There’s always something to howl about

How to solve the video multiplexing problem you didn’t know you had.

I love this news story, an exposition of the Supreme Court exposing its irrelevance:

In an entertaining hour-long episode, Supreme Court justices on Tuesday considered the government’s power to regulate expletives and nudity on the airwaves.

Why is this amusing to me? Because along with many other twentieth-century electromagnetic phenomena, broadcast television is dead.

Every word in that claim is important. “Television” — meaning audio/visual content primarily intended to entertain — is still with us, although it is likely to merge with other forms of on-line content.

But “broadcast television” — TV transmitted over the airwaves, one sender, many recipients — is a dead-letter today, and it will be progressively less important — and progressively less profitable — with every passing year.

The reason is simple: The future of entertainment is iPad-style video:

The iPad is the ultimate perfect television. On-demand. Stop and start at will. Goes with you when mom says you have to go to soccer practice. The iPad is the perfect entertainment-consumption device: Personal, portable, programmable — and infinitely extensible.

You may watch this video content on a device as small as your phone or your wrist-watch or on one as big as your living room wall, but this is the future of video in your life.

Broadcast — one-size-fits-all, limited-choices, isolated in a frozen time-schedule, can’t stop it, can’t rewind it, no easy way to research or cross-reference it, stuck on one very stupid device, hag-ridden with commercials — all of that is dead. It was a kludgey business model when it was the best we could do. By now, it’s a dinosaur — so we should expect it to endure a loud but inescapable death.

Note, too, that your cable company’s very-stupid on-demand service is also headed for the morgue, as are slightly better on-demand services like Netflix. The future of entertainment video is your friendly neighborhood search engine — augmented by the kinds of software services I have been describing lately.

The reality of your life is that you are going to watch what you want, when you want, on whatever device you choose — and you are going to have many more devices to choose from.

The owners of high-end homes already possess ten or more HD-TVs, sometimes including two or more on the patio, so dad can watch the Sunday football games while he’s barbecuing. If you take a count of the devices in your home capable of displaying high-definition video, you may find that you are already in double-digits as well. We’re at eight HD screens so far — and we’re broke! This is how I know that you already have a multiplexing problem, even though you may not have realized this until just now.

Multiplexing in this context simply means shipping the video you are receiving to the device you want to receive it on. That’s not a terrible problem on your iPhone or iPad. Just search and hit the “Play” button. But what if you want to play a DVD from the living room instead of the family room? What if you and your beloved spouse want to sample the savory delights of internet pornography on the TV in the master bedroom? What if you’re having a Super Bowl party, and you want to watch the game on every HD screen in your house?

You have a large and growing number of HD-capable video screens in your home. You have a large and growing number of sources of high-definition video content. Your problem is simply this: You should be able to watch any of that content from any one of your devices — or all of them at the same time — at will.

How can we make that happen?

I’m in the process of describing a brand new user-operating paradigm for electronic devices. This is undoubtedly stupid on my part, since no one is listening to me. But I can see how well things could work together, if they were designed for the end-user’s benefit — designed, that is, to achieve the actual, mission-critical objectives of the end-user. Some of the things I am talking about will happen — slowly and inanely, I fear. Many of them will not. At a minimum, though, if you are following along at home, you will have a clear idea of what you are missing out on — how much better the tools and toys you use every day could be.

So let’s go back to the essay I cited above:

I hate the remote controls for electronic devices, and one thing we should insist on, going forward, is that every wired device in our lives should be IP-addressable and fully-controllable by internet connection.

I wrote that two years ago, and we are almost no closer to that goal today than we were then. Some TVs have internet connectivity by now, but usually only as kludgey little apps for services like Hulu or Netflix. The full-blown Apple TV does not exist yet, and I expect to be disappointed with it when it finally ships. GoogleTV is dead, and I don’t know of any Android-powered televisions (as against set-top boxes) out there yet, either.

And as for the rest of the electrical stuff in your house, almost none of it is net-enabled, although it easily could be. I want for everything you own with on-board electronics to be net.accessible, with data flowing inbound and outbound, but that’s a topic for another essay. By now, I don’t even want a big-screen TV that behaves like a wall-sized iPad. We’re likely to see devices like that this year, but I want a whole lot more than that.

