you’re using to control it – so you can start a video from Netflix, and then go back to checking your email and browsing the web on whatever device you’re using. Likewise it won’t keep calls from coming in, though I think it would be nice to see it integrated a bit with the phone features – I’m thinking of Boxee’s remote control app, which automatically paused the video when a call came in. Allowing the viewer to select options like “Do not disturb” or “Pause video when phone rings” at the start of a session might make for a better experience.
The Netflix app worked quite well, with no noticeable lag in picture quality or streaming performance. The quality was a bit diminished when I tested it on my slow (~4 Mbps) connection at the farm, as expected.
I did notice that the Netflix app on my iPhone frequently forgets that it’s connected to a Chromecast, especially if I’m using it in areas of my house where the WiFi signal is weak. Then, I’m unable to control the Chromecast or pause the video, and I have to scramble to mute the volume if a call comes in.
I didn’t notice the same problem with the YouTube app, which was somehow able to maintain a connection with the Chromecast as my phone dropped off and on the WiFi network.
Streaming from my laptop, I quickly learned why it might not be such a big deal that people are able to mirror Hulu’s free web content up to the TV using Chromecast – the audio skipped almost constantly, and the reduced picture quality and large frame around the video made for a truly sub-par experience. Fortunately, Hulu finally released a compatible app yesterday so we won’t have to suffer through it any longer.
Chromecast does a lot for $35, but still lacks content – however, it appears that the content situation might get a lot better. If we get apps like Spotify and Amazon Instant Video down the road, this might be my go-to device. I really like being able to browse on a mobile device, rather than using a remote control to browse on my TV screen. Could it really be that Google TV finally got it right?
Well, maybe. Enter Sony’s Bravia “Smart Stick,” which breathless media reports dubbed a “Chromecast competitor” as soon as the first FCC filing surfaced — not so. For starters, the “Smart Stick” only works with Sony Smart TVs, and it requires MHL – that’s a very small percentage of the market.
The idea is to unite Google TV features with Sony’s Smart TV features, plus cable or satellite service using an HDMI pass-through. And of course, it wouldn’t be a Sony Google TV device without the same overly complicated remote control that shipped with their last device – surely a big part of the $115 price tag.
We’ll stick with the Chromecast, thanks. And wait to see what Comcast and its brethren have up their sleeve….
Rumor Mill Roundup: The Rise of Virtual MSOs?
We’ve been hearing a lot about “virtual MSOs” lately – companies developing payTV subscription plans to be delivered exclusively over the Internet, as an alternative to the traditional payTV infrastructure.
Virtually every tech giant explored, or is rumored to be exploring a virtual MSO model. Microsoft, Google, Apple, Sony, Intel — the list keeps on growing, but we’ve yet to see a content deal nailed down.
The first real development (allegedly) came from Sony: In mid-August, we heard that they inked a preliminary deal with Viacom. Of course, we’ve got no confirmation of this from either party, and Sony hasn’t even officially announced that it’s working on a virtual MSO service. So there’s that.
We’ve also heard a lot of buzz about Intel over the past year. Intel’s service, supposedly called “OnCue,” is due to launch by the end of this year – though we can’t help but notice that the days are getting shorter, and still no announcement of content agreements or possible release dates.
Intel’s service will run on an Intel-powered set-top box, and also boasts a server farm with the ability to record every piece of content for 3 days, storing it in the cloud so viewers can go back and watch their shows without ever setting the DVR.
However, it’s not clear how (or if) this is going to work for the content providers, which typically require that there be a copy in the cloud for each subscriber, as with Cablevision’s remote DVR service. So essentially, Intel would need to record every piece of content for 3 days, multiplied by the number of subscribers – or perhaps work out something more along the lines of a VOD agreement.
Regardless, it’s going to be expensive. Because new virtual MSOs like Intel are just starting out, their content costs will be spread out across fewer subscribers. Intel reportedly offered to pay 75% more for the same content compared with cable operators, and the company remains optimistic despite not having any confirmed deals. In an interview with Barron’s back in June, Intel Media head Erik Huggers said, “We see incredibly serious engagement on the part of every programmer we talk with. I feel very good about our ability to get the right terms to move forward.”
