A breakthrough in TV over the Internet

Here’s a must-read for anybody interested the idea of real convergence. Bob Cringely over at pbs.org tells of a recent encounter with Ken Schaffer, inventor of the wireless microphone and friend to rock stars. Schaffer’s been up to something pretty cool, using pre-processing circuitry (like his wireless mikes) ahead of video streaming to produce an amazingly beautiful TV picture from a long, long way away.

If this was anybody else, we might think this a fantasy, but as Cringely explains, this is Ken Schaffer we’re talking about. Schaffer’s invention was really a necessity for him to watch Moscow television in the U.S. He has a residence there and is married to a Russian woman.

But what blew me away this week when I saw a demo of TV2ME in Schaffer’s cluttered New York apartment was the quality of the image. Sending live TV over the Internet is a very difficult thing to do, especially over distances like that from Moscow to New York. There are live TV feeds from Moscow available today, and they look terrible no matter how much bandwidth you have. But Schaffer’s feed, running at an average of 384 kilobits-per-second, looks like TV. When you change channels to any of the 60 or so on the Moscow cable system, it takes about 10 seconds to rebuffer, and then you have TV. Amazing!

Like his wireless mikes, Schaffer attributes the quality to how he preprocesses the video signal before it enters the MPEG‑4 encoder chip. I don’t know what he does, but it seems to work.

This is the future of TV for people who will never be satisfied with Basic Cable. A couple years from now, it will be a huge driver of broadband sales to ethnic communities, allowing Grandma to watch her favorite soap operas from the old country. This and Tivo-like recording devices are going to change TV (right down to the business model) as we know it. Some people get this, some people don’t.

We get it, Bob, but most broadcasters don’t. They will view this as a way to increase (and measure) their mass audience, but what the technology really means is a victory in the war against the major broadband obstacle — bandwidth — one that will allow anybody to “cast” a TV signal over the Web.

It isn’t cheap (around $5k right now), and that has the good folks over at Engadget poo-pooing the device. They also point to products by Sony and a start-up, Sling Media. But I’m with Bob on this one. Schaffer is THE MAN, and his wireless mikes used to sell for $4,400 back when the Rolling Stones first bought them. They go for about $300 today. The best predictor of future success, it seems to me, is PAST success.

It’s one worth watching.

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