Wretched Excess: Backpack TV Commercials

Chibivision1_1Japanese entrepreneur Emiko Miki, president of Tokyo-based Universal Planner Inc., has had a turbulent transpacific career in entertainment technology. Her latest invention, Chibi Vision, is a "mobile kiosk" with a 7 inch LCD built into a backpack like a walking sandwich board. Advertisers can rent the unit for 70,000 yen ($675) per day plus a "Back-Pack Girl." I suppose it’s just a portable DVD player mounted inside the leather backpack, but she’s got a U.S. patent for it! (also seen in Wired and Engadget)

Video Picture Frames for Retail Shelf TV

Pdvidframe_1Ces05bugThe line between consumer and professional electronics continues to blur. Pacific Digital makes a line of LCD still picture frames that display slideshows of JPEGs from digital photographers. The company also packages frames along with retail content management software for digital signage applications. The signage models can be fed by USB, SD cards and WiFi links and the latest frames can autodownload fresh sign copy from a web address.

At CES, Pacific Digital upgraded to TV with the  MemoryFrame PV1, a 5×7 LCD screen that plays MPEG4 video at 640×480 at 30 frames per second. At 7" x 6.2" x 0.8" it fits easily on a store shelf. Pop in a 2GB SD cards to play more than three hours of video, or connect a WiFi link through USB and feed live data to the picture frame. Here’s the punchline: the street price for the Pacific Digital video picture frame is $195.00. It’s a low cost personal media player as well as a component of a storewide retail messaging system. Pervasive digital video is getting so cheap it’s inescapable.

Google lUnchs vdeo Certch [Google Launches Video Search]

Googlevideo_2In its continuing effort to "organize the world’s information," Google has introduced a new feature at video.google.com that searches the closed captioning of television programs that have recently aired. Developed for the 10% of the population who are deaf or hard of hearing, closed captioning is often turned on for the pervasive TVs in bars, gyms and public megascreens. (I’ll bet there are as many pervasive viewers watching captions in public places as there are hearing-impaired viewers watching at home.)

New speech recognition technologies are beginning to produce captions automatically, but the vast majority of shows use "stenocaptionists" who type as they hear, just like court reporters but without the opportunity to clean up the transcriptions before they ship. If you’ve ever watched the captioning for live shows, you know the quality of the text varies if the speaker is too fast, if there are too many cast members talking at once, if the stenocaptionist had a rough night. Here is an unfortunate example retrieved by Google from the January 18, 2005 Today show on NBC:

And good morning.    Welcome today" at:00 a.M.    Fic time onhis Tuesday.    I’m ma Lauer.

>> Nice to have youk or nice to be together again. U were
backesterday any way, I’m Kat couric, condoleezaice is testign fronof
the senate foreign relations committee. Right nowhe senate is expte
asilyonrm her to be President Bush’ next Secretary of ste.
Burepublicans a drats alike say she Wil feome hardballs. We’llave more
on the storyn a minute.

In its search results, Google also grabs muddy, low-res frames from the video, seemingly at random and without much relationship to the nearby text, and it reports the time into the program that each search target is found. Someday next century, tassel-loafered copyright lawyers at big media conglomerates might allow a link to the actual video feed, but don’t bet on it, at least not without another monthly subscription billed to your credit card.

TEXT, GRAPHICS, MUSIC, MOTION

It’s only been about ten years, but we sometimes forget what a great boon the World Wide Web has been to the organization of text and graphics. "Google" as a verb is part of the language, and we fully expect  to be able to retrieve all the world’s knowledge at a keystroke. There’s a lot more that needs to  be done — smarter search algorithms, semantic Web coding, searcher profiling, and so on — but we’ve got a pretty good handle on processing words and pictures.

Most people, though, process as much or more information in video form, and there we have no information technology at all. For selecting programs from a 300 channel cable system, how useless is a phone book-sized TV Guide? For finding what’s on right now, how simple-minded is the slow crawling electronic program guide on channel 100? The music and moving pictures pumped through TV sets may be recorded on an occaisional DVD, but the data is not searchable, not indexable, not easily reprocessable. The best we can do for now is text transcripts or, in the new Google offering, real-time stenography. Nevertheless, indexing the closed captioning gives us our first measure of control over the astonishing volume of information pouring into our televisions.

Program note: We’re preparing a briefing on Content Intelligence for an issue of the Pervasive.TV Report newsletter due out in February. Sign up today.

