Slinging TV, All Over the World

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Blake and Jason Krikorian are San Francisco Giants fans. The two brothers — who founded id8 Group, a Silicon Valley firm that advised a host of consumer-electronics and related companies on product strategies — were walking around Tokyo a few years ago, going nuts because they couldn’t watch their team play live.

They knew the games were being televised back in the States, and they knew the world was increasingly linked via broadband connections. And they were frustrated they couldn’t pair the two technologies.

Once back home, the pair — whose client list included Microsoft Corp., Toshiba America Consumer Products, Hitachi Ltd., Vulcan Ventures Inc., Samsung Electronics America Inc. and Time Warner Cable — started working on a technology platform that would allow consumers to “watch” their home TV lineup anyplace they could get a broadband Internet connection.

With that, Sling Media was born. The company’s SlingBox, which was released June 30, provides business travelers, vacationers and other road warriors with their living-room TV lineup at the click of a mouse.

“The sports angle is pretty straight forward,” said Sling Media vice president of product management Jeremy Toeman. As an avid hockey follower, he can attest: “Hockey fans hate missing any game.”

But the uses will no doubt be widespread, as Sling Media hopes to tap into the consumer’s increasing appetite for time-shifted — and place-shifted — television.

Imagine watching fix-it shows in the garage, cable news channels at work, or even catching that summer ball game by the backyard pool on your laptop.

The SlingBox is a hardware device — basically a router box between a consumer’s television service, whether that’s cable or satellite, and a computer, desktop or laptop. The box is now being sold at 4,500 retail outlets, including Best Buy and CompUSA, and on Amazon.com, or the Web sites for Target (www.target.com) or Wal-Mart (www.walmart.com), for $249. Its shape is striking: It resembles a candy bar, with three distinct sections — think of a Kit Kat or Hershey’s bar.

It has RCA audio, composite video and S-video inputs and outputs, plus a coaxial cable radio-frequency slot. The consumer runs a standard audio/video cable from his cable or satellite set-top to the SlingBox.

Using an TJ-45 Ethernet connection, the box is hooked up to the consumer’s in-home broadband router, and thus the consumer’s home broadband connection.

“We use all standard networking technology,” Toeman said. (The company also recently signed a deal with Intellon, to use power line technology to link PCs up to the SlingBox, giving consumers a second home-networking option.)

“You can see anything the TV is doing,” Toeman said. “You can hook up any video to SlingBox,” he said, including a digital video recorder.

A SlingBox owner downloads SlingPlayer software to their laptop or desktop PC. The software client essentially gives the user TV access, just as if they are using their remote control in the living room. In fact, when the software is called up on the laptop and a broadband connection has been established back to the consumer’s home, a virtual remote control appears.

The consumer uses the laptop mouse, for instance, to hit the numbers 0-3-4 on the virtual remote control on the PC screen and the linear feed for ESPN appears, just as it would from the living-room couch.

“We include the SlingPlayer software,” Toeman said. “It’s freely downloadable. The SlingPlayer sends a unique identification into the Internet cloud” to find a broadband connection.

“The SlingPlayer connects to the SlingBox in the home,” he said.

The SlingBox takes in analog and digital TV signals and converts them to Windows Media video streams, Toeman said.

For the moment, SlingBox works only with desktops and laptops, but the company plans to create software for mobile devices, such as Windows mobile phone pocket PCs early next year.

“You can use those as portable TVs,” Toeman said. “We can make it work at 200 Kilobits [per second].”

Just as TiVo introduced a consumer storage device for television, before cable and satellite providers took the initiative, so too has SlingMedia jumped the gun on direct-broadcast satellite and cable providers. “We have had discussions with cable MSOs,” Toeman said, referring to the possibility that operators could create their own technology, such as the combined cable set-top/DVR units that have curbed TiVo’s growth.

“There is a significant technological barrier to entry here,” he cautioned. “We’re very aware what other companies have done in the past. We’re going to tread the line well.”

The company also is aware how programmers have reacted, and Toeman allows that the response has been both positive, because it extends possible viewing, and negative, because programmers aren’t compensated for the second-device viewing option.

But that’s not stopping Sling Media, as it provides consumers yet another technology option to view their home-based media.

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