Hulu Drops the Other Shoe

Is streaming video over the Internet a viable option over standard cable or satellite services? Hulu is betting that it is. Their free, ad-supported service has given access to new and archived episodes of current and past hit TV shows, as well as a smattering of feature length movies. After months of rumors, news broke yesterday of Hulu Plus, a $9.95 per month subscription service that provides complete episodes for full seasons of major shows from NBC, ABC, and Fox, among others. According to the announcement on the company blog, the service will still be “ad supported”, and will offer more content than the existing free Hulu service (which will also continue). The service will also offer content in 720p high definition.

The other part of the news is that Hulu Plus will also be available on more platforms. The blog entry mentions support for the iPad and iPhone, and Samsung has announced that it will add a downloadable app for Hulu Plus immediately for “select 2010 Blu-ray players, Blu-ray home theater systems, and the majority of 2010 Samsung TVs 40” and above.” Samsung cites that it is the “exclusive HDTV partner” for the Hulu Plus preview period. At the same time, Vizio has announced that it will also be supporting Hulu Plus on its Vizio Internet Apps (VIA) platform for its Blu-ray players and HDTVs.

Hulu Plus is starting with an invitation-only preview period, after which it will be opened up to all subscribers. You can request an invitation at the Hulu Plus site at http://www.hulu.com/plus.

This is huge news. True, you don’t get any CBS content, and the coverage of the other networks is not comprehensive. But all the same, it allows you to watch your favorite shows in HD on your HDTV, Blu-ray player, phone, pad, notebook computer, or desktop computer for a single monthly fee. This rate is way below the average cable company subscription, and puts the camel’s nose even further under the tent for a la carte pricing of cable programming. If the cable and satellite companies won’t or can’t respond, this will just hasten the demise of standard subscription-based television services.

THX System to Control HDTVs

To paraphrase Will Rogers, I never metadata that I didn’t like. And I like the new metadata system that THX has created. Known primarily for their cinema sound certification, THX has also been very active in trying to make sure that the movie experience in the living room is as good as possible. Their latest initiative, THX Media Director, has been to create a metadata system that can be encoded along with a television signal, so that your HDTV can automatically adjust key settings in response to the signal requirements.

What does this mean? One of the simplest examples is that there is a metadata code for 2D versus 3D signals. The embedded code can switch the TV into the appropriate mode. The system can handle much more than this, however. It also can automatically control color space settings, surround sound, and aspect ratio.

Now, the problem is that there is a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation here. The content producers won’t put the metadata into the signal until there are enough set top boxes and HDTVs installed that can interpret it. And the set top boxes and HDTVs won’t add the ability to interpret the codes until they’re included in the signal.

Still, it would probably be a good thing if the two ends of the chain could get together and implement this system. Having seen so many HDTVs with the wrong settings, a system that could adjust automatically could be a major improvement.

Personal Woofer

At a trade show last week, I saw a fascinating new product. It’s called the Immerz from Kor FX. The device looks a lot like a pair of folding headphones, but the difference is that you wear them around your neck so that they rest just below your collarbone. The devices are a pair of haptic transducers that can transmit low frequency sounds directly into your chest cavity. As the name implies, the goal is to give you an immersive experience. And wow does it work!

I had a chance to chat with the inventor, Shahriar Afshar, and his point was that we tend to perceive sounds as being external or internal to ourselves. Our voice is an internal sound, which is why people tend think that recordings of their voice sounds so strange, because it is recorded and played back as an external sound. The transducers can transform an external sound and make it personal by making it come from inside your body. The result is an immersive experience that can put you right in the middle of the action of a movie. I know, because I experienced that effect while watching an iPod. The effect was stunning.

At this point, the device is available in a wired version, designed to be used by an individual in conjunction with a set of headphones. The next version will be wireless, so that many people can share the experience while watching a large screen and hearing the bulk of the sound track through room speakers.

This is definitely a product that you’ll want to track.