Beyond RGB: Genoa’s 1 Trillion Colors

Genoa5cCes05bugAs an ex-prepress guru, I understand that color reproduction is as much an art as it is a science. Color perception is dependent on human biology, on the physical limitations of displays and pigments, and to a great extent on environmental conditions. This is a bit off the pervasive topic, but at CES 2005 Genoa Color Technologies demonstrated four- and five-color displays that vastly improve the fidelity of video images. In Genoa’s chromaticity diagram at left (click to enlarge), the full range of colors that humans can see is represented inside the curved shape. The standard NTSC Red-Green-Blue subset  — the colors that it’s possible to display on a regular TV screen — is shown in the black triangle. The larger shaded shape represents Genoa’s ColorPeak extended color set made by combining Red-Green-Blue-Yellow-Cyan.

Judging TV picture quality is often very subjective; so many of the fancy new flat HDTV screens look alike to me. But the brighter, crisper ColorPeak displays are profoundly superior, showing 1 trillion colors instead of the standard 16.8 million. In a survey done by Popular Science in Grand Central Station, 97.5% of consumers picked the five-color set over a conventional RGB display, and companies like Philips plan to build products branded with the ColorPeak logo that will look more like movies than like television. ColorPeak sets would be capable of reproducing the greater range of colors represented in MPEG, digital television’s YCbCr color space.

Genoa’s approach combines chips and software that convert electronic images to four- or five-color output with re-engineered display screens capable of mixing the new "primary" colors. Liquid Crystal on Silicon (LCoS) displays used for both direct view and projection TVs will probably be easiest to build. LCD systems will be tougher to develop, and I would guess that five color plasma screens would be prohibitively expensive. I still can’t get over people spending $4,000 or more for a flat panel TV, but I suppose that they’d add a few more bucks — maybe 20% more — to get a really, really great picture.

Mosaic Channels: A Lot More TV Per Screenful

Zandardk_1Ces05bugEach of the quarter of a billion TV screens in American homes is  generally tuned to one program at a time, but the growth of "mosaic channels" that show multiple video feeds simultaneously is expanding the number of programs watched … well, at least the number of programs seen.

Cable operators like Denmark’s TeleDanmark’s KabelTV (at left) use mosaics driven by Zandar Technologies gear for 20-channel electronic program guides (EPGs) to help viewers find what’s on. But an EPG is like a web portal: it’s just a way to get through to a better channel. At CES 2005, satellite broadcaster DirecTV introduced three new mosaic channels that are meant to be watched for their content: Kidsmix, Newsmix and Gamemix. Directv6up_1Each channel aggregates six video feeds within its category on a single screen in a bid to "transcend the conventional television viewing experience." The best example of this 6-up TV is Gamemix running DirecTV’s NFL Sunday Ticket package. In this hastily and rather badly snapped screenshot at right form the floor of the show (click to enlarge), Gamemix displays six simultaneous football games with updated scores. Even better, the frame around a game changes to red when a team is close to a touchdown, and changes to green when a team scores. The audio for any channel is selected by the TV remote control.

In the movie Back to the Future, Michael J. Fox plays a kid coming home from school and voice-commanding the TV wall in the living room to play three or four favorite channels at once. While the DirecTV offering is a fixed set of channels instead of a free form selection, DirecTV’s first three categories — for sports nuts, news addicts and children — target the most likely early adopting audiences, people who don’t want to miss a thing.

Program note: We’re preparing a briefing on EPGs and their increasingly important role in content selection for the first issue of the Pervasive.TV Report newsletter due out February 1. Sign up today.

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DVD Eyeglasses

Eyetopuserb1EyetopinsideThe most-talked-about new TV screens at CES 2005 were the biggest: plasma and LCDs 50 / 60 / 70 inches and beyond. But in the back of the exhibit hall, Eyetop.net showed the smallest screen, a half-inch LCD built into a pair of tinted glasses. The $499 Eyetop Centra (at right, click to enlarge) is designed for viewing DVDs from a portable player while walking down the street … or maybe riding a bicycle, or sitting in a sauna. For and extra $3,000, you can add the head mounted Eyetop Camera to record your every waking moment.

Ces05bugWearable computing, virtual and augmented reality researchers have
experimented with head mounted and glasses mounted displays for years. With digital technologies getting smaller and more portable, it’s inevitable that we’ll need new ways of viewing TV on the go, and  Eyetop is betting that the commercial market is about to open up. The glasses themselves are a bit clunky and awkward (especially if you’ve got a big head) and the resolution of the Centra is limited. But you may as well hang a sign around your neck that you never get lucky — you’re too busy watching all that TV.

Anonymous Webcams of the World

WebcamsCharacters in science fiction stories are often falling through magical mirrors and getting trapped in a separate dimension where they can see people on the real world side of the glass, but they can’t communicate with them and they often don’t know who or where they are. Posts on BoingBoing this month described how to use Google to find unsecured, unencrypted web cams linked to the Internet, some of which also feed audio and can be zoomed and panned. A programmer at Opentopia created a clever web form for choosing cameras in different countries and assembling a 52 screen snapshot. (We wrote about the thousands of cameras pointed at New Yorkers in The iSee Project: The Scary Side of Surveillance in the IN3 Network blog.) Most of the Googlable cameras seem to be pointed at public spaces, so while they might not be very secure they probably don’t damage anyone’s privacy. Like a science fiction mirror, we can see all these people around the world, but we can’t talk to them and we don’t know exactly where they are and what they’re doing: Invisible Clueless Voyeur TV.