Other wannabe MSOs are trying new approaches to get content, too: Apple is said to be developing a service in which viewers are allowed to skip ads, and Apple pays programmers for each ad skipped.
But despite all the buzz, it seems these companies are still having trouble obtaining the content that they’ll need in order to compete with existing MSOs. Contracts between MSOs and content providers, some of which have clauses preventing content from being licensed to any company that “does not control its own infrastructure,” may have something to do with this.
When (or should I say if?) if happens, the first virtual MSO will be a big deal for a variety of reasons. For me, living in a rural area, it means I might finally have a choice for payTV other than satellite (though what I could really use is a faster internet connection, so here’s hoping they get the adaptive streaming right).
For existing MSOs, it could have an even bigger impact. Assuming that a new virtual MSO is able to lure customers away from existing cable operators, we’ll probably see a big shift towards usage-based pricing for broadband service. Why: Because overall broadband consumption has been growing at a compound annual rate of more than 50% since 2009, and somebody has to pay to make sure capacity stays ahead of demand.
Many operators are already trialing usage-based plans, ostensibly as a cheaper option for light bandwidth users – but this will also give MSOs an opportunity to charge more to heavy bandwidth users (for example, people getting their TV content over the Internet).
It’s also important to note that at this point, the big operators spent the last 60 years building and maintaining (read: paying for) franchise agreements, town by town by town. As such, they tend to stick within their traditional geographic footprints and don’t typically compete with one another. But as more virtual MSOs and operators roll out IPTV services, those territory lines may start to blur – if that happens, you can bet we’ll see the competition heat up overnight.
This is Leslie’s observation, in proofing this blog: “MSO” stands for “Multiple System Operator.” The “system” part of that acronym points to the fact that cable operators spend billions of dollars every year on the physical plant that drops off all that services to subscribing homes. Unless Apple, Google, Intel, Microsoft, Sony and any of the other shaker-uppers own infrastructure, they’re really more accurately a “ZSO” — “Zero Systems Operator.”
One year over-the-top
This week marks one year of sampling a large variety of over-the-top video hardware and software in a makeshift office lab. Why: To understand why people cut the cable cord, or hang out on the “connected” side of today’s Internet-connected TVs.
Seems a good time to share some findings.
1. What I use the most, of the over-the-top services: Amazon Prime. Why: Amazon was first to offer Downton Abbey Season 2, which I could watch on a Vizio screen at home, while “getting steps” on the treadmill. (I am OCD about 10,000 steps per day, thanks to the Fitbit, to which I am wonderfully addicted.)
After that, and still on Amazon Prime: Tanked. Tanked is a family viewing activity, marathon-style – but, alas, the main TV in the house isn’t Internet-connected. So I brought home a Sony streamer, which was dissed at the lab for its clunky on-screen remote (it’s as clunky on the Sony PS3.) But, it has Amazon Prime. The Tanked binging continued in the living room.
When marathon-viewing Nurse Jackie on the Vizio screen, for instance, the Amazon app keeps track of episodes I’ve seen with a simple check mark. No such feature on the Sony streamer upstairs. Same app, same show, but you need to remember which episode you watched last.
The flip side of that, which comes with DLNA, is that any software-based video app can leverage native device features that are cool or handy.
Example: At the Cable Show in June, on a back wall of the CableNET area, Cox showed how its Trio guide had taken advantage of a native feature inside a Sony connected TV, such that in-show navigation happens on a scroll bar, frame by frame. It looked great.
3. What I use the most at work: Comcast’s “AnyPlay,” fed by Motorola’s “Televation” box. Live streaming cable TV on the iPad. Love it. Make it do trick-play, I’d love it even more.
That’s a short walk through a year’s worth of OTT-ing in the lab. Next time: What all that streaming did to the broadband meter; the puzzle of getting signal to everything; the multiplier on remote control clutter.
This column originally appeared in the Platforms section of Multichannel News.