A Better Mobile TV

I’ve written about the Mobile Digital Television (Mobile DTV) that is currently undergoing a trial roll-out in the Washington DC market, with eight area stations broadcasting 23 different channels showing the same content as is broadcast on the stations’ regular broadcast channels. My reservations still hold; I don’t think consumers will want to have to buy a new device or a tuner for an existing device. They already own enough displays, and if they want television content, they’ll want to get it on the devices they already own, like a smart phone. And I don’t think consumers are going to be satisfied with watching whatever happens to be on the schedule at that moment. The Internet has changed everything, and one of those changes is that consumers expect to be able to watch what they want, whenever they want.

So I was interested to find out about a service called BitBop, a new service from the Fox Mobile Group. The service lets you watch full episodes of television shows for a flat $10 monthly subscription. It currently offers a wide range of shows, though not as extensive as the Hulu catalog. It’s an app-based system that is currently available only for certain Blackberry models, but additional phones will be supported in the future. You can either stream content and view it directly, or download it to your phone to watch later. And it can use either a 3G or WiFi data connection. It’s not free like Mobile DTV, but the price is reasonable and you don’t have to have anything but your existing smart phone. It’s all you can eat for a flat rate subscription, and ad-free.

I’m pretty sure that more American consumers will be more interested in BitBop than in Mobile DTV. What do you think? Let me know at alfred@hdtvprofessor.com.

Is 3DTV Bad for You?

With any new technology, the Law of Unintended Consequences is always lurking somewhere, waiting to bite you in the butt. 3DTV is no exception, and already the reports are beginning to show up, questioning whether or not 3DTV can be harmful to you in some way or another. Perhaps the most dramatic is the set of warnings that Samsung Australia has published. It may simply be a case of lawyer-induced defensive overkill, but their “Photosensitive Seizure Warning and Other Health Risks” statement has received a fair amount of attention on the Web. Some of it seems a bit silly, such as the admonition not to watch 3DTV if “you are in bad physical condition, need sleep or have been drinking alcohol.” Really? Don’t watch 3DTV if you’re tired?

Fortunately, there’s an industry group that is looking to provide additional information about the health implications of 3DTV. The 3D@Home Consortium is a group of more than 40 companies worldwide that are involved in the 3DTV market. The group recognizes that a lot of research as been done on the effects of stereoscopic displays on human physiology, but that there has not been a concerted effort to share, communicate, and compare the findings. The Consortium also has established relationships with similar organizations in Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and China, to further expand the scope of cooperation.

The Consortium has created a steering team that is chaired by representatives from members Intel and BlueFocus. Philip Corriveau is Principal Engineer and Director of the User Experience Research Group at Intel, and is be one of the co-chairs. The other co-chair is Paulette Pantoja, the CEO of BluFocus.

If this group can sift through the research and provide consumers with reliable, accurate information about the health risks associated with 3DTV (and 3D in the local cinema, for that matter), then they will have done a valuable service to the market.

Ken Crane’s Closing

Another specialty AV store chain is closing its doors. Ken Crane’s, with 10 locations in southern California, is selling off its inventory and shutting down operations within the next two months. The company was founded in 1948 as a Magnavox dealer, according to an article in TWICE. Apparently, the current recession was apparently too deep and too wide for the company to make it across.

I suspect that the changing home entertainment market also played a part in the fate of Ken Crane’s. Quality consumer electronics products are no longer primarily for the wealthy, and the industry relies more and more on mass market products. It has become increasingly difficult to protect different retail channels, especially when they have different profit margins for the sellers. Consumers are smart enough to realize that two nearly identical models selling for different prices are probably enough the same that you can simply buy the less expensive model. And there is more information available for consumers, so they don’t need to rely as much on the guidance of a pro AV sales staff.

There will always be a place for specialty dealers such as Ken Crane’s because there will always be custom builders of very expensive homes, and these homes will need very expensive home entertainment systems. But the number of consumers who will need these services is shrinking, and we can expect to see additional store closings in the future.

