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June 22, 2006


A Way to View 'Desperate Housewives' While Cruising the Nile


Thanks to a handful of hardware and software products, viewers can see their favorite programs anywhere in the world at the same time they are being broadcast back home.
As long as the user has access to a high-speed Internet connection, both live and recorded programs can be transmitted from one's home across the globe, to be viewed on a PC or often other types of portable devices, like a palmtop, a cellphone or a portable game unit.
If this notion intrigues you, one word of warning: do not expect the picture quality to rival that of your expensive flat-panel HDTV back home. Because of bandwidth restrictions, the evening's episode of "CSI" displayed on your PC while sitting in a Hong Kong coffeehouse can often look no better than an old VHS tape, and depending on the vagaries of the connection, sometimes much worse.
Still, it is the ability to place-shift both live and recorded programming from one's home to a hotel in Hamburg or Seoul that has excited a legion of young people and early technology adopters.
According to some analysts, that legion is destined to remain small. Forrester Research estimates that the total potential audience for remote video access devices will rise to only 1.5 million customers by 2010, with total sales of 1 million. The most likely customers include business travelers and sports fans who can't bear the thought of missing an important game.
"It is quite comforting to be able to watch my programming in a foreign destination," said Tim Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies, a research firm. "Still, the audience for this is initially limited."
Mr. Bajarin expects the technology to catch on with younger people eventually. The novelty of the technology has generated considerable publicity for companies including Sling Media, maker of the Slingbox, and Sony, which makes the LocationFree device.
Users of both systems attach a control unit to a home's TV or other video device like a digital video recorder or DVD player. The unit digitizes the incoming video stream and then transmits it over the Internet, assuming it is plugged into a broadband connection, like a digital subscriber line or cable modem. At the receiving end, a PC or other device can get access to the video data if the user knows the Internet protocol address of the home station.
But doing so is not simple; a certain level of technical prowess is required to properly connect the base station's cables and then ensure that the PC can actually communicate with the base. Internet IP addresses and passwords need to be entered, and router ports may need to be opened.
Despite several efforts, I was unable to configure properly either of two PC's to recognize a LocationFree base station without professional help. According to Josh Bernoff, a Forrester analyst, Slingbox's growth could be slowed because of "technical challenges" involved in setup.
In addition to the ability to watch programs in different geographic areas, LocationFree, Slingbox and a software solution from Orb Networks also allow users to watch TV anywhere in the house on a PC, as long as it is connected to the wired or wireless home network.
While the technology is compelling, the marketplace is crowded with competitors. Consumers can also download programs from the Internet or their PC to portable devices, like the Apple iPod, the Archos Media Player, Creative Zen Vision or the ZVUE.
Short films are available on a wide range of Web sites, among them Google Video, Yahoo Video and YouTube. Fee-based feature films can be purchased from sites like CinemaNow and MovieFlix and then viewed on a PC or a TV.
Still, it's the ability to watch local programming like news and sports as well as personalized recorded programming that may hold a special sway for viewers.
Live TV programming transmitted over the Internet is intended to be viewed on a nontraditional screen, like a PC or cellphone, or Sony's own L.C.D. screen for LocationFree. While video can be transferred to a standard TV, picture quality would suffer. And by working with personal, alternative viewing devices, unauthorized viewing (and potential complaints from companies that own transmission rights) can be minimized. Allowing an episode of "24" to be viewed in England on a standard TV screen could raise the hackles of the local British network that licensed the series for scheduling months later.
"We run our programming on a laptop or cellphone, and they do not represent big viewership opportunities," said Richard Buchanan, Sling Media's vice president for marketing.
For those who love the idea of watching "Cold Case" in Newcastle, right now, here are some options to consider:
LOCATIONFREE TV. Sony's LocationFree TV was the first hardware device to enable remote viewing of live TV — as long as you watched on the company's L.C.D. screen that came bundled with the base station.
After slow sales, Sony reconfigured its approach and now markets the LF-PK1/M, a $280 stand-alone paperback-size base station, as well as the original $1,500 LFX11 bundle, which includes the L.C.D. TV.
LocationFree can transmit programming to that L.C.D. TV as well as to a Mac, a Windows PC or PSP portable game player. Mac software costs an additional $40.
The company has announced that it will work with developers to enable programming to be transmitted to mobile phones and P.D.A.'s, but no date has been set.
SLINGBOX Sling Media's Slingbox ($250) resembles a Chunky candy bar; company officials say it looks like a gold ingot. Programming is encoded into the Windows Media format. Newly released software allows programming to be displayed on devices running Windows Mobile Edition for Pocket PC, as well as 3-G mobile phones. Mac-compatible software is due by year's end.
Because of the low bandwidth available, watching Slingbox-transmitted video on a cellphone "is like watching a slide show," Mr. Buchanan said. "You see one frame every 3 or 4 seconds, with synched audio, or audio only."
ORB NETWORKS A free software-based approach from Orb Networks allows users of Internet-connected PC's, cellphones and palmtops to gain remote access to live TV programming, photos, prerecorded video and music stored on a home PC.
The software is installed on a home PC running Windows XP. This PC acts as the base station; to work, it requires a video tuner card available from Hauppauge and several other manufacturers.
One caveat: to stream programming, the home PC-cum-base station must always remain powered on.
In the remote location, the user gets access to the programming through a standard Web browser. While the software is free, the company expects to make money by working with various content partners and by aiming Web-based promotions to users.
TIVOTOGO Using TiVo's free TiVoToGo service, owners of Series 2 TiVo models can transfer recorded programming to a PC or portable Windows Mobile-based device for later viewing.
To do so, the TiVo is connected to a home network using a wired or wireless setup. TiVo Desktop software allows users to pick the programs that will be transferred to the PC.
TiVo programs can also be transferred to a video iPod, a PlayStation Portable, a PocketPC or a Smartphone by using third-party software, like the $30 MyTV ToGo application.
TiVoToGo works only with TiVo Series 2 models and Windows PC's; a Mac version has been promised but no release date has been announced. TiVo units that incorporate DirecTV tuners are not compatible.

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