Slinghooked

Place-shifting technologies remain a niche product, but, if providers start to offer the technology as part of their TV packages, it could move into the mainstream.

We're all road warriors now. Modern life means that we commute for longer periods on a daily basis; we travel to foreign climes far more frequently than ever, and we work - or can work - longer hours. The result is that we spend less time at home than we ever did before.

These trends have been the main spur for the huge growth in consumer technology - as we are buying and using more personal gadgets in greater numbers.

As a result, we are now able to carry an entire music library and several hours of television or movies to while away the dead hours at airport terminals, on trains and in hotel rooms. But, although we may also carry a portable radio or television with us, it would be far more difficult for us to take our subscription service to Sky, Setanta or Virgin Media with us - especially when travelling abroad.

The recent trend by broadcasters to stream and allow users to download viewable content does not completely resolve this issue because the broadcaster would typically only own the rights to televise a sports event or movie in a particular country or region.

If you have ever tried to stream or download a programme from the BBC iPlayer from a computer connected to the Internet overseas, the IP address would usually identify you as residing outside the UK and would block the transmission or download.

This is the problem that place-shifting devices aim to resolve. Basically, a place-shifting device is a piece of equipment that sits between your terrestrial, cable or satellite receiver and your Internet router at home.

Its main function is to allow you to stream the TV signal using your broadband Internet by uploading it to 'the cloud' for you to receive on a personal computer or portable device.

There are a number of place-shifting devices available to consumers and now pay-TV providers and subscription service channels are beginning to take note with the possibility that they could integrate place-shifting television offerings into the current set-top boxes they provide for their customers.

The best known vendor of place-shifting devices is Sling Media, which makes and distributes the Slingbox. This Toblerone-shaped device won Best In Show at the 2004 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, and has subsequently become the market leader in this burgeoning space.

The Slingbox can redirect one of its inputs to a single computer located remotely or on a local network. The device connects a TV source (using a coaxial, composite, component or S-video cable) to an existing Internet connection. Digital video recorders and cable or satellite set-top boxes can be controlled through a separate infrared (IR) cable that allows users to change channels from the remote location.

Software installed on the computer or mobile device connects to the Slingbox and provides the user interface for viewing the video stream and changing channels.

SlingCatcher

Last year, the company launched the SlingCatcher, a hardware device similar to a set-top box, which would enable users to watch their television remotely, without the need for a computer or a mobile device. The device is designed to connect to a secondary display.

This is where the story gets really interesting. In 2007, cable set-top box manufacturer EchoStar acquired Sling Media, and has made no secret of its aim to build the place-shifting technology into a set-top box. This would be manufactured under licence to a cable or satellite company that would provide the device to its subscriber offer in a similar way that Sky, for example, provides DVR functionality in its Sky Plus set-top boxes.

In addition, a SlingCatcher's media extender capabilities could easily be packaged as an additional set-top box, and would not require a technician to visit the customer's home to install an additional coaxial port. The signal would stream around the customer's home using the existing wireless router, or using an ethernet over powerline connection.

Stuart Collingwood, vice president EMEA, Sling Media admitted as much to E&T when he demonstrated the SlingCatcher. "We have been demonstrating it to content providers in the UK and the SlingCatcher could easily be used as an additional set-top box in the home," he claims.

The competition: NXvision and HAVA

This lucrative potential and the consumer popularity of the Slingbox device in North America have not been lost on the competition. A number of other companies have also started to offer similar devices.

NXVision, based in Dunfermline, Scotland, is one such company. However, its strategy differs slightly from Sling Media and its parent company EchoStar. The company has not announced any intention of providing a device to sell directly to consumers.

What NXVision is offering to content providers is to allow its content to be place-shifted, but within a stronger digital rights managed environment - which will allow the set-top box provider the ability to control where and how their content is shifted.

That's not to say there is no rights management built into the Slingbox system. The Slingbox signal stream is encrypted and, although the current Sling Player software will allow the user to buffer up to 60 minutes of video content with the ability to pause, rewind and fast forward, the content cannot be stored remotely on the user's computer.

NXVision, because it intends to work with the content provider's existing DRM architecture, has the potential to allow content to be downloaded remotely - with the permission of the content provider. Like the BBC iPlayer, for example, the downloaded content could be time-stamped with the viewer given a fixed period (perhaps seven days) to view the content.

"We are able to offer complete copyright control for the content owner and we also enable them to offer a completely new service to their customers," says NXVision CEO Mark Smith.

NXVision is not alone in pursuing methods to allow users to legally download content remotely. Monsoon Multimedia, an India-based company, manufactures the HAVA.

The device works similarly to the Slingbox, but is designed to work with Windows XP and Vista Media Center Edition (MCE). Users will be able to store, pause, rewind and fast forward video. It will also take advantage of the electronic programme guide (EPG) provided with MCE to schedule recording of programmes for viewing at a later time.

Because HAVA follows Microsoft's Digital Rights Management (MSDRM) rules for analogue video, protected content cannot be duplicated on a DVD. Furthermore, the company is considering supporting a multitude of DRM schemes in order to entice a content provider to partner with them to provide a place-shifting service.

Therefore, with three companies following similar paths to market, it looks like place-shifting might move into the mainstream - not by consumers buying a box from their local store, but by their content provider - whether it be satellite, cable, or digital terrestrial supplying them with a badged product which would be supplied as a value added service to their subscribers.

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