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OTT: Are We There Yet?

Posted by tomwiles at 2:36 AM on February 19, 2011

It’s been a while since dumping my $100-dollar-per-month Dish Network habit. Ominously for the existing broadcast/cable/satellite structure, I haven’t missed it – not even one little bit. Sorry guys, that money now goes for other discretionary things.

Save Our Buggy Whips!

I saw an article about the traditional broadcasters in Canada saying they needed to somehow “get ahead” of the Netflix/Hulu phenomenon before the inevitable hits them, before what is happening in the USA happens to them. Like most dinosaur products and services, instead of talking about how they can come up with better ways to serve customers in an ever-changing, innovative marketplace, they are essentially discussing how they can somehow entice or even force customers to maintain the status quo.

A primary reason that market and business conditions change over time is improved, innovative products and services come along that better serve the end consumer. Organizations and individuals that grow fat and lazy consuming cash cow largess naturally start whining when market conditions change and the cow has no more grass left on which to graze because the stagnant field has been stripped bare.

I Want My Set Top Box

I’ve been experimenting with several different TV set top box solutions. I’ve got an Intel Mac Mini set up as a DVR with an HDTV USB tuner stick. I’ve got a couple of Western Digital WD TV Live Plus boxes. I’ve got Playon TV software running on a an HP Windows Home Server box with about 30 different plugins that give me quick organized access to a ton of different on-demand streaming video content, including Hulu and a fair amount of network programming. I’ve got an original Mac Mini running a $50 software hack that includes Boxee and XBMC software. Finally, I’ve got an LG Blu-Ray player that has a number of different on-demand video services built in, including Netflix, Vudu, and a new recently-added service called Divx TV.

So far, none of these solutions is perfect for every viewing situation. My biggest complaint about on-demand video is that it’s virtually impossible to set up a video play list where I can start the video playing and get it to automatically continue to play without any further intervention. This is especially frustrating when I have a bunch of two or three-minute-long video podcasts to watch through and each file has to manually be started playing. Why can’t someone solve this problem? Every past successful form of media has been able to go into a continuous-play mode. Coming up with a solution to this problem of being able to start a group of video files playing and have them play continuously is ultimately critical if OTT is to be widely adopted.

Divx TV Comes Closer

Divx TV, which is currently available only on select LG Blu-Ray players, actually attempts to solve the continuous play problem. It has a channel up/down feature that immediately begins to play streaming podcast content in a window from a number of different content partners. As you go through the categories and drill down into the sub-categories, the video will immediately change to the newest one selected, just like changing a TV channel. The content is categorized in a number of different ways. Revision 3 is one of the content providers. If a Revision 3 podcast is selected, the latest episode will immediately begin to play in the window. At any point in the process, a “swap” button can be pressed to instantly make the video full-screen (or vice versa) without having to restart the video from the beginning. After the latest episode plays, the next-latest episode will play, etc. If left playing, it will eventually go through all available content and start playing the first episode.

Additionally, Divx TV has a search function where it’s possible to save search terms for future use. One of the problems I’ve ran into when using the search function to find videos from their database that aren’t in the packaged categories is file sizes are inconsistent. Since I’m using a point-to-point wireless Internet provider, my home Internet connection isn’t as fast as traditional cable or DSL connections. Larger video file sizes tend not to stream over slower connections so well and buffering can occur. The pre-packaged Divx TV category content providers provide a more consistent video streaming experience on less-robust Internet bandwidth connections and the video looks pretty good.

Eventually all of these problems must be solved.

What would be an ideal system for me? I’d like to be able to play the hundreds of video podcasts I’ve downloaded on every TV in my house and have them play continuously without intervention. I’d like to be able to mix and match custom streaming content, again with minimal intervention on my part. I’d like to be able to play any video I’ve recorded on my Mac Mini DVR on any TV set in my house via my wired home network. So far, none of these solutions I’ve tried can quite combine all of these features into one sleek package. By the way, the Mac Mini DVR can be a bit of a pain in the rear, since the on-screen computer screen text can’t be read from 15 feet away even on a 58” screen.

Are we there yet? Not quite, but the journey has definitely started.

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