Video to Go at CES


The portability of video content was one of the big themes throughout the exhibit halls and panel sessions at last week’s Consumer Electronics Show.

Gadget makers and consumer electronics companies are churning out all kinds of devices that will allow consumers to take media with them and play it on a variety of content devices.

Phones are getting smart, allowing users to download video, including streaming video of the cable channels as they exist today. Mobi TV and SmartVideo Technologies Inc. have developed video-on-cell-phone services, so users can watch ABC News or Fox Sports Network while walking down the street. It’s not HDTV, or even standard definition, by any stretch, but frame-bit technology is improving, and many may find it a passable viewing experience.

Akimbo Systems Inc. is leading a new crop of Internet video-on-demand players. Its set-top box allows consumers to watch video on their TVs downloaded from Web sites via broadband. It wants to be a friend to MSOs, saying its niche content complements cable’s existing VOD packages. But it has also signed deals with Turner Broadcasting System, National Geographic Channel and A&E Networks.

Perhaps the two most interesting deals at CES concerned programming ported to the backseats of automobiles. DirecTV Inc. announced a deal with KVH Industries Inc. to bring DirecTV programming to the rear TV screen systems built into newer cars.

If you buy a TV-screen-equipped car and are a DirecTV subscriber, you can get all that programming in your vehicle for an additional $4.99 a month. A dish would be mounted on your roof, fitting snugly into existing luggage racks on an SUV, for instance.

The car “dish” stays stationary, but a device inside the dish would rotate slightly to pick up satellite feeds. A small set-top, the size of a cable modem, would be installed in the car, and link between the rooftop dish and the rear-screen TV system. And presto, your back seat passengers can watch DirecTV, just as if they would be sitting in their living rooms.

But Comcast Corp. also got into the act with Delphi Electronics, which was showcasing the fruits of their deal at CES. Delphi also makes in-car video systems.

Delphi’s deal with Comcast calls for the two companies to develop ways to transfer Comcast video content to cars. In the CES demo, a Delphi rep showcased how a consumer would go to Comcast’s on-demand menu, call up a program and hit a “car” icon button to transfer that content to the car’s video-storage system.

For the demo, the content traveled down the cable system to a NetGear router in the home, which would then send the content to the Delphi in-car device via 802.11. A movie might take 20 minutes to download.

Some details need to be worked out, such as the power source in the car. Either the car would have to be running for the download, or perhaps, once a day, the battery turned on to check to see what content a consumer wanted to download. So if you’re planning a car vacation, you could download content the night before and have it ready for the kiddies for the ride the next day. The on-screen menu works just like a television guide.

It was all pretty slick and a bit mind-boggling. Video without borders. It also raised some interesting copyright and security issues. There were cable programmers and some Hollywood studio types walking the floor at CES, but I’m not sure if they’ve thought through the implications of all these new technologies. If I record a show on a digital video recorder, can I take it anywhere? If Comcast has paid for VOD content, in some form, can the consumer take that content anywhere?

Some of the technologies may never launch, or receive widespread consumer acceptance. But it’s something everyone has got to think about.

The thing that always strikes you about CES is how far out in front technology developers are, miles ahead of content companies and business models. In a way, that’s how it should be, because technology companies are built to push the boundaries of what’s possible. But media companies and programmers can’t be far behind. Each industry needs to understand what revolutions are taking place, before technology envelops them.