3D HDTV to Go

You will soon be able to buy a 3D display that can convert 2D content to 3D on the fly and uses passive polarized glasses to view the stereoscopic images. The display is WideXGA format — 1,366 by 768 pixels – so it can handle 720p high definition without scaling. The whole thing weighs under 6 pounds, but that’s not too surprising when you find out that the screen is only 15.6″ diagonal.

The Lenovo IdeaPad Y560d is a notebook that includes a stereoscopic 3D screen.

Of course, none of this is so surprising when you find out that it’s the new Lenovo IdeaPad Y560d notebook computer which is due to ship in the next two weeks. The LCD display has alternating polarized strips, so you don’t need active glasses to see the 3D images. The passive glasses mean that you only get half the resolution when viewing 3D content, but this is the price you pay for doing without shutter glasses. A Blu-ray drive is optional, and the computer has an HDMI output in case you want to connect to a full-sized HDTV. The suggested retail price is listed at $1,200 for the base model.

FLO TV Goes Slow for iPhone

FLO TV had previously announced that it would ship a piggyback tuner for iPhone and iPod Touch in the first half of this year, then in late March said it would be ready within a month and a half, according to an article in TWICE. The same article reports that now the company says the Juice Pack TV is not far away.

The device adds a FLO TV tuner that allows you to receive the subscription-based mobile television service. The tuner actually retransmits the signal to your iPhone or iPod using WiFi, and up to three other devices can share the encrypted signal. The Juice Pack TV is made by Mophie, and also serves as a battery extender.

The Mophie site does not yet have a price posted for the product. FLO TV subscriptions start at $15 per month.

Vuvuzela Must Die! (Here’s How!)

Almost everyone has heard that the FIFA World Cup tournament is underway. And just about everyone has heard the song of the vuvuzela, the noisemaker of choice for South African soccer fans. The deafening din is drowning out sports commentators and giving TV viewers instant headaches. While debates rage on about banning the horns from international competition and broadcasters scramble to find ways to cope with the racket, some viewers have taken matters into their own hands.

If your HDTV, home stereo, or even computer has a “parametric” equalizer for the sound portion of your TV signal, you may be able to muffle the vuvuzela or even eliminate it completely by filtering out certain frequencies. The Lifehacker site has posted an article on vuvuzela killer strategies. The page contains a link to settings for a Samsung TV, but also demonstrates how to use GarageBand on a Mac to filter the signal to get rid of the droning sound. They even posted a video showing how to do it:

It’s a pretty impressive demonstration, and can greatly increase your enjoyment of the World Cup Games.

TV Everywhere Could Be Huge

In an article last week, Media Daily News cited Time Warner Cable CFO John Martin’s statement that he expects half of all pay-TV homes in the U.S. will have the option of a TV Everywhere service to go along with their subscription. Cable and satellite companies are moving rapidly to give their customers “any time, any where” access to their programming content over the Internet. Martin also said he would not be surprised if the number of homes reached 50 million by this time next year.

TV Everywhere is an important movement in the subscription-based TV programming market. While consumers can access some TV content for free on the Internet — such as through Hulu or the individual network sites — they also want to be able to watch the premium channels and live programming that they have paid for as part of their subscriptions. The services are responding in hopes of being able to retain their customers and attract new ones.

I think that this is a great idea in general, but I’m concerned that it may backfire on the subscription services. If the TV Everywhere offerings are primarily the dozens of channels that people don’t watch that much anyway, or if there is an additional premimum charged to watch the “good” ones, I believe that it will put added pressure on the subscription services to offer “a la carte” pricing. With monthly bills of $100 to $200 being common, consumers would love to pick and choose which networks they want and not pay for the rest. But this would be the death knell for cable and satellite as we know it; I doubt that most could survive the loss of revenue for the “other” channels that don’t have much of an audience but round up the total channel count (and HD content count) for these companies. And then there’s the question of whether people will need the basic service at all; if given the choice of just getting their all content over the Internet, will they take down their dishes and cut off the coax?