What we’re really talking about — your newly-discovered video multiplexing problem — is a home-based media server that receives all of your inbound video signals and distributes them where you want them to go. Because all of your HD screens are internet addressable — or they should be — the server can feed the content you want where you want it to go.

The DVD player (and its library console) are no longer in the living room. Those pieces of hardware are now in the utility closet, with the media server, and you can watch any DVD you want from any screen in the house — or from all of them if you want.

Any net.accessible content, including all that juicy porn that the FCC has forevermore forbidden you from watching on your own private property, is now accessible from any HD device you own — with no goofy, kludgey “apps” to limit your choices.

And echoing any content you want to more than one screen will be duck soup — with the audio emerging only from that high-end home theater sound system in the family room, if you want.

This will happen, much sooner than you think: Your family room or game room will will be home to two or more HD-TVs — maybe several mounted high in the corners of the room, sports-bar style, or perhaps one huge screen with two or three smaller ones beside it, like the super-rich villains of twentieth-century spy thrillers. I can easily envision the whole family watching the latest Michael Bay blockbuster on the big screen, with the audio thundering through the sub-woofers. Meanwhile, dad might be watching the Lakers game with the audio silenced on one of the small sets while Mom surfs her Facebook feed on the other.

That much is all doable right now, with available technology. The HD screens just need to be addressable by the media server — by wi-fi, by wired ethernet or by HDMI cables. The media server itself is new hardware, but it’s dread simple to build: It needs lots of ways of receiving non-internet video — that is, cable connections for DVD players, set-top boxes and game consoles. And it needs lots of ways of delivering outbound content, which, for now, may mean a mare’s nest of HDMI cables, alas. For software, it needs to be able to deliver its own content browser — for locally-stored media and locally-controlled devices — along with a web browser for net.based content. The user interface is your smart-phone or your iPad.

That’s all. This is not a big deal to build, nor is it terribly expensive. Since we’re going to all this trouble, the media server might as well store your entire music library, along with any video you currently have stored on your hard disks. If your audio devices were IP-addressable, the server could give you user-controllable stereo in every room of your house, as well.

The brand new user-operating paradigm I am writing about — or at least writing around — can go this one better. If you imagine that every device on the internet is not simply a data client or a data server but is, in important respects, both, and if all of those devices are reporting their mission-critical data back to a universal user-profile, like Constance the Connector, then any sonar-equipped device could determine and report with pinpoint accuracy precisely where it is in space at any given time.

Now imagine the kind of ubiquitous video acquisition I have proposed. With that kind of information, you could have a New Year’s Eve party in which the media server could establish a virtual center-of-Times-Square in the middle of your home. With that parameter, the server could show you the unique view of Time Square that you would see if the particular screen you are looking at were a window on that scene. As you turn in the room, you would see a live panorama of Time Square in real time.

Would you rather do New Year’s Eve in Vegas instead? Just change the channel. Or dispense with night altogether and turn the high-def screens in your home into a virtual beach in sunny California. The limits you erect in your mind are mental fictions. This much of what I am describing is fantasy, in the sense that it does not exist — yet. But there is nothing in this essay that requires new theory — just money and engineering.

But sufficient unto today are the problems of today: You have a terrible video multiplexing problem already. But now you know how to fix it.

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5 Comments so far

  1. Jim Klein January 29th, 2012 8:51 pm

    Stunning; you’re on a tear. This can’t possibly take two more years to be understood. Or I’ll put it this way…it better not!

  2. Greg Swann January 30th, 2012 2:54 pm

    > Stunning; you’re on a tear.

    I keep thinking that, sooner or later, someone will pay me to stop designing the future in public. Nothing so far.

  3. Blair January 30th, 2012 11:57 am

    This is great! I love technology and it’s always fun to learn what is coming up.

  4. Emma Anderson February 23rd, 2012 7:07 am

    Great post! I too have long felt that broadcast television has been waning. Why sit through commercials or wait 10 minutes for your show to start when you can watch it right now? It’s pretty amazing how a few years ago people were happily content with “the dinosaur” of a system we still have today. Now, I’m really looking forward to the day broadcast tv dies and we can look back on it and wonder how that system remained in place for so long. Keep broadcasting the future, Greg!

  5. John Rampton February 28th, 2012 10:06 pm

    I think I’d rather do New Year’s Eve in Vegas instead! Love the points, no more 2 years waiting for things to change!