Phone TV from Sprint, Cingular and Verizon

Mobitv_1Ces05bugWith high speed 3G wireless networks spreading across the U.S., what better use is there for 300 to 500 kbps in your pocket than television? Demonstrated at CES 2005, Idetic’s $9.95 per month MobiTV service offers programming from NBC, ABC, FOX, C-SPAN, Discovery Networks and some more specialized channels on muscular cell phones and Pocket PCs using the EV DO standard. (To check coverage in your area, visit EVDO-Coverage.)

Chris1_1Every reviewer comments on the quality of the transmission, although most recommend using headphones rather than tinny mobile phone speakers to get the best effect. That’s probably more important while viewing music videos and Chris Matthews’ Hardball than standard new programs. To get a full picture, see the service on-line:

    > MobiTV’s demos of High Speed and Standard phones
    > CNBC’s SquawkBox review
    > FOX Channel 59, Indianapolis

Media snobs will no doubt decry the decline of civilization represented by phone TV, but there are many hours in a day — in line at the ATM, waiting for a bus, hanging out at the mall, microwaving lunch in the company cafeteria — that could profitably be filled with video (as long as your battery holds out). The burst of digital camera phones sales and the phone pimping aftermarket for skins holsters and headsets shows that people develop deep personal relationships with this ubiquitous piece of consumer gear. With 80 million cell phones sold per years in the U.S. (550 million worldwide), it’s easy to project the rapid deployment of personal TV and a further destruction of peace and quiet in the street.

Placeshifting: Remote Viewing of Home Media

Orb3_1Slingflat1_1New "placeshifting" products at CES 2005 enable viewers to remotely access home media over the Internet. We wrote about Orb Networks (at left) before the show: an $80 per year subscription buys a gateway to your Windows XP Media Center PC over the Internet from any multimedia-capable device. Sling Media’s $249 SlingBox (top right), a favorite at the show, streams your cable/satellite/PVR content to your Windows XP laptop to wherever you are on the Net. And a base station for the Sony’s Location-Free TV set (lower right) Lfsmall1plugs into your broadcast box as well as the Internet (but apparently not your home network)  and transmits content wirelessly over your household WiFi network.

Sony’s WiFi TV receivers let you carry your screen (available in an $1,100-7 inch and a $1,500-12 inch version) around your house and out into the yard, although you may need  next generation WiFi 802.11n for the best range. More interestingly, you should be able to bring the TV into a WiFi Starbucks on the road and tune into your local channels.

Similar to the Orb and Sling products, Sony is planning to offer client software that can access the Location-Free base station from any laptop over the Internet. Placeshifting your home TV content to a laptop or even a handheld device solves one of the big problems of pervasive TV: who gets paid for the content. These products simply make your home TV cable or satellite subscription portable, and they only allow one remote viewer per household. They don’t require complex digital rights arrangements, although there will be some minor leakage, for example, when users remotely access locally blacked out sporting events.

Ces05bugInstead of waiting around for traditional broadcasters to start streaming high quality content over the wired and wireless Internet, placeshifting is a bottom-up cyberstyle approach in which individuals zap their paid-for pay TV programming from their home sets. Of course, if everybody watched TV programs through a remote placeshifter, the Internet would grind to a halt. There’s not enough wireline bandwidth let alone wireless capacity to re-transmit everything. And compared to a big plasma HDTV in the living room, streaming media over the Internet generally looks like hell. Nevertheless, TV pervades.

UPDATE: Describing this with a web developer, I realized that most home broadband connections are asynchronous: the download speed from the Internet is much faster than the upload speed to the Internet, like 1.5Mbps down/250Kbps up. Anyone placeshifting their home media would be using the slower speed, which might be enough for a small handheld screen but wouldn’t look that good on a laptop.

Satellite to the Car

Tracvisiondisk1Tackvisiontruck2_2Several exhibitors at CES 05 were pitching flat roof-mounted antennas for receiving Direct Broadcast Satellite feeds in a moving car. KVH’s TracVision system at left has a deal with DIRECTV to deliver over 125 channels of television to moving cars all across America. The antenna rotates inside its enclosure to keep the signal in sync. (KVH has Ces05bugbeen installing satellite links to boats and RVs since 1995.) At the TracVision demo truck parked outside the Las Vegas Convention Center, I found out that the auto TV antenna could be fitted out with two tuners, so that two different viewers could channel surf independently. The rear seats could watch Oprah while the front seats played 2 Fast, 2 Furious.